If you want to know why The Daughter of Anderson Crow was a bestseller, look at B. Martin Justice’s illustrations.
If you want to know what’s wrong with the novel, look at Justice’s illustrations.
The Daughter of Anderson Crow by George Barr McCutcheon
B. Martin Justice, illus. Dodd, Mead 1907. 1907 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg ebook #14818. My Grade: B-.
George Barr McCutcheon’s starts out writing a funny novel about Anderson Crow, Tinkletown marshal, fire chief, and street commissioner who is just smart enough to not let Tinkletown see how dumb he is.
That first part of the novel is illustrated with cartoonish line drawings as funny as McCutcheon’s text.
The second part of the story is about Rosalie Gray, who the Crows raised like a daughter after finding her in a basket on their doorstep one winter night.
Her parentage was a mystery that even self-proclaimed super-sleuth Anderson Crow couldn’t solve.
A note in the basket said the Crows would receive $1000 a year to raise the child.
No one around Tinkletown had that kind of money.
The illustrations for Rosalie’s life as a young woman are lush scenes, suited to the Gothic romance style McCutcheon adopts whenever he focuses on her.
Eventually McCutcheon gets Rosalie suitably married, and turns his attention back to Anderson Crow long enough to give readers one final laugh before the novel ends.
Based in part on author Louis Bromfield’s own family history, The Farm is an unsatisfactory novel. Crowded with characters and brimming with anecdotes, many of which seem worthy of being turned into a novel, the book doesn’t succeed in melding them into more than the sum of its parts.
The story begins in 1815. Colonel MacDougal a Maryland aristocrat “sick of dishonesty and corruption and intolerance and all the meanness of civilization and of man himself ” arrives in Ohio to establish a farm and a new life.
As the Colonel arrives a Jesuit priest leaves, marking the end of the French missionary work among the Native Americans, and a Massachusetts peddler arrives, marking the start of the commercialization of rural America.
Bromfield uses the memories and experiences of one of the Colonel’s great grandsons, Johnny, to thread together the story of the rise of towns and decline of farms up to World War I. Unfortunately, Johnny never really comes alive as a person. He’s just a device.
Bromfield’s real hero is the farm itself, and even that is largely symbolic. Johnny’s grandfather explained its importance:
Some day…there will come a reckoning and the country will discover that farmers are more necessary than traveling salesmen, that no nation can exist or have any solidity which ignores the land. But it will cost the country dear. There’ll be hell to pay before they find it out.
The Farm is worth reading for social history and cultural perspective, but it’s not worth reading today as a novel.
By Louis Bromfield
Illus. Kate Lord
Introduction by Winfield H. Rogers
Harper & Brothers, 1946
1933 bestseller #9
My grade: C+
The Reivers is a zany tale of a none-too-innocent rural Mississippi childhood related by Lucius Priest to his grandson.
At age 11, Lucius and two pals who work at the family’s freight business borrow his grandfather’s automobile and drive up to Memphis from Jefferson, Mississippi, no mean feat in 1905.
While Boon and Lucius eat supper at a brothel where Boon’s girl friend works, Ned trades the car for a horse. Ned plans to race the horse, bet heavily, collect a pile, and get the car back when the horse wins.
Unfortunately, the horse hates to run unless there’s another horse ahead of him.
Ned has to enlist Boon and Lucius to help.
William Faulkner’s narrator tells the story in a wheezy, cracker barrel manner, letting readers deduce what actually happened—if that is possible. The yarn may be only a few facts embroidered by an old man’s fancy, the characters might be just enhanced wisps of Lucius’ memory.
The charm of the story is believing there was once a time when people who cared about one another might have had exciting adventures together and never come to any harm.
The Reivers: A Reminiscence
Random House, 1962
1962 Bestseller #10
My grade: B
John Fox, Jr. churned out sentimental novels about the American frontier that were immensely popular in the early 1900s. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine was his first big success, making the bestseller list two years running.
Jack Hale sees the opportunity to make a fortune by buying land in the Cumberland Gap after the Civil War when the demand for steel soars.
While he’s looking for investment property up near the lonesome pine, Jack meets a young hillbilly girl, June Tolliver. Hale arranges for her to get schooling outside the mountains.
Meanwhile, Jack tries to civilize the hillbillies enough that investors won’t be afraid to come in. He makes enemies of both sides in the Tolliver-Falin feud.
His investments don’t fare well either. When June comes back, clean and cultured, she finds Jack gone to seed and the feud ready to blow her family apart.
If you can imagine John Wayne playing Professor Henry Higgins, you’ve got the flavor of the book. Trail has several intriguing story lines, but none of them is fully developed.
Characters are underdeveloped, too. Hale initially considers June a child , but readers never learn her age, which is a pivotal fact.
This melodrama survives as a curiosity, but it’s too splintered to endure as a novel.
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine
By John Fox, Jr.
Grosset & Dunlap, 1908
1908 bestseller #3; 1909 bestseller #5
Project Gutenberg ebook #5122
My Grade C
I’d always assumed Peyton Place was a salacious novel. It’s not. Sex figures in the plot, but the novel’s not about gratuitous sex.
The story is set just before World War II in a small New England town with all the usual small-town characteristics, notably gossip, grudges, and inbreeding.
There is the usual cast of characters: the dedicated doctor, the cynical newspaper editor, the bullying industrialist, the spinster school teacher, the poor-but-deserving young person.
The central event of the novel is Lucas Clark’s rape of his stepdaughter, Selena. Everyone else in Peyton Place gets tangled in the events that follow.
The novel might not have caused any raised eyebrows if it had been set in the South. We don’t associate slum lords, tar paper shacks, and shantytowns with Connecticut villages. The idea that poor white trash like Clark and his drunken pals live in rural towns graced by pristine, white church steeples is unsettling, almost obscene.
Author Grace Metalious writes about the entire town but fails to make readers care about any of its residents. There’s enough story to make a TV mini-series, but not enough character development for an enduring novel.
By Grade Metalious
Simon & Schuster, 1956
#2 on the 1957 bestseller list