The Pelican Brief, a novel

Shadows of a man and a pillar against a marble wall
Whose is the shadow?

Although John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief is described as a legal novel, it reads like an Ian Fleming–Stephen King cross.

The plot is about an attempt to pack the Supreme Court with justices who will be favorable to a new Louisiana oil drilling operation that will mean billions to a secretive donor to the Republican president and extinction to the Louisiana brown pelican.

In a single evening, a professional hit man kills the court’s oldest justice, a liberal, and the court’s youngest justice, a conservative. The FBI is baffled. What reason could anyone have for killing that pair of justices?

Law student Darby Shaw spends a couple days in the library and whips out a cui bono analysis. Her law prof/lover gives her “pelican brief” to a friend in the federal government, who passes it on.

Suddenly the prof is dead and assassins are after Darby.

Darby contacts a Washington Post reporter; together they fight for truth, justice, and the American way.

The bad guy who manipulated the president gets his comeuppances.

Darby and the reporter go off to the Virgin Islands together.

And the President is left practicing his putting in the Oval Office.

The whole thing’s too implausible for fiction.

The Pelican Brief by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1992. 371 p.
1992 bestseller #2; my grade: C

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Oil for the Lamps of China Once Farsighted, Now Timely

oil lamps collage
Chinese Oil Lamps

Oil for the Lamps of China is a story of a company man in an alien culture. The novel’s detail reflects the lifetime Alica Tisdale Hobart spent in the Far East.

Stephen Chase goes to China in 1908 as a sales rep for an American oil company, leaving Lucy, his fiancé, behind: The company frowns on men dragging their wives along.

When Lucy throws him over, Stephen marries Hester Wentworth, whose father died on their voyage to China.

Stephen works hard, learning to stifle his personal wishes. He also learns to respect and value the Chinese culture. He becomes a real asset to the company.

Hester doesn’t fare so well. She never really adjusts to China.

At long last, Stephen realizes the company feels no loyalty to its employees. That realization frees him to chuck the whole thing.

Stephen and Hester are not vivid personalities, and their associations drain them. The company and China submerge individuals and become the novel’s real main characters.

China is just now becoming the consumer economy Hobart envisioned. And Americans have only recently realized that multinational companies don’t value employee loyalty.

It’s time to rediscover this far-sighted novel.

Oil for the Lamps of China
By Alice Tisdale Hobart
Grosset & Dunlap, 1933
403 pages
1934 bestseller # 9
My Grade: B+
 

Photo collage : Chinese Oil Lamps by Linda Aragoni

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Cimarron Sings Praises of Frontier Women

In her foreword, Edna Ferber says that only the “fantastic and improbable” events related in Cimarron are true. Perhaps that historical sense is what propelled Cimarron to the top of the charts in 1930.

The novel is about Sabra Cravat. Her husband, a lawyer, newspaperman, and adventurer, brings her and their young son, Cimarron, west to Oklahoma just after the 1889 run that opened the land to settlers.

Sabra soon learns her flambuoyant husband is already well-known for his oratory and his shooting. Yancey champions the Indian’s plight and teaches Cim to be pro-Indian, too.

Yancey periodically disappears for days, weeks, then years at a time.

Sabra keeps the newspaper going, makes it prosper, crusades for morality, education, and culture. Eventually she becomes US Senator.

When oil is found in Oklahoma, Yancey — always one to be where the action is — comes home again in time to die as dramatically as he lived.

Ferber makes the point that men went west for adventure. Frontier women were “the real hewers of wood and drawers of water,”  the ones who made life possible.

The plot and characters of Cimarron are forgettable, but they are just interesting enough to make the history turn-of-the-century Oklahoma easy reading.

Cimarron
By Edna Ferber
Doubleday, Doran 1930
388 pages
#1 on 1930 bestseller list
My grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni