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Alice Cholmondeley’s author’s note to Christine prefaces what Cholmondeley says are letters written to her by her daughter, Christine, who was studying in Germany the summer World War I began.

A note saying the publisher chose to alter names of some individuals reinforces the idea that the letters are true.


Christine by Alice Cholmondeley¹
©1917. 1917 bestseller #6. Project Gutenberg eBook #12683. My grade: C .

Woman hands flowers to German soldier head to frontlines

Woman hands flowers to German soldier head to the front, 1 August 1914.

In fact, Christine is a work not merely of fiction, but fabricated propaganda.

The letters’ details provide the proof.

Christine tells her mother a host of “facts” that a parent would have known without telling: the family is poor, Christine is to be away only one year, that no one else in the family has a talent for violin.

Cholmondeley is very good at detail, which gives the story a sense of “this happened.”

The text is strewn with German terms that monolingual American readers will need to look up.

Cholmondeley goes to great lengths to show the Germans as a nation are cruel, brutal, greedy, power-hungry, that they wanted war because war fit in with their philosophy and ambitions.

The value of Christine for today’s readers is less about its story — which is slender — than about its rhetorical strategy. As a study in persuasion, it’s well worth careful examination.

Techniques that Cholmondeley uses against the Germans might be used today against Muslims or Methodists.


¹Alice Cholmondeley is a pen name of Elizabeth von Arnim, born Mary Annette Beauchamp, an Australian-born British novelist. By her first marriage she became Gräfin von Arnim-Schlagenthin, and by a second marriage, Countess Russell.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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In Mr. Britling Sees It Through, H. G. Wells gives an account of World War I from the perspective of an intellectual with an optimistic view of human nature.

The title character, Mr. Britling, is a moderately well-known writer, who pens essays and articles from his study in Essex, England.


Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells

Macmillan, 1916. Project Gutenberg ebook #14060.
1916 bestseller #4. My grade B+.


Close up photo of HG Wells shows bushy eyebrows, tired eyes, and stubby mustache

Up until the German invasion, Britling tells anyone who will listen that the German people don’t want war.

When war is declared, Britling has to confront both the German support for the war and the British lack of preparedness for that war.

Soon he has to face harsher realities.

Britling is turned down for military service.

Members of his household, including his eldest son, enlist.

Britling’s understanding of war morphs from pins on a map into a girl delivering a telegram.

His political opinions change coincidentally.

Wells based Mr. Britling on his own experience. Indeed, the development of Britling’s thought as events unfold in Europe suggests reportage rather than imagination.

The plot, too, seems determined by historical events rather than story requirements.

Instead of fictionalizing, Wells follows the war so readers can have a sharp, nuanced perspective on one of the most significant events of the 20th century.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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In an American secret service office, Evelyn Erith opens a coded letter. It says the Germans believe Kay MacKay, an American concentration camp escapee, knows The Great Secret.

MacKay must be eliminated.

From that beginning, In Secret’s author, Robert W. Chambers,  sets up familiar scenarios which he promptly turns on their heads.

The novel’s series of shattered expectations generates incredible tension.

Evelyn finds MacKay, dries him out — the Germans had gotten him addicted to alcohol in hopes of getting information — and they go to Germany to get proof of what MacKay knows.

Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps

MacKay believes that for 40 years the Germans have been building a tunnel under Switzerland into France. Soon the tunnel will let them attack the French from behind French lines.

The proof the Americans need is accessible only from Mount Terrible, a peak in a part of Switzerland between Germany and France.

The Germans pursue them relentlessly.

What began as a series of attacks becomes a battle of attrition: The manpower, firepower, food, water, and winter clothing are controlled by the Germans.

Chambers works readers to the edge of their chairs, then pulls the chairs out from under them with a perfectly plausible but totally unexpected ending.

In Secret
By Robert W. Chambers
1919 bestseller #10
Project Gutenberg ebook #5748
My grade: B+

Photo credit: Mont Blanc 9 by marco_cecc

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Mr. Twist talks to the twins, "Christopher and Columbus"

Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim makes Christopher and Columbus a joyous romp as twin orphans and their staunch friend who “would have been very handsome indeed if he hadn’t had a face” put their wits together to figure out how to survive in America’s 1916 anti-German hysteria.

Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas Twinkler, “very German outside and very English inside,” bravely call themselves Christopher and Columbus because they’re going to discover America.

The twin’s shipboard friend Edward Twist  is “a born mother. The more trouble he was given the more attached he became.”

The 17-year-olds, happily rolling their r’s , give Mr. Twist a great deal of trouble indeed.

The first “family friend” to whom the girls are sent has just left her home and her husband.

Edward and his sister would give the girls a home, but their dragon of a mother spits fire at having the twins under her roof.

The twins take matters into their own hands, entrain for California, and find another closed door.

Edward goes to their rescue.

What a country, Mr. Twist had thought, fresh from his work in France, fresh from where people were profoundly occupied with the great business of surviving at all. Here he came back from a place where civilization toppled, where deadly misery, deadly bravery, heroism that couldn’t be uttered, staggered month after month among ruins, and found America untouched, comfortable, fat, still with time to worry over the suspected amorousness of the rich, still putting people into uniforms in order to buttonhole a man on landing and cross-question him as to his private purities.

Von Arnim crafts a tangled plot, peoples it with believable characters, and lards the pages with witty descriptions such as, “She was a lady whose figure seemed to be all meals.”

Don’t leave this 1919 charmer undiscovered.

Christopher and Columbus
by Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim
1919 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg ebook #14646
My grade: B

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Tin Soldier is one of the better bestsellers about why The Great War was fought.

The novel’s centerpiece is a love-at-first sight story. Jean McKenzie and Derry Drake meet while Derry is tracking down his father who’s off on a binge.

Jean has one qualm: Derry hasn’t enlisted. Is he a slacker?

Jean’s widowed father, a doctor, is altogether too fond of his office nurse, Hilda, whom Jean distrusts. Jean would prefer her mother’s cousin Emily Bridges as their companion, even as her step-mother.

Emily is too clear-headed to think Dr. McKenzie would ever regard her as anything but household help. Anyway, she has a toy shop to run, no easy task when the best toys are German-made and Americans won’t buy them.

When Derry’s father has a stroke, Dr. McKenzie sends Hilda to nurse him.

Hilda knows Dr. McKenzie won’t marry her; she thinks rich General Derry may.

Temple Bailey makes each character entirely plausible, gives them challenges, and lets them grow.

Bailey wraps the plot in the American flag. In the pen of a less able writer, the effect would be laughable. But when Bailey writes that women “won’t know what suffering means until your men begin to come home,” it sounds real and true.

The Tin Soldier
by Temple Bailey
Illustrations by F. Vaux Wilson
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1918
1919 bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg ebook#18056
My grade: B+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

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dust jacket of ArmageddonArmageddon is a sprawling novel set as World War II ends and the Soviets move to turn Europe into Communist satellites.

The themes Leon Uris raises are as familiar as today’s news, but easier to examine with a degree of objectivity in a 75-year-old setting.

War-weary Americans want to pull out of Germany and let the Germans fend for themselves. General A. J. Hansen begs  American politicians to plan for a post-war political settlement.  He sees withdrawal would give rise to a more serious threat than Hitler’s Reich.

Hansen assembles a team of experts lead in everything from electrical generation to municipal government to design a plan for governing Germany after the war. Hansen sends them to a Nazi stronghold where they deploy and refine their plan.

Then Hansen redirects them to Berlin to begin guiding the city into rebuilding on democratic principles before the Russians can build Berlin into a Communist satellite.

When the Russians block all land routes into the city, leaving Berliners to face starvation in the frigid winter, Hansen fights against Congressional and military leaders to win presidential approval to attempt to supply the city by air.

Although Hansen is behind most of the novel’s action, he’s rarely seen in the novel. Uris reserves the role of the hero for the team of men who put their individual expertise at the service of America. Uris lists yards of facts about the Berlin airlift, emphasizing the monumental achievement and personal self-effacement of the men who made it happen.­

It takes a rare kind of man to serve his country without the benefit of pyrotechnics or reward and a different kind of courage to keep your mouth shut and go on working and believing when you are positive those around you are wrong. We don’t have enough men of this kind of dedication.

Armageddon
by Leon Uris
Doubleday 1964
632 pages
1964 bestseller #4
My grade: B+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? is a good novel in good times. In an economic downturn, it’s absolutely chilling.

Pinneberg does the right thing by his pregnant girlfriend, Bunny. His salary as a clerk barely covers his own needs, and setting up housekeeping is far more expensive than either had expected. Pinneberg assures Bunny that a baby is almost no expense in the first year; they’ll manage.

Bunny, a sweet girl with no practical skills, learns to cook, to make do. She finds them an attic apartment, cheap because it’s accessible only by ladder and operating outside the law.

Then Pinneberg loses his job. He finds another selling clothes on commission. When the company imposes quotas, he is out of a job again and on the dole. An acquaintance lets them rent a shed on small country property he owns. They would be destitute except for what Bunny earns doing mending.

Bunny refuses to let Pinneberg steal wood for fuel.

“He must keep his self-respect,” she tells her father-in-law. “It’s our only luxury, we must stick to it.”

Fallada’s matter-of-factness makes the misery and courage of this young couple both inspirational and terrifying.

Put Little Man What Now? on your must-read list.

Little Man, What Now?
By Hans Fallada
Simon and Schuster, 1933
Trans. From the German by Eric Sutton
383 pages
1933 #10
My grade; A

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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