Surprise ending raises Lewis Rand above pot-boilers

In the early 1900s, readers relied on Mary Johnson to supply them regularly with novels about lower socioeconomic class individuals of superior ability who participate in history-making events.

In Lewis Rand, Johnson pulls out an unexpected ending that raises the novel above the pot-boiler class.

On river path, two mounted gentlemen in top hats fight while trying to control their horses
Lewis Rand fights Fairfax Cary, who thinks him allied with Aaron Burr.

Lewis Rand by Mary Johnson
F. C. Yohn illustrator. Houghton Mifflin, 1908.
[506+ pages] 1908 bestseller #7.
Project Gutenberg ebook #14697. My grade: B.

Lewis Rand wants to study law, but his father won’t even let Lewis attend school.

Their neighbor Thomas Jefferson intercedes on the boy’s behalf.

By 1804, Jefferson’s help and Lewis’s own ambition have marked him for at least the governorship, perhaps the presidency.

Lewis has an an accident outside the home of the pro-Federalist Churchills. While he recuperates in a Churchill bedroom, Jacqueline Churchill a proposal of marriage from his Federalist opponent.

Jacqueline marries Lewis against her family’s wishes.

After their marriage, Lewis becomes increasingly ambitious.

After turning turns down the nomination for Virginia governor, he begins corresponding in cipher with the audacious Aaron Burr about America’s newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase territory.

Johnson keeps the complicated political background understandable.

Where she falls down is in not allowing characters to speak for themselves.

The novel ends much as The Cruel Sea will end decades later. The one significant difference is that Nicholas Monserrat made readers care about George Ericson.

Johnson doesn’t make readers care about Lewis Rand.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Sir Mortimer Is Aptly Named

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Mary Johnson’s Sir Mortimer is the story of an Elizabethan gentleman pursuing fortune and fair maiden.

Sir Mortimer commands one of four ships in a fleet under Admiral Sir John Nevil, who has the Virgin Queen’s approval to prey on Spanish shipping and Spanish colonies.

At his best, Sir Mortimer is a prig trying to appear noble.

As his worst, he is a prig trying to look humble.

The story should be an adventure, with lots of swordplay and broken spars, but Johnson strangles excitement with taut summaries, such as “fifty paces from the river bank Henry Sedley received his quietus. ”

The novel pivots around the battle for Nueva Cordoba in which the British walk into a deadly trap. Afterward, Sir Mortimer, who had been captured by the Spanish, comes to his fellow officers with the confession that he broke under torture, revealed the British plan, and should bear full responsibility for the slaughter.

Sir Mortimer and readers learn much later that he was tricked into believing he’d betrayed his countrymen.

I’d like to see what a good writer could do with the idea of tricking a man into believing he’s betrayed his mates.

Johnson messes it up big time: Sir Mortimer is deadly dull.

Sir Mortimer: A Novel
by Mary Johnston
1904 bestseller #5
Project Gutenberg ebook #13812
My grade: C+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni