Picking the 1943 bestsellers to which I wouldn’t give shelf space is easier than choosing three keepers. Five of the 10 have withstood the ravages of time.
My favorite is Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The novel is the quintessential American Dream tale. Armed only with grit, love, and a belief in the value of education, a poor Brooklyn in a family rises above poverty. What teacher can fail to tear up at the picture of Francie and Neely Nolan reading each night from the Protestant Bible and collected works of Shakespeare?
For second place, I’ll choose William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy. another novel about growing up in tough times. A boy too young to fight gets a job delivering telegrams during World War I. When those telegrams are sent by the War Department, the lad learns about the horrors of war far from the front lines.
For third place, I’ll pick a novel about the other end of life. Mrs. Parkington by Louis Bromfield is a study of a remarkable old lady living each day well. It beats John P. Marquand’s So Little Time by a nose. Although Marquand is the better writer, and his story the more realistic, I choose Bromfield for its emotional tone.
Bromfield’s Mrs. Parkington inspires readers; Marquand’s Jeff Wilson saddens them.
With its large type, wide margins, and black-and-white illustrations, The Human Comedy looks deceptively like a children’s book. It is really a novel about unimaginable horror.
Homer Macauley, 14, is big for his age and reliable, which is how he got his job as a telegraph messenger. With his older brother in the army, Homer is the wage-earner for a family of five.
Homer pedals his way into situations no 14-year-old is ready for. He delivers messages from the War Department telling mothers and wives their sons and husbands are never coming home again.
William Saroyan follows Homer around Ithaca, California, showing the hell war raises far from the battlefield on the telegraph operator who relays the messages, the younger sisters of missing men, the little brothers whose heroes will never play catch with them again.
The incidents of the novel are a wacky, believable mix of farce and tragedy. William Saroyan has a bad tendency to let his characters break out in lectures, but most of the the time his prose is pared down, painfully sweet, and poignantly sharp.
The Human Comedy is a tale that will linger at the edges of your memory for a long time to come.
The Human Comedy
By William Saroyan
Illustrated by Don Freeman
Harcourt, Brace, 1943
1943 bestseller #5
My grade: A-