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.

The Yearling Celebrates Value of Family

Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s poignant novel The Yearling hails from an era when a novel about growing up didn’t have to be about sex. Its realism, craftsmanship, and age-old truths will keep it alive when most contemporary coming-of-age novels are forgotten.

Only one of Penny and Ora Baxter’s children, Jody, lived past infancy. Jody’s12-year-old irresponsibility is a thorn in Ora’s flesh. Penny keeps Jody away from his wife’s sharp tongue, giving him leave to slip off the woods instead of doing chores.

The Baxters are almost as poor as the Florida scrub land they farm. Their corn and tobacco crops have to be supplemented by hunting game to eat and to trade for necessities. There’s not even a mouthful to spare for Jody to feed a pet, as desperately as Jody begs for something that will belong just to him.

When Penny and Jody go in search of their missing hogs, Penny is bitten by a rattlesnake. He shoots a doe and puts her warm liver over the snake punctures to draw the venom. When Penny recovers, Jody reminds his father the doe had a fawn. Penny lets Jody fetch the fawn home as a pet.

The fawn, Flag, becomes Jody’s devoted companion, it is nothing but a pest to his mother. When Flag becomes a yearling, its behavior is no longer just a nuisance; it threatens the family’s survival.

Rawlings’ characters are vivid and vital. Jody is unmistakably12, swinging between childishness and manliness, passionate in his likes and dislikes. Penny and Ora are a familiar couple. They fuss about trifles, unite against troubles. Penny’s charity is antidote for his wife’s sharp tongue.

Jody has to accept loneliness as part of the cost of survival, but in the process he also learns to value his family. There are worse trade-offs.

The Yearling
By Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Scribner’s, 1938
428 pages
1938 bestseller #1
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni