My picks of 1924: So Big, So Driven, So French, So Misplaced

Of the 10 novels that were bestsellers in 1924, four stand out for providing far more than just an entertaining story: So Big by Edna Ferber, The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield [Fisher], The Little French Girl by Anne Douglas Sedgwick, and The Midlander  by Booth Tarkington.

Cover of So Big by Edna FerberAlthough the stories are very different, each explores obstacles that make understanding another person’s perspective difficult.

In Edna Ferber’s So Big, Selina Peake rejects her father’s philosophy that life is “just so much velvet” worth experiencing regardless of how good or bad it appears at the time.

Late in life Selina comes to regret teaching her son the only things worth having in life are earned through hard work. Dirk reaches mid-life without having enjoyed living.

In The Midlander (which became National Avenue when Booth Tarkington put it in his single-volume trilogy Growth in 1927), Dan Oliphant never varies from the real estate career he chose almost at random in his early twenties.

Dan is so sure that his housing development will be a success, he lets every personal relationship shrivel while he puts all his effort into the Ornaby Addition.
Spine of Anne Douglas Sedgwick novel The Little French Girl
Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s The Little French Girl is the only one of my quarter of favorites not set in America. Alix Vervier’s mother has decided her 15-year-old daughter will marry within the family of an English war-time acquaintance. Mme Vervier ships Alex across the cultural solar system from France to England.

Alix must mature enough to regard her mother with sufficient dispassion that she can determine what of her mother’s behavior is motivated by love and what is motivated by self-interest.

In The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield [Fisher] shows Eva and Lester Knapp trapped in roles they both hate. By accident, Lester becomes the stay-at-home mom and Eva becomes the wage earner.

There’s no doubt everyone in the household is financially and emotionally better off as a result of the switch. It is also clear, however, that those gains come at a significant moral cost that the family may regret in the future.

Cover of The Home-MakerEach of these insightful novels is worth reading. So Big and The Home-Maker are written in very accessible styles. The Midlander requires a bit more mental work, but it’s not difficult reading.

To understand what’s happening in The Little French Girl demands full concentration and either a French dictionary or a reading knowledge of French. Readers who give it a chance will find it worth the effort.

The Midlander Draws Plot From Characters

In The Midlander*, Booth Tarkington creates a set of distinctive characters whose behavior weaves a plot that feels inevitable.

From childhood, the Oliphant brothers are uncongenial. Harlan Oliphant is an aloof aristocrat, respectable and responsible; his younger brother, Dan, is a rumpled democrat, popular and aimless.

Tarkington embeds the Oliphant brothers’ story in the setting of the rise of America’s great manufacturing cities in the two decades before World War I.

Harlan falls for the girl next door; Martha cares only for Dan, who considers her just a good pal.

When Dan chooses a city girl instead of Martha, his grandmother changes her will in favor of Harlan, whom she dislikes, rather than let Dan waste her fortune.

Dan impulsively becomes a real estate developer, planning to make a fortune in 10 years or so when Midland would have grown big enough to reach his Ornaby Addition.

Dan’s wife, Lena, makes no attempt to fit in with his plans. She is bitterly jealous of Martha.

Dan never wavers from his vision, never grows beyond his 20-year-old self as everyone else around him changes in more or less subtle ways.

Despite the novel’s complexity, Tarkington’s lean prose here makes The Midlander both entertaining and rewarding reading.


*Tarkington published the first edition of The Midlander in 1924, wrapping up a set of three novels which he brought out in a single volume under the name Growth in 1927. In Growth, Tarkington changed the name The Midlander to National Avenue. National Avenue appears as the final work in that volume. The other novels in the trilogy are The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) and The Turmoil (1915)


The Midlander*
By Booth Tarkington
Pages 591-887 of Growth
1924 bestseller #7
My grade: A-

©2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni