For contemporary readers, the best reading from the 1944 bestsellers are two titles that have by two novelists who are largely unremembered. Each zooms in on behaviors that were outside the norms.
Strange Fruit is Lilian Smith’s story of an interracial couple in the South long before civil rights. The story is not just about race. It focuses on how the personalities of the individuals influence and are influenced by the racial prejudices in their societies.
Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams is a variation on the murder mystery pattern. Readers see all the events leading up to the discovery of a woman’s body. They know the deceased was pathologically jealous and vindictive. What they don’t know until the very end is whether she was murdered or whether she committed suicide. Both possibilities are equally plausible.
Less exciting than either of those titles, but still good reading, is A Bell for Adano by the better-known novelist John Hersey. Although Hersey’s novel is set in occupied territory during World War II, its tone is sweet by comparison to the bestsellers by Smith and by Williams. Its protagonist, Major Joppolo, is not as exciting as the maladjusted characters Smith and Williams describe, but his character, conviction, and common sense make him a more admirable one.
© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni
When the American army kicks the fascists and their German allies out of Italy, Major Joppolo is assigned to restore order in Adano. He is supposed to see that there is food, water, sanitation and an appreciation for freedom and democracy.
He also has to keep his own troops in line.
The locals say the most important thing Joppolo can do is to replace the 700-year-old bell the fascists melted down to make gun barrels.
Joppolo vows to find Adano another bell.
He is beginning to get the town running again when General Marvin’s jeep is blocked by a mule cart as he passes through Adano.
The General orders the mule shot and all carts prohibited in Adano. Without the carts, Adano has no way to get water.
Joppolo countermands the General’s order.
John Hersey tells his tale with humor and gentle irony. The outcome of the story is predictable. The characters are predictable, too, by virtue of being very ordinary sorts of people.
We need men like Joppolo in our occupying armies, Hersey says, “to guarantee the behavior of men under pressure.”
Abu Grabe and Haditha testify that we still need to be reminded of that.
A Bell for Adano
By John Hersey
Alfred A. Knopf, 1944
1944 bestseller #9
My Grade: B
Photo credit: The old monastery uploaded by Mattox
© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni
Mila 18 is a fictional account of the Jewish uprising against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.
Leon Uris weaves together the stories of Jews inside the Ghetto with stories both of their friends and their enemies outside.
The Jews are deeply divided over how to respond to the Nazi threat. Many hope it will go away if ignored. Some want to appease. Some want to fight.
As the Nazis systematically depopulate the Ghetto, a core of those ready to fight forms in secret basement rooms beneath Mila 18.
Led by Andrei Androfski, Jews fight unexpectedly and valiantly. Only a few escape, getting out through the sewers, but among them is a gentile journalist who knows where the Jews buried documents detailing their ghetto experience.
If the plot of Mila 18 sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because John Hersey used the same historical outline for his 1950 bestseller The Wall.
Uris’s addition of non-Jewish characters like the Nazi Horst von Epp and Polish collaborator Franz Koenig adds to readers’ understanding of events, particularly the ethnic rivalries that gave the Nazis a foothold, but weakens the novel’s focus.
If you can read only one novel about the Warsaw uprising, choose The Wall instead.
By Leon Uris
1961 bestseller # 4
My Grade: B +
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni
John Hersey’s The Wall is a story of the Warsaw ghetto. Unlike many holocaust novels, The Wall focuses primarily on the Jews’ fight to overcome their human natures. Their resistance to the Nazis comes out of that fight.
In 1939, the Jews are being squeezed into a small section of Warsaw, and the Poles who had lived and worked among them are being squeezed out.
The Nazis order the Jews to set up their own governing council. Political parties from before the war continue their squabbles. As conditions in the ghetto worsen, the Jews turn on their leaders.
Even in the ghetto, someone with the right currency and connections can get almost anything he wants. Gradually, the pre-war social and economic leaders give way to a new set of leaders: smugglers, blackmarketeers, resistance operatives. Families are broken up; those who remain form new families of unrelated people.
Hersey presents his story as a series of documents written during the ghetto years and buried for posterity. The story, however, has no need of literary tricks to make it plausible. The behavior of the core characters is so realistic that readers will accept the story as representing the Warsaw ghetto.
By John Hersey
Alfred A. Knopf, 1950
1950 bestseller # 4
My Grade: A-
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni