Dragon Seed Eyes Killing in a Good Cause

Rice paddies and mountains near Yangshuo in Southern China

In Dragon Seed, Pearl S. Buck returns to her beloved China to explore an important question: does killing change people into killers?

Ling Tan is an illiterate farmer. He and his wife Lao San have three married children and a younger son and daughter.

When the Japanese invade China, Ling Tan and the other farmers hope that by being civil to the conquerors, they can lead fairly normal lives.

They are merely fooling themselves.

The invaders rape and pillage, then set up local puppet governments to systematically bleed the country.

Ling Tan and his family organizes a local resistance. But Ling Tan worries about whether the killing at which he and his family become adept will not fundamentally change them, dehumanize them. Secret radio broadcasts from the Allies give them courage to wait for the light for the invaders to be repelled.

With its secret rooms, guerrilla raids, and the constant threat of exposure hanging over the characters’ heads, Dragon Seed will attract more readers today than Buck’s better known novel The Good Earth.  Dragon Seed covers less time and has more action, much of it horrifying, though tastefully presented. It also has a vivid characterizations and a wealth of telling detail.

Above all it has that nagging question every thoughtful person must consider in an era of conflict: does killing change people into killers?

Dragon Seed
Pearl S. Buck
John Day, 1942
378 pages
1942 Bestseller #3
My Grade: A-

Photo credit: “Chinese Landscape” showing rice paddies and mountains near the town of Yangshuo in Southern China. Uploaded by bewinca http://www.sxc.hu/photo/905398

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Moon Is Down Celebrates Freedom

Tuscany village

John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, a tale about life in an occupied country, is as timely today as it was when in 1942.

An invading army captures a European town in a matter of minutes, meeting minimal resistance, thanks to meticulous planning and help from a respected local businessman.

The youthful soldiers think that because the invasion was so easy, the occupation will be easy too. General Lanser knows better.  He knows the locals will rebel against the army of occupation.  He knows, too, that the way the military deals with rebels creates even greater resistance.  He would prefer to control the town by manipulating the mayor.

The mayor, however, sees himself as an instrument of the people, not their ruler.  After the army executes a miner for refusing to dig coal, the mayor quietly helps his people organize a resistance movement. “Free men…can fight on in defeat,” he says.

As Lanser feared, the army orders him to execute hostages to punish resistance.  He starts with the mayor.

Steinbeck draws his characters with swift, sure strokes, telling just enough, letting the cast reveal the rest of what readers must know.  The plot is carefully constructed; the action moves swiftly, inevitably to the climax.

The Moon is Down
John Steinbeck
Viking, 1942
188 pages
1942 Bestseller #2
My Grade: A

Photo credit: “Tuscany” uploaded by Prootman http://www.sxc.hu/photo/866487

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Daughter of Silence is not golden

Daughter of Silence opens with Anna Albertini shooting the mayor of San Stefano to death at noon before turning herself in to police.

There’s no doubt Anna is guilty of murder. The only question is whether mitigating circumstances should be considered in her sentencing.

In a plot reminiscent of Robert L. Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder, Morris L. West follows Anna’s defense team as they probe for soft spots in the law.

Carlo Rienzi is the handsome defense attorney hoping to make his name with the case, Peter Landon the equally handsome forensic psychiatrist hoping to boost his career with the case.

The courtroom drama is offset by bedroom drama in the small San Stefano community. Carlo is jealous of his unfaithful wife. Both Carlo and Valeria resent her father, in whose law firm Carlo works. Ascolini is a great man to his law students, a nasty piece of work to his family.

Landon, meanwhile, has fallen for artist Ninette Lachaise who once had an affair with Valeria’s current lover.

The novel’s ending is predictable. The characters, while fascinating, are people you’d just as soon forget.

The real mystery in Daughter of Silence is why somebody didn’t murder all the characters: it wasn’t for lack of motive.

Daughter of Silence
By Morris L. West
William Morrow, 1961
275 pages
1961 bestseller # 8
My Grade: B-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni