The writing of the green: bestsellers about the Irish

Irish writers are as famous as Irish whiskey: What reader hasn’t heard the names Bram Stoker, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift,  Oscar Wilde,  C.S. Lewis?

Yet best-selling novels featuring Irish characters are a fairly recent development.

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, here are three recommended vintage novels featuring Irish characters that will entertain you and perhaps give some insight into the history of the Irish at home and abroad.

Kitty Foyle

1939-10-Kitty_FoyleKitty Foylethe heroine of Christopher Morley’s 1939 novel of that name, is a Philadelphia working-class girl from Irish immigrant stock.

She’s smart enough to be considered college material and dumb enough to fall for a Main Line guy whose family would never have accepted an Irish working-class daughter-in-law.

Kitty provides a glimpse into the second-generation Irish immigrant each-foot-in-a-different-world experience of the 1930s.

Joy Street

joy-street_200Joy Street by Frances Parkinson Keyes, 1950, gives a glimpse into the Irish absorption into America’s professional class.

The story is about Emily Field whose lawyer-husband’s firm, reaching out the the Boston immigrant community, hires a Jewish lawyer, an Italian lawyer, and an Irish lawyer.

Roger both likes and respects his colleagues, but Emily’s family is less than enthusiastic about immigrants who didn’t arrive on the Mayflower. Even Emily isn’t sure she’s keen on Irishmen, but she comes around.

The Edge of Sadness

1961-09-fc_edgesadnessIn his 1961 novel, The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O’Connor explores stereotypical Irish characters, who by 1960 have become a political and economic force in Boston.

The leading character is an over-50 priest, Father Kennedy, who after four years in a western facility for alcoholics , has been brought back East to lead a down-at-the-heels parish. The parishioners are primarily immigrants from post-war Europe and South America, too busy trying to make ends meet to come to church.

Have a good day reading of the green.

Funny But Not Entirely Foolish Novels

Since today is April Fool’s Day, I thought it appropriate to inject a bit of humor into the week by recommending some humorous novels. I chose vintage bestsellers that are funny but not silly.

Statue of fool on building in  Ghent, Belgium
The Fool atop building in Gent, Belgium

One of my favorite light novels is Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley. Kitty is a dutiful Irish Catholic girl who has the misfortune to fall in love with a Main Line Pennsylvania boy who cares less for her than she does for him.

The story is an old one. Morley gives it sparkle by giving Kitty a quick brain, loyal heart, and sharp repartee. Life isn’t easy for Kitty, but she punches it full of wisecracks.

The Letters of a Self-Made Merchant to His Son by George Horace Lorimer is a series of letters supposedly written by a well-to-do owner of a commercial slaughterhouse operation to his son and heir from the time he goes off to Harvard until he announces his engagement.

John Grahman wouldn’t stoop to wisecracks, but he illustrates his advice with personal stories that reveal a sense of humor as keen as his powers of observation. Though droll stories, Mr. Grahman leaves no doubt what he expects of his expensively-educated offspring.

Mrs. ’Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico is the story of a London charwoman who makes up her mind to have a Dior evening gown like the one she saw in an employer’s closet.

The plucky woman saves the money for the trip and the gown only to be confronted with a new set of obstacles in Paris.

Mrs. ’Arris calls forth chuckles but she inspires admiration, too, not just for her determination, but also for her essential goodness.

Photo credit: The Fool uploaded by Ulrick at FreeImages.

My top picks of the 1940 bestselling novels

Of the  bestsellers from 1940, the only ones familiar to today’s readers are by iconic American writers Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Hemingway’s novel is the better book; Steinbeck’s the more memorable:  it was on the bestseller list two years running.

Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is a war story told from the perspective of weary guerrilla fighters. Although the novel is set in Spain in the 1930s, the story could just as well be about an insurgency anywhere in the world in 2010.

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a propaganda piece about America’s working poor displaced by the dust bowls and economic upheaval of the Great Depression. The novel elicits an orgy of compassion that ends with emotionally exhausted readers feeling they’ve been manipulated.

Several other novels on the 1940 bestseller list deserve a resurrection. Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts, The Family by Nina Fedorova,  Night in Bombay by Louis Bromfield, and Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley (another novel on the bestseller list two years in a row) are readable second-rate novels relevant to contemporary readers.

If you find any of these in a yard sale or Salvation Army store, pick it up. It will be well worth the investment.

My 5 top picks of 1939’s top 10 novels

Of the top ten bestselling novels for 1939, five are still super reading today.

Two of the five are inside looks at the lives of the working poor.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings The Yearling tops my list of the 1939 bestsellers with the most value for today’s readers. Although the main character is a young boy, The Yearling is not just a kid’s book. If you’ve ever had to tell your son or daughter, “we can’t afford that,” you will see the Baxter’s situation through adult eyes.

John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath has to be on my list. Like The Yearling, it looks at the lives of the working poor. Unlike the Baxters to stay on land nobody wants, the Joads are kicked off their farm and become migrant workers. Steinbeck uses his novel as a soapbox,

Two other books from 1939 that have held up well are thrillers: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ethel Vance’s EscapeRebecca totters on the brink of being a chick-lit novel. There’s nothing feminine about Escape.  Mark Ritter’s attempt to smuggle his mother out of a prison camp is in the best tradition of war novels.

My final top pic, Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley, is a romance as seen through the eyes of a woman who cannot afford to endulge in romance.  Kitty wisecracks her way through the loss of both parents, an unwanted pregnancy, the depression. She’s one tough cookie with a tender heart.

Whatever your mood, one of these novels should provide suitable entertainment.