Change hits ordinary folks hard in best 1935 bestsellers by women

Ellen Glasgow’s Vein of Iron and Edna Ferber’s Come and Get It would have tied for first place on my list of the best of the 1935 bestsellers, with Rachel Field’s Time Out of Mind as runner up, if they had not been up against Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

(My review of The Forty Days is here. My discussion of its historical significance is here.)

All three women’s novels are first-rate, with believably complex characters and situations and real insights into the long-term cultural significance of those situations.

Glasgow shows us how ordinary working people were affected by the depression. Their lives were very hard, but Glasgow shows how they coped. She makes readers understand that merely coping can be an act of bravery.

Vein of Iron isn’t a cheerful novel, but it’s an optimistic one: If you can cope with today’s problems, you can cope with tomorrow’s.

Ferber’s characters are real people on a different scale. The boy who cried, “Come and get it” to lumbermen grows into a giant of a man who makes millions by outworking and outsmarting other late nineteenth century giants.

Ferber reveals not only how big American industrialists were, but how big an impact they had on the environment for decades to come because they focused on short-term profits.

Field’s story also looks at people in a time of economic transition.

In Time Out of Mind, the main characters are in the household of a New England shipbuilding family in the period when steam was replacing wind power for commercial vessels. Dysfunctional to begin with, the family unit falls apart as their business falls apart.

Field lacks Ferber’s and Glasgow’s skill with characterization and the story’s outcome is predictable, but her insight into into the far-reaching negative impacts that changes in technology and the economy can have on people’s lives is still relevant today.

You can’t go wrong with any of these three novels.

Time Out of Mind is an immersion in memory

Time Out of Mind is a fictional memoir penned by Kate Fernald,  a woman about 50.

Kate writes about what happened because her father forgot to take his jacket some 40 years before.

Time Out of Mind   by Rachel Field

MacMilllian, 1935. 462 pages. 1935 bestseller #4. My grade: A-.

After Kate’s father’s death, her mother became housekeeper for the Fortunes, a Maine shipbuilding family that refused to adapt to the age of steam.

Living on the premises, Kate was thrown together with the Fortune children, Rissa and Nat.Black type on red ground: Cover of "Time Out of Mind" by Rachel Field

Kate adored Nat, even risking Major Fortune’s displeasure to help Rissa arrange for Nat to play the piano, which their father had strictly forbidden in his attempt to make a man of his son.

When he discovered the children’s deliberate disobedience, the Major sent 11-year-old Nat to sea on the last vessel the Fortune Shipyard built.

Nat had to be carried off when the ship returned a year later.

From then on, enabling Nat to write and conduct music became the focus of Rissa’s life.

Rissa takes Nat abroad, returning only when she needs money. Nat returns because Maine is in his blood.

Kate asserts that chance rules life, but Rachel Field’s story shows clearly the role choice plays in events.

Field leaves nothing to chance in her management of the plot or her depiction of character.

Time Out of Mind is not just a book. It’s an immersion in memory.

 © Linda Gorton Aragoni

And Now Tomorrow is too predictable

Old factory building
Old factory building

And Now Tomorrow is a predictable pot-boiler told by an “old woman” of 28 as she reflects on her youth.

Emily Blair grows up doing what was expected of a Blair of Blairtown, Massachusetts in the early twentieth century. She even falls in love with an employee in her family’s textile mill who is predicted to move into management of the business.

Unpredictably, Emily loses her hearing as the textile industry falls on hard times. A new, attractive doctor in town asks to try an experimental treatment on her. She reluctantly agrees, but doesn’t tell anyone for fear of getting her hopes up.

Meanwhile, Emily’s fiancé has fallen for her sister. He won’t desert Emily, however, because he pities her for her deafness. When experimental treatment begins to restore her hearing, Emily has to decide whether her hearing or her fiancé is more important.

Exactly what you’d expect to happen does happen.

Rachel Field’s characters are as predictable and innocuous as her plot. The real interest in the book is the labor trouble at the family textile plant. They reflect the nation’s economic woes of the mid 1920s as the country hurled headlong toward the stock market crash of ’29.

And Now Tomorrow
Rachel Field
Macmillian, 1942
1942 Bestseller #4
350 pages
My Grade: C
Photo credit: “old facility” uploaded by pipp
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

All This, and Heaven Too: 1847 Scandal Makes Sensational Novel

As a child, Rachel Field was curious about her great aunt, Henriette Desportes, whose tombstone told the date of her death but nothing of her life. In All This, and Heaven Too, Field fleshes out the facts she later learned with details she imagined.

After eight years in England, Henriette returns to her native Paris as governess to the children of the Duc and Duchesse de Praslin. The Duc is a handsome, unhappily married man. The Duchesse is a nut case.

When gossip links her name with the Duc’s, Henriette is sacked without a reference. Later the Duchesse is found brutally murdered, the Duc is accused of the murder. He commits suicide. Henriette stands trial. Defending herself, she wins acquittal.

Afterward, Henriette meets and marries a American minister, Henry Field, through whom she comes in contact with the most important figures of Civil War era America.

Field makes Henriette come alive in her warts-and-all imagining of the story. The tale loses steam after trial, so the latter chapters are less exciting than the early section.

By the time readers get to the end of the book, they may have forgotten the lesson of Henriette’s life: pride in one’s virtue can be deadly.

All This, and Heaven Too
By Rachel Field
Macmillan, 1938
594 pages
# 6 on the 1938 bestseller list
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni