Mexico by James A. Michener

James A. Michener’s Mexico opens with these words:

I had been sent to Mexico to cover a murder, one of a remarkable kind. And since it had not yet happened, I had been ordered to get photographs, too.

Clearly, this isn’t the standard Michener formula.

The journalist is Norman Clay. Born and reared in Toledo, Mexico, he left for the US in 1938 after the Mexicans confiscated oil wells his family owned. Clay served in the American armed World War II, and worked as a journalist ever since.

Clay, 52, is back in his hometown to cover a bullfight that’s rumored to be a confrontation the equivalent of murder.

an Indian stone figure lighted by the sunHe revisits places he knew as a childhood, tracing his roots to Mexico’s three primary population groups: Indians, Spaniards, and English. Readers get to see how differently pivotal historical personages and events were viewed by each of the three groups.

Some of the historical facts are grisly: men’s beating hearts ripped out of them to appease a stone god, nuns burned alive, women made to work in a silver mine, never seeing daylight.

With the brutality, there’s also art, music, public service, bullfighting, and an ending with just the right degree of happy ending for a 52-year-old journalist.

Mexico by James A. Michener
Random House. ©1992. 625 p.
1992 bestseller #8; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Captain from Castile finds love in a nasty era

The eponymous captain from Castile is Pedro de Vargus, a handsome young cavalier from a distinguished Spanish family of modest circumstances.

Pedro has taken Luisa de Carvajal as his lady, but the spirited serving wench Catana Perez has her sights on Pedro as well.


The Captain from Castile by Samuel Shellabarger

Blakiston, 1945. 503 pages. 1945 bestseller # 8. My Grade: B.


Masts of replica of 16th century Spanish ship
The ship in which Pedro de Vargus sailed to Spain’s New World colonies probably looked much like this replica.

In 1518, Pedro sails for the Caribbean, followed soon by Cantana.

Hernando Cortes is raising an army to invade Mexico, contrary to the orders of the Spanish Governor of Cuba.

Pedro distinguishes himself in the campaigns to conquer, convert and loot the natives.

Cortes sends Pedro back to Spain to persuade the Crown to support further colonization. Pedro has trunks full of golden persuaders to use.

Pedro barely sets foot in Spain before he’s arrested.

He has to use his wits and his sword to save himself and his family, serve his General, and get the girl he truly loves.

Samuel Shellabarger keeps his focus on the story, refusing to make the novel into a history book. Without knowing a bit about 16th century history, however, readers will find it difficult to understand the plot.

The characters and general outline of this novel are romance staples. Its selling point is its setting: Shellabarger makes the Spanish Inquisition and Spain’s conquest of the Aztecs truly repugnant.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: The still photo is from a video of El Galeon, a 16th century replica Spanish sailing ship,  docked in New York Harbor.   The 2 minute video is at   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5U0CC4uxHQ

Sir Mortimer Is Aptly Named

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Mary Johnson’s Sir Mortimer is the story of an Elizabethan gentleman pursuing fortune and fair maiden.

Sir Mortimer commands one of four ships in a fleet under Admiral Sir John Nevil, who has the Virgin Queen’s approval to prey on Spanish shipping and Spanish colonies.

At his best, Sir Mortimer is a prig trying to appear noble.

As his worst, he is a prig trying to look humble.

The story should be an adventure, with lots of swordplay and broken spars, but Johnson strangles excitement with taut summaries, such as “fifty paces from the river bank Henry Sedley received his quietus. ”

The novel pivots around the battle for Nueva Cordoba in which the British walk into a deadly trap. Afterward, Sir Mortimer, who had been captured by the Spanish, comes to his fellow officers with the confession that he broke under torture, revealed the British plan, and should bear full responsibility for the slaughter.

Sir Mortimer and readers learn much later that he was tricked into believing he’d betrayed his countrymen.

I’d like to see what a good writer could do with the idea of tricking a man into believing he’s betrayed his mates.

Johnson messes it up big time: Sir Mortimer is deadly dull.

Sir Mortimer: A Novel
by Mary Johnston
1904 bestseller #5
Project Gutenberg ebook #13812
My grade: C+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

 

Anthony Adverse Proves Size Isn’t Everything

Anthony Adverse sold 300,000 copies in its first six months on the market. Perhaps the whopping size of Hervey Allen’s novel made thrifty, depression-era readers think they had a bargain.

Here’s the gist of the confusing tale.

In 1775, Spanish diplomat Don Luis dumps his dead wife’s love child at a convent. Anthony Adverse grows up and is apprenticed to a slave trader who is really Anthony’s grandfather, although Anthony doesn’t know that.

Anthony is seduced by his late mother’s maid, Faith, before he takes his first sales trip. When he returns, Faith has married Don Luis and one of Anthony’s old flames is Napoleon’s mistress.

Anthony’s work takes him to Louisiana where he marries another childhood sweetheart who dies when their plantation house burns.

After the fire, Anthony retreats into the wilderness where he becomes a spiritual giant through some vague metamorphosis.

Captured by Indians, turned over to Don Luis, now governor of Santa Fe, Anthony is rescued by another childhood sweetheart. The couple live happily until Anthony’s death in a freak accident.

The freak accident is the most plausible incident in the novel; the characters and message are equally improbable.

No matter how hard up you are, you won’t find Anthony Adverse any bargain.

Anthony Adverse
By Hervey Allen
Farrar & Rinehart, 1933
1224 pages
1933 Bestseller #1
My grade: C-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Floodtide Is a Wash Out

In 1850, Ross Pary returns to his native Natchez attired as a gentleman. He has an Oxford education and credentials as an architect. He aims to become a gentleman planter.

Before he is off the boat, Ross is smitten by the gorgeous, amoral Morgan Brittany, whose much-older husband becomes Ross’s best friend, helping him gain acceptance in planter society.

Ross falls for the daughter of a Cuban freedom fighter. He follows Conchita to Cuba and joins in the fight against the Spanish. Ross and Conchita marry just before they are caught and separated, each thinking the other is dead.

Ross goes back to America, where he eventually marries. Conchita goes to Europe and becomes a celebrated dancer.

As Civil War looms, Ross frees his slaves, incurring the wrath of his neighbors and his vehemently pro-slavery wife. Morgan connives to separate Ross from his wife, and succeeds in a way she never imagined.

Floodtide is a hodgepodge of episodes from standard romance fiction strung together with Ross Pary in the leading male role. Unfortunately, author Frank Yerby’s doesn’t stick with romance. He pulls in a half dozen other genres as well.

Whatever your literary tastes, you’ll find something to dislike in this awful novel.

Floodtide
by Frank Yerby
Dial Press, 1950
1950 bestseller #6
My grade: C
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni
 

Forgotten History Kept Forgettable inHigh Towers

High Towers is a bodice-ripping historical novel about a lovely lass who becomes one of the early settlers of New Orleans.

Felicite’s father dies on the voyage to Montreal in 1697. Her mother returns to France, leaving the child to be brought up in the new world.

Felicite is adopted by Montreal’s leader, Charles le Moyne.  Le Moyne arranges a marriage for Felicite with a rich Frenchman and ships her to New Orleans to marry him.

Felicite is already in love with a poor carpenter who has preceded her to New Orleans, but she’s willing to sacrifice herself for the good of the French colonies. Her new husband turns out to be too much of a brute even for Felicite’s patriotism.

Thomas B. Costain takes his plot and characters straight from the shelf with nary a variation on the standard pot-boiler romance.

The only novelty here is the historical setting. The le Moynes were a real family of 10 French-Canadian brothers who played a major role in keeping America from falling under Spanish domination.

Costain tries to weave all 10 brothers into this novel. The result is a forgettable novel about an almost forgotten period in American history.

High Towers
By Thomas B. Costain
Doubleday, 1949
403 pages
1949 Bestseller #7
My Grade: C+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni