Captains and the Kings is a far-sighted novel

Who'd think Captains and the Kings so low key?
Staid all-type dust jacket belies the explosive story of Captains and the Kings.

Taylor Caldwell read the news and saw the future.

In Captains and the Kings, she tells the story of a boy who came to America to escape the Irish famine in the early 1850s.

By the time he arrived, he was 12, an orphan with a younger brother and infant sister to care for, and America didn’t want any more Irish.

Both honest and ruthless, as “Joe Francis” teenage Joseph Francis Xavier Armagh outsmarted and outworked men twice his age.

Brains and discipline put him in the way of luck.

Friends were unwaveringly loyal to him.

Women fell for him.

His children loved him, though he did nothing to win their love.

What makes Captains and the Kings an unusual historical novel is that Caldwell puts Joseph into situations where wealthy men behind the scenes plot how to quite literally take over the world.

Their plan includes the establishment of income taxes in every country in the world, extermination of the middle class via taxation, and “prudently scheduled” wars around the world “to absorb the products of our growing industrial and technological society.”

Captains and the Kings has an exciting plot interwoven with a powerful message for readers with the guts to take it in.

Captains and the Kings by Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1972. Book Club Edition. 695 p.
1972 bestseller #7. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Testimony of Two Men, one his own worst enemy

island is central image on dust jacket of "Testimony of Two Men"
Islands can be emotional as well as physical.

Taylor Caldwell begins Testimony of Two Men where more usual novels would have ended: Dr. Jonathan Ferrier has been acquitted of the murder-by-botched-abortion of his young wife, Mavis.

Unable to live among people who doubted his innocence, Jon has sold his practice to young Robert Morgan, who, of candidates Jon interviewed, seemed least likely to do harm.

Robert feels something akin to awe of Jon, for his culture as much as for his brilliant medical skill.

Jon finds Robert’s conventional, mamma’s boy behavior amusing.

Jon’s brother, Harald, made a marriage of convenience to a rich widow. She’s dead; Harald is living on an island with her nubile daughter, whom he wishes to marry.

When Robert sees Jenny, he’d like to marry her, too.

Jon thinks Jenny is a whore and Harald one of her sex partners.

Taylor Caldwell makes the novel part mystery, part romance, but always keeps her focus on the psychological development of her characters.

Jon’s insulting manner with people he thinks cruel, incompetent, or corrupt make him his own worst enemy.

Fortunately, he has some good friends who come to his rescue.

Caldwell wraps up the novel with enough of Jon’s hostility showing to prove she’s a good novelist.


Testimony of Two Men by Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1968, Book Club Edition, 600 pp. My grade: A-.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Misery keeps three 1946 bestsellers on top

My choices for the three bestselling novels of 1946 for today’s readers have little in common except that somebody in them is miserable. My top picks are Arch of Triumph, This Side of Innocence, and The Snake Pit.

Arch of Triumph

Quote: "To their native country [refugees]they are traitors. And abroad they are still citizens of their native country " against a background of a stone wall.

Arch of Triumph the third of Erich Maria Remarque’s novels to make the bestseller list in America. Each is about some aspect of the the German people’s experiences in World Wars I and II.

The most famous, of course is All Quiet on the Western Front, which tells about the disillusionment of schoolboys who believed Germany’s might would make a quick end to the Great War and that dying for one’s country was glorious.

Remarque’s second bestseller, The Road Back, examined what happened to such soldiers when, their innocence drowned in the blood of WWI, they returned home to a defeated, demoralized, bankrupt Germany.

Set on the cusp of the Second World War, The Arch of Triumph tells of a Jewish surgeon who, unable to practice medicine legally in Germany, has fled to Paris.

He’s not safe there, either.

Dr. Ravic is a dark character, keeping to physical and emotional shadows. There’s something heroic about his refusal to bend to tyranny, but his doom is so certain that it dims even heroism.

All three of Remarque’s novels remain important books. Read in sequence, they  provide insights about 20th century history.

Arch of Triumph will also help us understand aspects of our own day, such why Angela Merkle has been so determined that Germany welcome migrants.

This Side of Innocence

Photograph of bustle on woman's dress, symbolizing historical setting of This Side of Innocence

Taylor Caldwell’s novel This Side of Innocence exposes a family whose members are  as unpleasant a clutch of characters as readers would want to find in- or outside of  a book cover.

As fascinating as they are revolting, the characters make their own lives so miserable that they can make others miserable effortlessly.

Caldwell reveals, occasionally comments, but neither judges nor preaches.

She doesn’t need to: Their ends are predictable from their beginnings.

The Snake Pit

Barred window in stone wall of building suggests setting of The Snake Pit.

Mary Jane Ward’s novel The Snake Pit is a study of a different type of misery, the misery of mental illness.

Ward herself had a mental breakdown at age 34, which she drew on to create the fictional experiences of another young writer, Virginia Cunningham.

The treatment Virginia receives in the novel, was standard practice in the ’40s: medication, shock treatments, body-temperature baths.

Ward’s description, and the film version of her novel, created a movement for legislative reform of the institutional care of the mentally ill.

The fictional Virginia, who drifted into mental illness, is institutionalized and recovers.

The uncertainty in the novel about what caused Virginia’s breakdown and which—if any—of her treatments was responsible for her recovery suggests the same misery could happen to anyone, even to the novelist’s readers.

Perhaps I’m too sensitive, but I find that possibility more frightening than anything invented by Stephen King.

That’s the best of the best for 1946. If you haven’t read one of these, please give one of them a try.

Next week we’ll move on to the bestsellers of 1936.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

This Side of Innocence made riveting by unlikeable people

Taylor Caldwell sets This Side of Innocence in the era of bustles and Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, but this odd tale of a dysfunctional family packs all the punch of a Netflix® drama.

Seeking happiness, the characters try the old standbys—sex, fulfilling work, filial duty—and still there’s something missing.


This Side of Innocence by Taylor Caldwell

Scribner’s 1946. 499 p. 1946 bestseller #2 .My grade A-.


After his son opts for a life of profligacy, a widowed banker adopts a cousin, Alfred Lindsey, as his heir.

When it appears Alfred may marry, Jerome comes back to the family home.

Unable to stop Alfred’s marriage, Jerome experiences a sudden desire to go into banking. Soon, he finds he like banking almost as much as he likes Alfred’s wife, Amilie.

When Amilie becomes pregnant by Jerome, Alfred divorces her.

Amilie marries Jerome.

They all live unhappily ever after.

The qualities that put This Side of Innocence on the 1946 bestseller list are untarnished by time.

The unusual plot is peopled by fascinating—though not likable—characters with complex and often confused motives.

Caldwell adds insightful musings on timeless themes like love, integrity, and tact.

The result is a novel with real staying power.

Look for it at your local library.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Never Victorious, Never Defeated Is Vintage Taylor Caldwell

cover of Never Victorious, Never Defeated (1954)Never Victorious, Never Defeated is a typical Taylor Caldwell novel: a good yarn with vivid characters against a backdrop of political and spiritual decay.

The setting is Pennsylvania during the years when America, aided by immigrants fleeing certain starvation in Europe for the mirage of banqueting in America, changed from an agricultural to an industrial nation.

Greedy men are vying for wealth: They must have markets for their goods.

Cornelia Marshall, granddaughter of a railroad entrepreneur Aaron deWitt, uses her brain and cunning to achieve power and wealth.

Like her father before her and greedy men around her, Cornelia is amoral, willing to use or destroy anyone who stands in her way, including her siblings, her husband, her children.

A few patriots and saints — including Cornelia’s brother-in-law and son — see the destructive force at work in the world and attempt to counter it.

They see American society being undermined by the rise of cities, the cultivation of war as a business tool, the growth of central government, the disappearance of moral teaching.

Nevertheless, they believe eventually men of good will and common sense will defeat evil at the ballot box.

Whether their optimism is valid remains to be seen.

Read Never Victorious, Never Defeated and draw your own conclusions.

Never Victorious, Never Defeated
by Taylor Caldwell
Mc-Graw Hill, 1954
549 pages
#9 on the 1954 bestseller list
My grade: B

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Grandmother and the Priests: Bedtime stories for adults

Taylor Caldwell’s Grandmother and the Priests is not really a novel, but a a collection of short stories.

The stories are supposedly told by Roman Catholic priests who dined at the Leeds home of Rose Mary O’Driscoll Cullen.

Though an old woman and without morals, Rose Mary respected priests, made them welcome at fine dinners where, after wine and whiskey, they told stories.

Medieval church door
Medieval church door

Most of the stories are about poor priests in remote villages of the British Isles where roofs leak, fires are never warm enough, and hunger is a familiar occurrence.

Often the story is of a priest in his first parish, growing up fast as he struggles against loneliness, hardship, ignorance, and occasionally against domineering sisters who know how a parish ought to be run.

Grandmother and the Priests is a good book to put on the bedside table. Some of the stories will make you smile, others will make you tear up. All the stories are just long enough to combat insomnia, and just heartwarming enough to make you feel cozy until you feel drowsy.

Grandmother and the Priests
By Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1963
469 pages
1963 bestseller #6
My grade B-
 

Photo Credit: medieval wooden door by Ayla87

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Listener: Bedtime Stories for Adults

Over a half century, Taylor Caldwell published novels that explored the human psyche, ethics, and religion and were entertaining reading to boot. Many of them became bestsellers.

Unfortunately The Listener is not representative of her work.  It is not even a novel in the conventional sense of the word.  It is a collection of short stories set in a single place and exploring a single theme.

Old John Godfrey built a lovely garden in his home city. The centerpiece of the sanctuary is a classical, two-room building with the words “The Man Who Listens” chiseled over the portal.   Visitors can talk as long as they wish and be sure of being heard. All leave at peace, but none ever reveals what happened within.

I won’t reveal what happened within either. Moderately alert readers will figure out the secret by the time the second “soul” enters the listening chamber.

Readers of Caldwell’s real novels will be familiar with the themes running through the tales. And anyone who is alive has experienced at least some of its crises first hand.

The Listener is best reserved for reading in bed, to soothe away the stresses of the day and encourage a peaceful night.

The Listener
by Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1960
332 pages
My Grade: C-
Copyright 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni