I had no difficulty selecting my two two choices of the 1918 bestselling novels: Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter and The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
Both novels have an anti-establishment and feminist edge. I suspect had they been written by newcomers to publishing instead of by highly successful authors noted for quite different sorts of bestsellers—Rinehart is best known for her mysteries and Stratton-Porter for light romances—they might not have attracted a publisher at all.
For a third recommendation, I’ll add The Pawns Count, a mystery-thriller by E. Phillips Oppenheim.
Daughter of the Land
I admit I’m not a fan of Stratton-Porter. She tends toward romances in which the leading character are too good to be true and the plots too contrived to be believable. But she was popular: Michael O’Halloran, The Keeper of the Bees, Laddie, The Harvester, and Her Father’s Daughter each were bestsellers.
In Daughter of the Land Stratton-Porter breaks from her usual pattern.
Kate Bates, the daughter, is not breathtakingly beautiful nor is in thrall to a male figure. She’s smart, shrewd, hardworking, and she knows exactly what she wants: Kate wants to be given the same opportunities as her brothers. Each of them got a house, stock, and 200 acres when they turned 21.
The best Kate could hope for was what her nine sisters got on their marriages: “a bolt of muslin and a fairly decent dress.”
Unwilling to settle for anything less than 200 acres to farm, Kate strikes out on her own to seek her fortune from her only marketable assets: her brain and her kindness.
Stratton-Porter has Kate make a lot of mistakes and learn from each one of them. Some of her mistakes are deliberate acts of will. Many, however, are thoughtless choices she makes under physical and emotional stress—an unheroic type of mistake rarely made by leading characters in novels.
Not everyone likes Kate, but people respect her. They know she won’t lie to them; she won’t take advantage of them. Even her brothers accept that Kate’s method of settling their parents’ estate is fair to everyone.
Daughter of the Land is not great literature, but it’s a great story from which teenage girls and their parents today could learn a great deal—and enjoy the experience.
The Amazing Interlude
Like Stratton-Porter, Rinehart was a prolific writer and for four decades a popular one. A mystery, The Man in Lower Ten (1909), was Rinehart’s first bestseller. It’s probably still her most popular novel.
Rinehart followed that the next year with two more bestselling mysteries, The Window at the White Cat and When a Man Marries, which mingles comedy with mystery. By the time she published K in 1915 her name had become firmly associated mysteries.
The Amazing Interlude was Rinehart’s first bestselling novel outside the mystery genre.
As she does in most of her books, Rinehart sets Interlude in settings that her readers would have recognized: small town America and the Western Front. The story is about a seemingly very ordinary young woman engaged to be married to a man she’s known all her life. Sara recognizes that Harvey is dull and boring, but he’s the sort of man girls in her town marry.
When a letter describing the horrible conditions behind the front lines in Belgium is passed around town, Sara’s sympathy and imagination are stirred. She goes off to France to run a soup kitchen for soldiers.
Sara knows no French, has no foreign contacts, has no credentials, and she has no financial support other than from women of her church. Sara rises above her limitations, doing all sorts of things she would never have dreamed anyone could do, let alone herself.
While Sara scrubs floors and scrounges for food while shells explode around her, Harvey fumes because he thinks she’s playing instead of doing the accepted thing: staying at home tending to his wants.
Harvey gets the church women who funded Sara’s soup kitchen to quit sending her money to feed French soldiers. Without funds, Sara has to come home.
Rinehart makes readers understand that Interlude‘s Americans are not deliberately cruel or mean. They aren’t lacking in charity—as long as charity can be delivered by check from profits made doing activities one enjoys. It’s only when the enjoyment lags and the profits dwindle, or if the situation demands boring, dirty work, that compassion fatigue sets in.
Getting outside the security of her home, family, and town leads Sara to believe that being American means befriending people outside one’s home, family, and town; people who speak foreign languages, wear different clothes, have different religions; people who are dirty, smelly, lousy, contagious.
Sara comes home a changed person. Her idea of the world and America’s role in the world has changed forever.
The Amazing Interlude may find few enthusiasts in America’s current build-a-wall culture, but it’s all the more important reading for that.
The Pawns Count
E. Phillips Oppenheim was another popular and prolific author: He turned out more than 100 novels. Oppenheim is best known for his thrillers, such as The Pawns Count.
Unlike my other two picks, Pawns’ is genre fiction whose continuing interest today beyond its entertainment value—it’s a good World War I-era thriller—is the insights it provides into how the war to end all wars laid the groundwork for World War II.
© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni
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