The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez is the best novel of the 1919 bestsellers. The main character’s explanation of how he served in the war “merely as a victim,” has to rank as one of literature’s most horrifying insights into the nature of war.
However, Blasco’s long paragraphs and high page count won’t draw most modern readers beyond a few pages, so I’ll reluctantly remove it from my list.
Three other novels can be eliminated from my short list immediately: The Arrow of Gold by Joseph Conrad, The Desert of Wheat by Zane Grey, and Dawn by Gene Stratton Porter. While each of these has interesting elements, none has a strong story that grows from the personalities of the characters.
I will also scratch The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land by Ralph Connor. While having a military chaplain as the lead character makes for a memorable war novel, having the chaplain remain glowingly healthy in the midst of trench warfare after the Army declared him unfit for military service is a major flub.
In Secret by Robert W. Chambers belongs on my list of recommendations. In Secret is a thriller that truly lives up to that designation.
Chambers cleverly leaves out whole blocks of the story which in a Hollywood version would become the story. Instead Chambers focuses on the characters’ emotional and mental responses to terrifying circumstances.
Even knowing the ending doesn’t drain the tension from this novel.
In Secret is a keeper.
Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart and The Tin Soldier by Temple Bailey each look at how the war abroad affected families back home. I’ll choose Rinehart’s novel over Bailey’s: Rinehart’s major characters are far more interesting individuals than Bailey’s.
The remaining novel rises by default to my top picks.
Christopher and Columbus by Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim wraps a caustic exploration of anti-German hysteria in America in a witty and rather charming romance. The novel isn’t one of the Countess’s best, but she never fails to entertain.
So there you have my recommendations for the best 1919 novels for today’s reader:
In Secret by Robert W. Chambers
Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Christopher and Columbus by Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim
Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim makes Christopher and Columbus a joyous romp as twin orphans and their staunch friend who “would have been very handsome indeed if he hadn’t had a face” put their wits together to figure out how to survive in America’s 1916 anti-German hysteria.
Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas Twinkler, “very German outside and very English inside,” bravely call themselves Christopher and Columbus because they’re going to discover America.
The twin’s shipboard friend Edward Twist is “a born mother. The more trouble he was given the more attached he became.”
The 17-year-olds, happily rolling their r’s , give Mr. Twist a great deal of trouble indeed.
The first “family friend” to whom the girls are sent has just left her home and her husband.
Edward and his sister would give the girls a home, but their dragon of a mother spits fire at having the twins under her roof.
The twins take matters into their own hands, entrain for California, and find another closed door.
Edward goes to their rescue.
What a country, Mr. Twist had thought, fresh from his work in France, fresh from where people were profoundly occupied with the great business of surviving at all. Here he came back from a place where civilization toppled, where deadly misery, deadly bravery, heroism that couldn’t be uttered, staggered month after month among ruins, and found America untouched, comfortable, fat, still with time to worry over the suspected amorousness of the rich, still putting people into uniforms in order to buttonhole a man on landing and cross-question him as to his private purities.
Von Arnim crafts a tangled plot, peoples it with believable characters, and lards the pages with witty descriptions such as, “She was a lady whose figure seemed to be all meals.”
The Tin Soldier is one of the better bestsellers about why The Great War was fought.
The novel’s centerpiece is a love-at-first sight story. Jean McKenzie and Derry Drake meet while Derry is tracking down his father who’s off on a binge.
Jean has one qualm: Derry hasn’t enlisted. Is he a slacker?
Jean’s widowed father, a doctor, is altogether too fond of his office nurse, Hilda, whom Jean distrusts. Jean would prefer her mother’s cousin Emily Bridges as their companion, even as her step-mother.
Emily is too clear-headed to think Dr. McKenzie would ever regard her as anything but household help. Anyway, she has a toy shop to run, no easy task when the best toys are German-made and Americans won’t buy them.
When Derry’s father has a stroke, Dr. McKenzie sends Hilda to nurse him.
Hilda knows Dr. McKenzie won’t marry her; she thinks rich General Derry may.
Temple Bailey makes each character entirely plausible, gives them challenges, and lets them grow.
Bailey wraps the plot in the American flag. In the pen of a less able writer, the effect would be laughable. But when Bailey writes that women “won’t know what suffering means until your men begin to come home,” it sounds real and true.
The Tin Soldier
by Temple Bailey
Illustrations by F. Vaux Wilson
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1918
1919 bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg ebook#18056
My grade: B+
After hitting the sales charts with Pollyanna in 1913 and Pollyanna Grows Up in 1915, Eleanor H. Porter repeated her feat in 1919 with Dawn, a novel that’s better than either of them.
As the story opens, young Dan Burton learns the man who mends toys for neighborhood kids has gone blind. Dan immediately decides his blurred vision means he’s going blind, too.
It turns out Dan is right.
He undergoes several operations, none successful.
Boys Dan’s age are being sent to the trenches of France. Dan’s father seeks to avoid seeing anything that’s unpleasant, including the son who can’t go to war.
Susan, the Burton’s maid-of-all-work forces Dan to accept his blindness as a challenge. When the wounded start being sent home, Dan finds he can be useful to others who have lost their sight, which was often associated with facial disfigurement common in WWI trench warfare.
There’s none of the upbeat sentimentality of the Pollyanna books in Dawn.Dawn‘s characters accept reality or hide from it, but they don’t attempt to sugar coat it.
Dawn is moderately entertaining as a novel, but more intriguing as artifact of an author working to master her craft. Alert readers will see echoes of other novelists’ works — they’re the off-key notes in Porter’s melodies.
By Eleanor H. Porter
Illustrations by Lucius Wolcott Hitchcock (not available in digital text)
1919 bestseller #7
Project Gutenberg e-book #5874
My grade: B-
The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land begins like a romance for religious spinsters, but within 20 pages, the handsome missionary Barry Dunbar turns out to be asthmatic, pedantic, and tactless.
When war breaks out, Barry, a Canadian, tries to enlist. He is rejected on medical grounds, but his father is accepted.
Barry reluctantly accepts a chaplaincy and attempts to enforce godliness among the troops.
On the eve of his arrival in France, an elderly Anglican chaplain sets him straight: “My dear fellow, remember they are far from home. These boys need their mothers… And, my boy, they need God. And they need you.”
Those words change Barry’s attitude.
Later as Barry watches while his father, both arms blown off, die of his injuries, he learns personally what it means to be alone far from home.
Ralph Connor’s descriptions of trench warfare are horrific. Oddly, the descriptions of the sleep deprivation, loneliness, and submerging of their own needs that Barry and other non-combatants endure are even more painful.
Despite some implausible elements — the medically unfit Barry remains healthy, for example—Connor spins an unforgettable yarn about men and women who picked up the pieces of those who went over the top.
Though Connor’s story is fiction, the war’s horrors are not. In The Official History of The Canadian Forces in The Great War 1914-1919, Vol. 1, A. Fortescue Duguid writes:
Carrying out their spiritual duties the Chaplains were to be found both in the field and at the dressing stations giving comfort to the dying. Major (Canon) F. G. Scott on the evening of the 22nd encouraged an advancing battalion with the words “A great day for Canada, boys—great day for Canada,” and he was in their midst when they charged the wood.
Mary Roberts Rinehart opens Dangerous Days with a boring dinner party hosted by an American steel manufacturer and his wife.
The year is 1916.
Europe is on the verge of destruction.
Natalie and Clayton Spencer are on the edge of domestic destruction.
Clay has brought son, Graham, into his steel business at the bottom, much to Natalie’s dismay. She wants her boy to have the best even if it destroys him.
Clay wants a woman’s love but not at the price of his moral destruction.
Clay is sure America will be in the war soon.
Graham and his father realize — though they don’t say it to each other — that Graham may escape moral destruction only by volunteering to die.
Rinehart follows the bored people around the opening chapter dinner table through to Armistice Day, revealing them to be anything but boring. She masterfully combines deft characterizations, historical episodes such as the communists’ helping American draft-dodgers escape into Mexico, and intricate plots within her main plot.
There’s a certain flag-waving bravado about the novel — all the characters but Natalie do their bit in the war — but the complexity of the characters and the realness of their confusions make this page-turner a novel you won’t soon forget.
The year the Great War ended, some great novels—and some not-so-great ones—were published.
I reviewed some of the 1919 bestsellers some years ago. I’ve since found the others either free in digital format or in print from my favorite online secondhand bookseller.
Here’s the entire 1919 list. If I previously reviewed the novel, I’ve linked to the review. If the book is available as a free download, I’ve linked to it. Dates of scheduled reviews are in square brackets.