A moral compass links best of 2015 reading

When you read as many novels as I do—I read and reviewed more then 75 novels for Great Penformances this year—there’s a tendency to become jaded.

Plots get to feel familiar.

Characters seem to reappear in different outfits in different novels.

And the point of it all often is hardly worth the words expended in stating it.

As a reflected on the novels I reviewed here in 2015, four stood out as being distinctly different from the rest:

Although their subjects cover a wide range, each has the same central theme: the importance of having a moral compass.

The Ambassador

The Ambassador is a story about the politics of American involvement in the Vietnam War. The American Ambassador to South Vietnam says what his government pays him to say. In so doing, he assures the war will drag on, body bag after body bag, for years.

His career crisis underscores the Ambassador’s personal crisis: He had depended on his late wife’s faith to provide him with a moral compass. Without her, he can’t locate North.

Something of Value

Something of Value also is set against the backdrop of a war, this one between the white settlers of Kenya and the black guerrilla army, the Mau Mau.

The white colonialists have prohibited the blacks from practicing their culture and religion, but the tepid Christianity they demanded Kenyans substitute for traditional ways provide neither white or black with a moral compass.

The 40 Days of Musa Dagh

The 40 Days of Musa Dagh is a story about the events called, except in Turkey, the Aremnian genocide.

In 1915, the Ottoman Empire, part of Central Powers (which also included Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria), ordered Armenians within its borders to the Syrian deserts.

Only a few Armenian communities resisted.

As World War I began, some 5,000 Armenian from the Mediterranean mountains due west of Aleppo, Syria, took up positions on Musa Dagh (“Mount Moses”) to repel the Turkish military.

They held out for 53 days (Werfel calls it 40 days, which sounds more biblical) before the Western Allies evacuated the Musa Dagh survivors by ship.

In Werfel’s novel, as in history, the moral question is about the responsibility of uninvolved observers. Without a moral compass, bystanders to brutality waver over their options until the possibility for action is gone.

The Garden of Allah

The Garden of Allah brings moral issues down to the level of marriage.

Both marriage partners had had strong faith at one time. Domini’s faith dwindled; Boris rejected his.

The central question of the novel and the marriage is whether the individual puts his or her needs above those of the spouse. The question can only be answered by a muscular faith in obedience to the moral compass.

You or I may not approve of the direction chosen by the characters in some of these novels. Yet each novel shows the value of having a moral in a world that sets its course by opinion polls.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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My top pick for 1955: Something of Value

I had no difficulty picking my favorite of the 1955 bestsellers. Something of Value by Robert Ruark is head and shoulders above the rest.

Marjorie Morningstar would be my number two choice of the best of 1955 bestsellers. Herman Wouk’s exploration of a start-struck girl’s growing up won’t ever go out of date, but it’s too personal to have the impact that Ruark’s broad canvas achieves.

Photo of Robert RuarkNot only is Something of Value well-plotted and peopled with believable fictional characters, but it is written with a reporters eye for telling detail.

With Africa’s rise as a center of influence, the background Ruark presents in an accessible fashion presents a timely introduction to one of its most rapidly developing nations: Kenya.

In the foreword written in 1954, Ruark says

This is considerably more than a book about the Mau Mau terror which has claimed constant attention on the front pages of the world for the last two years. A great deal has been written about the Mau Mau. A great deal of foolishness has been committed in the failure of the British to recognize that what they saw happening to themselves in Kenya was not, as they first thought, a local brush fire but a symptomatic ulcer of the evil and unrest which currently afflict the world.

…..

This might be possibly a true story of Kenya and of the events over the last fifty years which lead to the present tragedy of the Mau Mau uprising, with all its sadistic murder and counter-murder. The book is completely true in reporting that its early skeletal structure rests on stony fact, which may be found in reference as fact. Some of these facts have been altered and condensed to comply with novel form, a it always customary But they remain facts. The characters in this book are entirely fictitious.

There is much blood in the book. There is much killing. But the life of Africa was washed earlier by blood, and its ground was, and skill is fertilized by the blood of its people and its animals. This is not a pretty book….And it certainly is not a political book.

A North Carolina native, Ruark served in the navy during World War II.  Afterward, he became a newspaperman. achieving national prominenance as a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain.

Ruark’s love of hunting, fishing, and the outdoors in general led him to Africa. That in turn inspired him to abandon the security of New York and a regular paycheck for the uncertainty of freelance writing.

Ruark said , “Without the African experience, there would have been no topics for the scores of articles and stories and the two books which have combined to make me financially secure…”

He had published five nonfiction books and 500 magazine articles before Something of Value. In all, Ruark published 12 novels, including the 1959 bestseller Poor No More. A list of his novels are on the Robert Ruark Society website.

On his death in 1965 at age 49, Ruark left all his letters (including one containing the quote above), manuscripts, and published work to the The University of North Carolina.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni