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If Burke Denby had not been given all the frosted cakes and toy shotguns he wanted at the age of ten, it might not have been so difficult to convince him at the age of twenty that he did not want to marry Helen Barnet.

That opening sentence of The Road to Understanding made me hopeful that the novel was going to be better than the pabulum I expect from Eleanor H. Porter.

I was disappointed.


The Road to Understanding by Eleanor H. Porter
Mary Greene Blumenschein, Illus., Houghton Mifflin, 1917. 373 pp. 1917 bestseller #4. Project Gutenberg eBook #35093. My grade: B-.

Man listens to woman holding baby girl

Helen seeks a Henry Higgens to turn her into a lady.

Burke Denby is rich and spoiled; Helen Barnet is poor and spoiled.

Their fairy tale romance turns sour: Neither has life skills, self-control, or experience considering anyone’s perspective but their own.

Other than giving Burke an entry-level job in his business, John Denby does not help the newlyweds.

The birth of their daughter adds to the strain.

John Denby steps in with an offer of separate vacations for the pair at his expense: Burke to come with him to Alaska, Helen to take the baby and go visit in her hometown.

Helen and baby Betty disappear without a trace.

Burke never sees either again until Betty is a grown woman.

After establishing the personalities and conflict, Porter doesn’t let them develop as their natures and situations suggest. She has the spoiled Burke happily accepted as a regular guy by the men at his father’s plant, and Helen learn to manage servants so she need not have to cook for her family.

The book ends with a happy family reunion as believable as a zombie Santa Claus.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Poem from frontpiece to The Red Planet superimposed on NASA photo of Mars

Poem from the front piece to The Red Planet

The Red Planet is a memoir narrated by Duncan Meredyth, a widowed Boer War veteran living in a small English country village in 1914. Duncan is cared for my his ex-sergeant who was disfigured in the same shell blast that took Duncan’s legs.


The Red Planet by William J. Locke
1917 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg eBook #4287. My grade: A-.

As friend to his peers and “Uncle” to local young people, Duncan gets to know nearly every thing that happens in Willingsford.

As the story opens, Duncan’s neighbors, the Fenimores, learn their son has been killed in France.

Less than a year earlier their daughter had drowned.

No one had asked aloud why Althea was on the tow-path at midnight.

While Fenimores mourn, Duncan learns Betty Fairfax, who had been engaged to the heroic Major Leonard Boyce, is going to marry Capt. Willie Connor, whom Duncan thinks a nonentity.

Duncan is also surprised to see upper-crust Randall Holmes with his arm around Phyllis Gedge, daughter of a socialist builder.

As Duncan hears village gossip, observes who is with whom, and puts two and two together, William J. Locke develops and redevelops the novel’s characters.

By turns funny, morose, sympathetic, and dogmatic, Duncan always seems like a real person whose opinions on patriotism, heroism, and human nature need to be taken seriously.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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John Gale watches soldiers building a military post on the Yukon River and thinks, “The trail ends here!”

Necia Gale, his daughter, sees Lieutenant Burrell and thinks her trail is just beginning.

old photo shows Fort Yukon from vantage point in excavated pit

                        Old Fort Yukon


The Barrier by Rex Beach
[Harper’s, 310 pp.] 1908. 1908 bestseller #2.
Project Gutenberg ebook #4082. My grade: B.

In its first chapter, The Barrier prepares readers for a romance in which the Kentuckian’s bias against non-whites will have to be overcome.

Predictably, the young people fall in love.

But prejudice is trivial compared John Gale’s problem.

Gale’s difficulties are revealed slowly while readers see the kind of man he is and speculate on what he might have done in his early years.

Stark, a saloon-keeper, and his rascally companion, Runnion, arrive in Flambeau just as “No Creek” Lee finds gold. Stark puts up a tent and by nightfall is in business taking money from those who aim to strike it rich.

photograph of gold mining operation sluices

                            Mining for gold in the Yukon

Poleon Doret, who has loved Necia for years, gets only sisterly love and a commission to find out if Burrell means to marry her.

I won’t reveal the ending which is as quarter-turn left of predictable.

Aside from Necia, the characters, too, are just unusual enough to keep readers’ full attention.

Necia, sad to say, is just a pretty face with nothing between the ears.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Orphaned at 10, T. Tembarom goes to work selling newspapers. Cheerful and practical, the lad makes do with whatever comes his way, even discarding his name for a less embarrassing one.

Through hard work and good sense, Tembarom eventually gets a foot in the newsroom door. He hopes to become a news reporter.

While pounding the pavement, Tembarom finds a man with a wad of money but no idea who he is. Tembarom gives his amnesiac friend, whom he calls Mr. Strangeways, his own boarding house bed.

When Tembarom inherits an English estate, the Brooklyn girl whom Tembarom hoped to marry refuses to  even to write him until he’s lived a year under his legal name in his new role in England. From England herself, the Brooklyn realist knows she wouldn’t be socially acceptable as Mrs. Temple Temple Barholm.

The Brits are embarrassed by Tembarom’s Yankee slang and off-the-rack clothes. Gradually, however, his kindness and ability to see things from the other person’s viewpoint win them over. He even wins the friendship of the marriageable daughters whom he has no interest in marrying.

Frances Hodgson Burnett does such a good job of foreshadowing the surprise ending that it’s no surprise. It is, however, a pleasure. Burnett’s characters are so engagingly quirky that the lack of substance in this offbeat, rags-to-riches novel don’t matter.

T. Tembarom
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
1913 bestseller #10
Project Gutenberg ebook #2514
My grade B

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Amateur Gentleman follows the adventures of Barnabas Barty, son of a champion prizefighter. Thanks to an unexpected inheritance, Barnabas has cash to “learn to be a gentleman.”

The Amateur Gentleman reads like a first novel, packed with episodes and characterizations drawn on the author’s reading in Dickens, Fielding, and Trollope. Had he been writing today, Jeffrey Farnol would have put in zombies and a werewolf.

The windfall in the opening chapter sets the direction Farnol takes in the remainder of the novel. Something unexpected happens in each chapter, and each unexpected occurrence is less plausible than the one before.

Barnabas is as implausible as the plot in which he’s tangled. Even before he begins his lessons in genteel deportment, Barnabas can tame a wild horse and charm an elderly duchess with equal ease.

Barnabas has all the manly virtues and roughly a quarter of the manly brain. His virtue is apparent to everyone except his enemies and the lovely heiress he wants to marry, all of whom are his intellectual equals.

Farro’s whimsical chapter titles are the only hint of the delightful light entertainment he went on to produce once he got his reading out of his system.

The Amateur Gentleman
By Jeffery Farnol
Illus. Herman Pfeifer
1913 Bestseller #6
My grade C-
Project Gutenberg EBook #9879
My grade C

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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black piglet The Dim Lantern is old-fashioned romance that, despite a well-worn theme and predictable plot lines, is as cozy as hot tea and scones in a room smelling faintly of lavender.

Jane and Baldwin Barnes live in an unfashionable suburb of Washington, D.C. in mortgaged house inherited from their parents. Baldy is artistic, but works in an office to pay off the mortgage. Jane exercises her creativity by stretching money and having faith that good will ultimately prevail. There’s a nice boy next door, badly traumatized by his experiences in The Great War. Jane is a dim lantern in the blackness of his depression.

On his way to work, Baldy gives a ride and his heart to a young woman who obviously has never had to make her money stretch. Socialite Edith Towne is running away after the humiliation of her bridegroom’s failure to appear at their wedding.

Baldy enlists Jane to speak for Edith to her wealthy bachelor uncle, Frederick Towne. He falls for Jane, luring her with the prospect of how his wealth can provide the medical care her ailing sister desperately needs.

By page 344, Temple Bailey has provided all the answers everyone who has ever read a romance novel expects except one: Where did city-bred Edith acquire her knowledge of black Berkshire pigs?

The Dim Lantern
by Temple Bailey
Grosset  & Dunlap,  1923
344 pages
1923 bestseller #5

Photo credit: Black Pigs 2 by nedbenj

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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photograph,  Wharf at Pittsburgh, 1890

Pittsburgh’s three rivers play an important role in The Valley of Decision.

In 1873, Mary Rafferty goes to be ’tweenmaid in William Scott’s Pittsburgh home.

Her patience, humor, straight-thinking, practicality, and unswerving loyalty win the entire family. For nearly 60 more years, Mary remains in the Scott household, neither fully family nor fully employee.

When Paul Scott choses Mary as his bride, William father sees no reason to object to his son’s choice.

Mary, however, had other ideas. She feels her working class origins (both her father and brother worked in the Scott steel mill) make her unfit to marry into the family.

She refuses to marry Paul and pushes him into an unhappy marriage that ends in his wife’s suicide.

Afterward, Mary returns to bring up Paul’s children, run his house, help his grandchildren, keep his mill intact for the family.

Mary’s refusal to marry the man she loves was bizarre to her contemporaries. But Marcia Davenport makes Mary’s reasons so much a part of Mary’s essential character that she’s entirely believable, even admirable, in spite of her rigidly absurd social class standards.

By the time she puts the kettle on for tea in the last paragraph of The Valley of Decision, you’ll like Mary as much as the Scotts did.

The Valley of Decision
By Marcia Davenport
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944
790 pages
1944 bestseller # 2
My Grade: B-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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