Reread: A Daughter of the Land

woman dressed like music hall dancer on cover of Daughter of the Land
This isn’t Kate Bates.

As a rule, I don’t find much to like about Gene Stratton-Porter’s novels, but her 1918 bestseller, A Daughter of the Land, is head and shoulders above the rest.

It’s one of the novels on my must-read-again list.

Kate Bates, the daughter of the land, wants an share of her father’s property equal to that he gave his sons. She doesn’t get it.

Nor will her father let her pursue a teaching certificate that might allow her to earn money to buy the farm she wants. So Kate takes matters into her own hands.

Unlike most of Stratton-Porter’s leading characters, Kate seems like a real person.

She wants a 200-acre farm and a fashionable hat, too.

Woman wearing embroidered dress is on this cover of Daughter of the Land.
This isn’t Kate Bates either.

She doesn’t just have set-backs.

She totally messes up and creates her own misfortunes.

She develops a tough hide and retains a warm heart.

The artists who designed these covers for A Daughter of the Land never read the novel.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My top picks of novels reviewed in 2016

A large chunk of my year 2016 went into reading and reviewing bestselling novels.

In preparation for my annual choices of the best novels whose reviews I posted that year,  I looked back through the bestseller lists for 1966, 1956, 1946, 1936, 1936, 1916, 1906, 1918 and 1908.

I saw many titles whose stories I couldn’t remember.

Other novels I remembered because they were creatively awful.

Only a few stuck with me as stories that I remember for the right reasons: good storytelling, credible characterization, lucid prose, stimulating ideas. From those, I chose one novel for each of the nine years.

The best of the bestsellers

None of these nine novels will disappoint readers:

The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, 1966
The Tribe that Lost Its Head by Nicholas Monserrat 1956
Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque, 1946
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell 1936
The Hounds of Spring by Sylvia Thompson, 1926
The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster, 1916
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, 1906
A Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter, 1918
The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg by Louis Bromfield, 1908

(Normally I would have ignored The House of Mirth because my review was posted in 2015, the anniversary year for the first time the novel hit the bestseller list, and it was one of my top choices for that year. The other bestsellers of 1906, however, were so weak that there wasn’t even a runner-up to choose this year.)

My favorites of the best bestsellers

My favorites of the bestsellers are not the best novels on the list: They are merely the ones that, for one reason or another, have most appeal for me personally.

The Fixer by Malamud

I dithered between choosing between two dark novels about resistance to oppression: The Fixer or the Arch of Triumph.  Both created shiveringly clear images of their ineffectual, almost pathetic, leading character’s suffering under political oppression.

My choice is The Fixer. I chose it mainly because in English translation Remarque’s novel feels ponderous and outdated. Since Malamud wrote in English, it seems more immediate.

The Real Adventure by Webster

I can’t deny part of the charm of The Real Adventure for me is the illustrations by R. M. Crosby. They made Rose Stanton come alive in all her scatterbrained young charm and maturing womanhood.

Webster’s story of the suffragette’s daughter raised with no ability to do anything but lead the sort of decorative, trophy wife life suffragettes said they despised stuck me as being psychologically spot-on.

So, too, did Rose’s ridiculous attempts to develop interests in subjects that interested her husband and his failure to recognize the motivation that underpinned them.

And Rose’s older sister, Portia, who resents having to pay the bills for her mothers’ and sister’s upkeep is so real you would recognize her on the street.

For 1916, Adventure was a real departure in fictional discussions of what marriage ought to be.

It’s still a real departure from what most marriages become.

I’ll remember The Real Adventure long after I’ve forgotten many better novels.

A Daughter of the Land by Stratton-Porter

A Daughter of the Land is a indefensible choice for a top novel.

It simply appeals to me.

Kate Bates is a country girl. She’d have been happy to marry before she was out of her teens if should could have had advantages equal to those her father gave her seven brothers: a house, a 200-acres of land, and farm stock

She knows she’ll get nothing, so at 16, Kate packs up and leaves home.

Kate makes many mistakes, but she learns from them, picks herself up, and goes on.

Life makes her more resilient but not harder.

Daughter is not as good a novel as The Real Adventure but it’s equally unusual for its day in its attitude toward women’s rights and marriage.

And Kate isn’t as appealing as Rose, but she’s someone you’d be glad to have as a neighbor and friend.


That finishes up 2016.

I hope you’ll be back in 2017 as I finish up my self-appointed task of re-reviewing all the bestselling novels published between 1900 and 1969.

Happy New Year.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My picks of the 1918 bestsellers

I had no difficulty selecting my two two choices of the 1918 bestselling novels: Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter and The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Both novels have an anti-establishment and feminist edge. I suspect had they been written by newcomers to publishing instead of by highly successful authors noted for quite different sorts of  bestsellers—Rinehart is best known for her mysteries and Stratton-Porter for light romances—they might not have attracted a publisher at all.

For a third recommendation, I’ll add The Pawns Count, a mystery-thriller by E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Daughter of the Land

I admit I’m not a fan of Stratton-Porter.  She tends toward romances in which the leading character are too good to be true and the plots too contrived to be believable.  But she was popular: Michael O’Halloran, The Keeper of the Bees, Laddie, The Harvester, and Her Father’s Daughter each were bestsellers.

In Daughter of the Land Stratton-Porter breaks from her usual pattern.

Kate Bates, the daughter, is not breathtakingly beautiful nor is in thrall to a male figure. She’s smart, shrewd, hardworking, and she knows exactly what she wants: Kate wants to be given the same opportunities as her brothers. Each of them got a house, stock, and 200 acres when they turned 21.

The best Kate could hope for was what her nine sisters got on their marriages: “a bolt of muslin and a fairly decent dress.”

Unwilling to settle for anything less than 200 acres to farm, Kate strikes out on her own to seek her fortune from her only marketable assets: her brain and her kindness.

Stratton-Porter has Kate make a lot of mistakes and learn from each one of them. Some of her mistakes are deliberate acts of will. Many, however, are thoughtless choices she makes under physical and emotional stress—an unheroic type of mistake rarely made by leading characters in novels.

Not everyone likes Kate, but people respect her. They know she won’t lie to them; she won’t take advantage of them. Even her brothers accept that Kate’s method of settling their parents’ estate is fair to everyone.

Daughter of the Land is not great literature, but it’s a great story from which teenage girls and their parents today could learn a great deal—and enjoy the experience.

The Amazing Interlude

Like Stratton-Porter,  Rinehart was a prolific writer and for four decades a  popular one. A mystery, The Man in Lower Ten (1909), was Rinehart’s first bestseller. It’s probably still her most popular novel.

Rinehart followed that the next year with two more bestselling mysteries, The Window at the White Cat and When a Man Marries, which mingles comedy with mystery. By the time she published  K in 1915  her name had become firmly associated mysteries.

The Amazing Interlude was Rinehart’s first bestselling novel outside the mystery genre.

As she does in most of her books, Rinehart sets Interlude in settings that her readers would have recognized: small town America and the Western Front. The story is about a seemingly very ordinary young woman engaged to be married to a man she’s known all her life.  Sara recognizes that Harvey is dull and boring, but he’s the sort of man girls in her town marry.

When a letter describing the horrible conditions behind the front lines in Belgium is passed around town, Sara’s sympathy and imagination are stirred. She goes off to France to run a soup kitchen for soldiers.

Sara knows no French, has no foreign contacts, has no credentials, and she has no financial support other than from women of her church. Sara rises above her limitations, doing all sorts of things she would never have dreamed anyone could do, let alone herself.

While Sara scrubs floors and scrounges for food while shells explode around her, Harvey fumes because he thinks she’s playing instead of doing the accepted thing: staying at home tending to his wants.

Harvey gets the church women who funded Sara’s soup kitchen to quit sending her money to feed French soldiers. Without funds, Sara has to come home.

Rinehart makes readers understand that Interlude‘s Americans are not deliberately cruel or mean. They aren’t lacking in charity—as long as charity can be delivered by check from profits made doing activities one enjoys. It’s only when the enjoyment lags and the profits dwindle, or if the situation demands boring, dirty work, that compassion fatigue sets in.

Getting outside the security of her home, family, and town leads Sara to believe that being American means befriending people outside one’s home, family, and town; people who speak foreign languages, wear different clothes, have different religions; people who are dirty, smelly, lousy, contagious.

Sara comes home a changed person. Her idea of the world and America’s role in the world has changed forever.

The Amazing Interlude may find few enthusiasts in America’s current build-a-wall culture, but it’s all the more important reading for that.

The Pawns Count

E. Phillips Oppenheim was another popular and prolific author:  He turned out more than 100 novels. Oppenheim is best known for his thrillers, such as The Pawns Count.

Unlike my other two picks, Pawns’ is genre fiction whose continuing interest today beyond its entertainment value—it’s a good World War I-era thriller—is the insights it provides into how the war to end all wars laid the groundwork for World War II.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Daughter of the Land is flawed, heroic feminist

Gene Stratton-Porter was not only a prolific author, but a prolific author of bestselling novels.

A Daughter of the Land is better than any of her others.


A Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter

1918 bestseller #9. Project Gutenberg ebook #3722. My grade: B+.


The novel is about Kate Bates, youngest of 16 children of one of the richest, stingiest, and most egotistical farmers in the county.

Kate’s seven brothers each got a house, stock, and 200 acres when they turned 21.

The nine Bates girls each got “a bolt of muslin and a fairly decent dress when she married.”

Kate bitterly resents the disparity.

When her father refuses to let her take a summer course that would qualify her to teach, Kate borrows money from her sister-in-law and goes out on her own.

The novel follows Kate from Normal School training into teaching, courtship, marriage, motherhood, widowhood, and, eventually to love as she pursues her goals of “a man, a farm, and a family.”

Aside from one slip when she has Mr. Bates seeming to applaud Kate’s rebellion, Stratton-Porter tale of an heroic and flawed woman’s fight to run her own life—and a 200-acre farm—feels entirely true.

Kate makes plenty of mistakes along the way, but she accepts their consequences an moves on.

In my book, that’s heroic.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Michael O’Halloran: inspiration for the unthinking

Gene Stratton-Porter’s Michael O’Halloran is what is often called an “inspirational” novel, which in this case, as in many others, means ridiculous.

Orders Mickey's dying mother left for him.
Directions Mickey’s dying mother left for him.

Michael O’Halloran, 10, is an orphan who lives alone, supporting himself selling newspapers and advising the editor on what to put on the front page.


Michael O’Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter

©1915, 1916. 1915 bestseller #3. Project Gutenbergebook #9489. My grade C-.


Mickey finds another orphan, a crippled girl he names Lily, and assumes sole responsibility for her care.

Meanwhile, lawyer Douglas Bruce’s colleague Mr. Minter has taken a slum kid into his office, so Bruce takes Mickey into his.

Bruce’s fiancée, Leslie Winton, attempts to save the Minter’s marriage by getting Mrs. Minter into the swamp to listen to bird songs and repent of her failure as a mother.

Mrs. Minter repents, but it’s some time before her husband learns enough bird songs to get over their sons’ murder of their sister.

At the behest of his future father-in-law, Bruce is investigating city government corruption.

Employees in Mr. Winton’s department deny wrong-doing.

Thanks to Mickey, Winton has time to replace the money he “borrowed” before Bruce finds out, so the taint of corruption never ascends to Winton himself.

Then Mickey wraps up the novel by curing Lily’s crippled back.

Now doesn’t that inspire you?

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Keeper of the Bees nothing to buzz about

A wounded WWI vet walks away from an Army hospital rather than be sent to a facility where doctors predict his weakened body would succumb to tuberculosis.

Seeking surf and sun, Jamie MacFarlane hitchhikes and limps to the California coast, arriving just in time to summon medical help for the Master Bee Keeper.


The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter

1925; republished, Indiana University Press, 1991, paper, 505 pp. 1925 bestseller #3. My grade: C+.


Honey bee on flower is photo on "The Keeper of the Bees"Aided by a widowed neighbor and Little Scout, who is learning the apiary business, Jamie throws himself into getting his health back and using it to carry on the Master’s business.

Gene Stratton-Porter does her usual lyrical magic with her nature descriptions, but she fails characterization. Ten-year-old Little Scout alternatively sounds like Penrod and a Cambridge don—and Stratton-Porter is unable to make the plot grow out of her characterization.

The novel is full of loose ends and dropped threads, like Jamie’s walking away from the Brunson family who fed and sheltered him.

The action is further muddled by plot elements that mysteriously appear.  For example, a trunk develops a hidden lock between its first mention and its appearance as central part of the action.

Stratton-Porter was killed in an accident before this novel was published.

Had she lived to do some rewriting, The Keeper of the Bees might have been much better.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Harvester has fairy-tale charms & flaws

The Harvester is an old-fashioned romance with fairy-tale charm, an  implausible tale of a gorgeous hunk with a fat bank account who loves doing chores around the house.

David Langston has developed a prosperous business raising medicinal herbs. He dreams of a lovely raven-haired girl who will be the passion of his life. David builds a home for her, then sets off to find her.

He rescues her from poverty and abuse and gives her the protection of his name. When she becomes dangerously ill, he saves her with an herbal mixture he compounded.

Ruth responds with gratitude and trust but not passionate love. David has to chance losing Ruth entirely before he can win her completely.

The story keeps threatening to turn into a bodice-ripper but stops before a single button is disturbed. And Gene Stratton-Porter uses language so discrete it wouldn’t offend Queen Victoria.

The novel has all the faults of any fairy-tale: the setting is stylized,  the characters are types rather than individuals,  the plot is implausible.

The book’s charm is in those faults. Gene Stratton-Porter’s story is so preposterous it could never happen.

But that doesn’t keep us from wishing it could happen—to us.

The Harvester
By Gene Stratton-Porter
Grosset & Dunlap, 1911
374 pages
1911 Bestseller #5
@2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Racisim Is Sole Interest Left in Her Father’s Daughter

Her Father’s Daughter is a dumb romance whose only value is the explanation it provides of historical events 20 years after the novel’s publication.

Linda Strong, 17,  is her late father’s daughter. Linda is a naturalist and scholar, totally unlike her elder sister,  Eileen, a socialite and beau-collector.

When classmate Donald Whiting asks Linda why she wears such funny shoes, Linda decides it’s time she gets her fair share of her parents’ estate so she won’t have to wear funny shoes. Linda has been  freelancing articles and illustrations about edible wildlife on the sly, but apparently not using the proceeds for shoes.

While out exploring for things to write about, Linda meets writer Peter Morrison and architect Henry Anderson, who are looking for a building site for a home for Peter. Suddenly, Linda finds there are more interesting things in life than just edible plants.

The plot swings on a series of coincidences unrelated to characterization, which may be fortunate. Stratton-Porter’s  Linda is an implausible figure with the wisdom statesmen only wish for, incredible naivity, and absolutely no hormones.

Gene Stratton-Porter’s fixation with the “yellow menace,” the Asian population in the US, gives Her Father’s Daughter its only value. Such hostility among educated people made the confinement of Japanese-Americans possible in the 1940s.

Her Father’s Daughter
by Gene Stratton-Porter
Grosset & Dunlap, 1921
486 pages
1921 bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg e-Text #904
My grade C-
©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Musings on the 1918 bestseller list

Older of the bestsellers are increasingly hard to find. When I do find them, the pages are yellow and brittle.

Publishers are reissuing many of the older books as their copyrights expire and the move into public domain. I’d rather read the books first, though, and then buy those I want to read more than once.

I’ve recently discovered that Milne Library at the SUNY College at Oneonta has a superb collection of vintage fiction, some of which is in the regular circulating collection. The library staff and student assistants are wonderful. They even helped me get a long term parking permit so I didn’t have to get a permit on every visit.

According to my posting scheme, I should begin  posting the reviews for 1918’s bestsellers this week.  These novels are . . . .

  1. The U.P. Trail by Zane Grey
  2. The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair
  3. The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart
  4. Dere Mable by Edward Streeter
  5. Oh, Money! Money! by Eleanor H. Porter
  6. Greatheart by Ethel M. Dell
  7. The Major by Ralph Connor
  8. The Pawns Court by E. Phillips Oppenheim
  9. A Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter
  10. Sonia by Stephen McKenna

Several of these authors were incredibly prolific and popular in their day. E. Phillips Oppenheim, who I’d never heard of, published over 150 books and is credited by some with originating the thriller.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was no slouch either. She wrote over 60 popular mysteries and originated the phrase “the butler did it”.

Zane Grey also has 60 novels on his resume and an organization devoted to keeping his work alive.

Ethel M. Dell, another author unfamiliar to me,  appears to have knocked out a novel a year from 1911 to 1939.

Despite their incredible output, I have located only a few of these authors’ books.

Of course, not all the 1918’s bestselling novelists were so prolific.

Ralph Connor, who wrote just 11 novels and two volumes of short stories, was a full-time Presbyterian minister. Edward Streeter produced a similarly small volume of novels in his spare time. His day job was vice president of Fifth Avenue Bank, which later became Bank of New York.

Gene Stratton-Porter, who I thought was just a novelist, was actually a naturalist, wildlife photographer, and one of the first women to start a motion picture studio. The state of Indiana now operates two of her homes, Wildflower Woods and Limberlost, as state historic sites.

When I run out of reviews of bestsellers, I’ll fill out the year with reviews of some classics that didn’t make the bestseller list. Stay tuned.