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In August, 1831, a few dozen slaves in Southampton, Virginia, revolted, slaughtering whites mercilessly.

The confession of the revolt’s leader, Nathaniel Turner, presented at his trial and subsequently published as a pamphlet, is the factual basis of William Styron’s novel.


The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
Random House, 1966, 1967; 428 p. 1967 bestseller #2. My grade: A.

sketch shows Nat being captured by white man

Nat Turner’s capture.


Nat’s mother was a cook, so Nat became a “house nigger.” The Turner family taught him to read and figure, gave him carpentry training, bought a Bible, and promised he’d be given his freedom at age 25.

By the time Nat was 25, faced with dwindling income from over-worked land, Turner family had sold all their possessions—including Nat—and left Virginia for good.

Nat’s freedom disappeared with Marse Samuel.

Nat’s Bible reading and his ache for companionship with like-minded people, gradually twist into the conviction that God wants him to lead a slave rebellion.

Styron avoids the familiar clichés of slave novels. Characters, both black and white, are victims of conditions they can’t control. The worst physical and mental suffering among blacks and whites occur among those least affluent even at the best of times.

Styron’s tale could easily be moved to Baltimore or St. Louis in 2015.

His novel is a wrenching reminder that how we treat individuals matters more than our opinions about race.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Weavers is a romance, but it’s mostly about David Claridge.

David leaves his English village around 1850 for Egypt, where his good looks, Quaker habits, and scrupulous honesty are novelties.


The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
1907 bestseller #2, 1908 bestseller #10. Project Gutenberg ebook #6267. My grade: C+.

Book illustration, statuary, and photograph of Spinx and pyramids

Artifacts of travels to Egypt in 19th and 20th centuries.

Prince Kaid asks David to be his right-hand man to bring European-style prosperity to Egypt.

Within five years David is “a young Joseph” to the pharaoh and the darling of the British public.

David’s favored status is resented by Egyptians who prefer the old ways of bachshesh, bribery, and brutality.

Defending an English girl from an Egyptian, David kills him with a single punch. The dead man’s brother covers up the murder, planning to use it later to make himself ruler of Egypt.

The girl goes back to England and marries a rising young politician who takes a dim view of David’s uncredentialed foreign activities.

The Weavers is chock-a-block with plots and characters, but Gilbert Parker doesn’t make any one of them believable. David himself is hardly more than a coloring book outline.

Today, The Weavers is useful primarily as a reminder of how long England has been involved in Middle Eastern affairs.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Steven Fox arrives in New Orleans in 1825, broke and friendless.

By his gambling and his good looks, he makes a fortune and buys land, working along side his slaves to make it prosper.


The Foxes of Harrow by Frank Yerby

Dial Press, 1946. 408 p. 1946 bestseller #6. My grade: C-.


Before long Harrow is the greatest plantation in Louisiana, its manor house a gem on the Mississippi.

Steven marries Odalie Orceneaux by whom he has two children.

After her death he marries her sister, Aurore.

And on the side he has a quadroon mistress.

As Harrow grows more prosperous and influential, the South prepares for war. Steven lays aside his anti-secession principles to fight for the South.

In the introduction to The Foxes of Harrow, Frank Yerby makes the glory and ruin of Harrow Plantation almost palpable, but the story never lives up to its setting.

Yerby starts out writing about people in the pre-Civil War South, and ends up writing an historical novel about the South.

The characters, too, are not consistent.

Initially conniving, thieving, self-centered, and cruel, Steven magically becomes loyal, generous, and statesmanlike by the book’s end.

The best thing to be said for The Foxes of Harrow is that it’s better than its sequels.

But it’s no Gone With the Wind.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

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You can not tell how large a trouble may be started by a small politician.

Emerson Hough’s 54-40 or Fight takes a great story and renders it dull as dishwater.

The story is told by Nicholas Trist, confidential aide to John C. Calhoun. It opens as Calhoun becomes Secretary of State in President Tyler’s cabinet.


54-40 or Fight by Emerson Hough

Arthur I. Keller, illus.  A. L. Burt Co. 1909 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg EBook #14355. My grade: C+.


Calhoun believes it is in America’s interests to annex Texas, which has declared its independence of Mexico. Calhoun would also like to get the entire Oregon Territory for the US, including land above the 49th parallel—if it can be done without fighting Britain.

Britain would like to get access to Texas’s cotton and silver if it can do so. And Britain wants to hold on to Oregon for its valuable fur trade.

Mexico wants to hang on to Texas.

Texas President Sam Houston would like to make Texas a nation to rival the US.

And Americans on each side of the Mason-Dixon line fear what could happen if a slave-holding Texas becomes a state.

The historical facts need no glamorous double-agent to make them exciting.

They do, however, need better context to be intelligible to today’s reader.

The real life Nicholas Trist studied law under Thomas Jefferson and married Jefferson’s granddaughter.

In defiance of orders from the President, Trist negotiated the treaty which ended the Mexican-American War and added Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of three other states to the U.S.

Trist reflects:

Now our flag floats on the Columbia and on the Rio Grande. I am older now, but when I think of that scene, I wish that flag might float yet freer; and though the price were war itself, that it might float over a cleaner and a nobler people, over cleaner and nobler rulers, more sensible of the splendor of that heritage of principle which should be ours.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The trouble with historical novels is that they have to be historically accurate. To meet this demand, authors often must attempt to account logically for illogical human behavior.

Irving Stone’s Love Is Eternal: A Novel about Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln is a case in point.

the Lincoln family
According to the novel’s dust jacket, Stone’s goal is to take readers inside Mary Todd’s heart; however, even getting into her head would take a team of psychiatrists: Both Mary Todd and Lincoln suffered from depression that at times was almost pathological.

(The liner notes also say “Literally the whole [Civil] war was fought across her bosom,” a claim whose veracity I doubt. But I literally digress.)

Irving devotes most of the novel to the Lincolns’ political struggles. Stone shows Mary shrewdly aware of how the successful politician’s wife should behave but totally unaware that her husband’s election to the presidency was a fluke of the electoral system, not an indication of his popularity.

Readers get very little sense of the Lincolns as a couple before the White House and no sense of the Lincolns as a couple afterward.

Stone ends Love Is Eternal with Abraham Lincoln’s widow wanting to die.

And he leaves readers with no reason to want her to live.

Readers may enjoy these photos of Lincoln more than Stone’s novel.  I’m indebted to @dougpete for the link.

Love Is Eternal:
A Novel about Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln
By Irving Stone
Doubleday, 1954
1954 bestseller #3
462 pages
My grade: B-
 

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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"Chains" tribute in the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris to slaves deported from Africa.

Public recognition of the sufferings of slaves, such as the one in “Chains” monument shown in the photo from the  Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris, is not common.  However, novelist Margaret Steen produced something even more rare: a public recognition of the misery slavery inflicted on slave traders.

In 1942, Steen’s novel about a slave trader, The Sun Is My Undoing,  made the bestseller list for a second year in a row. My review of this extraordinary novel is filed with the reviews of 1941 novels.

Photo credit: “Chains” Uploaded by backtrust  http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1373251
©  2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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No matter how you look at it, Marguerite Steen’s 1941 novel The Sun Is My Undoing is extraordinary.

Three times average novel length, it covers 40 years, intertwines characters on three continents, and its hero is a slave trader.

Plenty of books tell about how slavery degraded slaves; this one tell how slavery degraded the slave traders. A mediocre writer couldn’t have envisioned this story, let alone written it.

In Bristol in 1760, the old reprobate Hercules Flood dies. His heir, Matthew Flood, sets up as a slave trader like his grandfather, even though it costs him marriage to lovely abolitionist Pallas Burmester.

After selling his first slaves, Matt “marries” his African concubine in a drunken mock ceremony in Havana. He leaves their daughter to be cared for by nuns and goes back to sea.

Years later, Matt’s quadroon granddaughter comes to Bristol to inherit the Flood money. She is shunned by everyone except Pallas Burmester.

When a lunatic slave captured by the British Navy turns out to be Matthew Flood, the news turns Bristol on its ear. I’ll leave you to read the heart-stopping ending for yourself.

The Sun Is My Undoing is a novel you won’t soon forget.

The Sun Is My Undoing
By Marguerite Steen
Viking, 1941
1176 pages,
1941 bestseller #4
My grade: A-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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