Basil King’s 1912 bestseller The Street Called Straight is an arresting character study which will probably be totally baffling to most of today’s readers.
The story begins as Peter Devanant, the orphan son of medical missionaries whom he never knew, goes to dinner at the Boston home of Henry Guion and his daughter, Olivia.
As conversation swirls around Olivia’s coming wedding to an English army officer with a brilliant future, Peter sees Olivia was right to refuse his own proposal a decade before. She’s clearly out of his league.
Peter learns that Guion anticipates being arrested soon for embezzling trust funds. He seizes the opportunity to use his wealth for good by offering Guion an interest-free loan for an indefinite period.
The remainder of the novel examines what is the right and honorable thing for each character in the plot to do.
The Street Called Straight is not a great novel, but it’s well-plotted with every complication delicately foreshadowed. King makes Peter and Olivia grow in believable ways. And there’s really no minor character who doesn’t contribute to readers’ understanding.
The novel’s faults are primarily in ourselves. For contemporary readers seeped in self-esteem, honor is simply an adjective tacked to ceremonial positions: academic honor society, military honor guard. I’m afraid 21st century readers will find the idea that people would choose poverty and imprisonment just because they value their self-respect so bizarre that they’ll toss aside The Street Called Straight for a plausible novel about zombies.The Street Called Straight
by Basil King
Illustrated by Orson Lowell
NY Grosset & Dunlap, 1911, 1912
Project Gutenberg eBook #14394