The 1942 bestseller list introduced me to several novels I quickly added to my list of novels to read again—probably several times.
The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck and Dragon Seed by Pearl S. Buck are novels about life in occupied territory. Steinbeck sets his novel in a European town where an invading army learns that occupation is far more difficult than invasion.
Buck tells a story of Japanese-occupied China. An illiterate farmer Ling Tan and his family organize the local resistance. As they succeed in harassing the occupying enemy, Ling Tan worries about whether their facility for killing won’t ultimately destroy them.
Marguerite Steen’s The Sun Is My Undoing has a third perspective on the relationship between the conquerer and the conquered. Her whopping, great novel looks at the financial rise and personal disintegration of a British slave trader in the late 1700s.
Henry Bellamann’s King’s Row is a striking contrast to those three novels about sweeping events in history. History detours around King’s Row. All that happens in that sleepy little country town is that one man is quietly noble.
If at least one of these four novels doesn’t give you goosebumps, you should turn in your library card: your obituary will be in Friday’s paper.
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni
The 1941 bestseller list contains two fine novels: For Whom the Bell Tolls (a hold-over from 1940’s bestseller list) and The Sun is My Undoing.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is a classic by an acknowledged master of fiction, Ernest Hemingway. It is the superior book in terms of its literary quality. However, it’s subject—an insider view of an insurgency—seems positively wimpy compared The Sun is My Undoing by an untouted novelist, Marguerite Steen. Steen writes about the slave trade from the perspective of a slave trader
The rest of the 1941 line consists of relatively undistinguished novels of which James Hilton’s Random Harvest is best known and H. M. Purlham, Esquire by John P. Marquand is the best written.
Linda Gorton Aragoni
No matter how you look at it, Marguerite Steen’s 1941 novel The Sun Is My Undoing is extraordinary.
Three times average novel length, it covers 40 years, intertwines characters on three continents, and its hero is a slave trader.
Plenty of books tell about how slavery degraded slaves; this one tell how slavery degraded the slave traders. A mediocre writer couldn’t have envisioned this story, let alone written it.
In Bristol in 1760, the old reprobate Hercules Flood dies. His heir, Matthew Flood, sets up as a slave trader like his grandfather, even though it costs him marriage to lovely abolitionist Pallas Burmester.
After selling his first slaves, Matt “marries” his African concubine in a drunken mock ceremony in Havana. He leaves their daughter to be cared for by nuns and goes back to sea.
Years later, Matt’s quadroon granddaughter comes to Bristol to inherit the Flood money. She is shunned by everyone except Pallas Burmester.
When a lunatic slave captured by the British Navy turns out to be Matthew Flood, the news turns Bristol on its ear. I’ll leave you to read the heart-stopping ending for yourself.
The Sun Is My Undoing is a novel you won’t soon forget.
The Sun Is My Undoing
By Marguerite Steen
1941 bestseller #4
My grade: A-
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni