Harriet and the Piper romance in Jane Eyre tradition.

Instead of a mad wife locked in the attic, wealthy businessman Richard Carter has a wife he cannot keep home at all. Isabelle Carter, 41, runs off with her son’s best friend, Anthony Pope, 26.

Richard enlists the help of governess-secretary Harriet Field to keep the scandal from hurting his children.

Harriet is eager to help the employer she adores, but a scandal in her own past makes her bow to pressure when the dastardly Blondin takes an interest in the emotionally vulnerable Nina Carter.

Richard becomes increasingly dependent on Harriet’s managerial skills to keep the household running and make it possible for him to put through a big business deal.

Haughty dowager Madame Carter, who  always feared Harriet would marry her grandson begins to worry that her son is giving Harriet too much attention. And grandson Ward, who only 5 years younger than Harriet, fancies himself in love with her.

When Isabelle conveniently dies during an operation in Europe, Richard marries Harriet in a strictly business arrangement.

There’s no need to tell you how the story turns out in this all-too-predictable novel.

The novel is not badly written, but the basic story line has been told too many times for it to have any real attraction for today’s readers.

Harriet and the Piper
by Kathleen Norris
Project Gutenberg ebook #5006
1920 bestseller #10
My grade: B-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Loose Ends Amplify Theme of Kindred of the Dust

Kindred of the Dust is an old-fashioned romance about love that’s based on trusting the loved one’s character.

Pile of oak logs
Oak logs

Hector McKaye is the richest lumberman Washington state and first citizen of Port Agnew.  His son, Donald, is like him in business acumen, integrity, and rejection of humbug.

Donald is smitten by Nan Brent, a poor local girl with beauty, brains, character, and a bastard son.

Hector admires Nan but won’t have his beloved son tarred by association with a fallen woman.

Son Donald is “man enough to scorn public opinion, but human enough to fear it.”

Because this is a romance, we know Donald will defy his father and that eventually Hector will come round.

But Peter B. Kyne gives an unexpected twist to the plot by presenting the story from a male perspective: The central love story is that of father and son. The details of the Nan-Donald marriage come out in the context of the father-son relationship.

Against these two love stories, Kyne pipes a counter melody of Hector’s marriage and the marriage of Hector’s plant manager.

Kindred of the Dust is not a great novel, but it’s far from ordinary.

Kyne explores issues of morality and hypocrisy in both public opinion and personal behavior.

He leaves several intriguing loose ends as unspoken testimony to the fact that if you believe in a person’s integrity, you accept that person’s word without demanding proof.

Kindred of the Dust
By Peter B. Kyne, Illustrated by Dean Cornwell
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1920
47 chapters
Project Gutenberg eBook #13532
1920 bestseller #2
My grade: B

Photo credit: Oak logs by stroinski

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Lamp in the Desert Gives Neither Light nor Heat

Hugely popular in her day, Ethel M. Dell churned out romances sprinkled with religious allusions to make her sexy tales palatable to god-fearing masses of women yearning for heaven both in this life and the next.

The Lamp in the Desert shows way she was so popular, and why she drew the contempt of better writers who sold fewer books.

Beautiful Stella Denvers travels unchaperoned to India where she joins her bother, Tommy, who is with the British colonial troops Within six weeks, she marries a handsome rotter, who disappears on their honeymoon from accident, suicide or, perhaps, murder.

Within a year, the widow marries the handsome, reclusive Captain Everard Monck, whom she loves but fears because she knows he’s keeping things from her.

Dell never explains why Stella came to India in the first place, or why she picked Dacre to marry rather than one of the decent men.

Monck’s passion for Stella, with whom he’d never talked even about the weather, is similarly inexplicable.

Dell throws snakes and shadowy figures from the bazaars into the story whenever the plot lags. Otherwise inexplicable behavior is chalked up to malarial fever or use of opium.

Unless you have malaria or use opium, you’ll want to skip this 1920’s novel. There are better plots and more believable characters on daytime soap operas.

The Lamp in the Desert
By Ethel M. Dell
1920 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg ebook #13763
My grade C-

©2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Great Impersonation Is Great Mystery

Photo of Kaiser Wilhelm
Kaiser Wilhelm photo from The Library of Congress

The Great Impersonation is a mystery set in duplicity and compounded by international espionage.

In German West Africa around 1910, Everard Dominey, a gone-to-seed Englishman whose only asset is fluent German, runs into a school mate, now a German commander. The two had always looked remarkably alike.

Von Ragastein has been exiled by the Kaiser for killing his lover’s husband. Dominey is self-exiled after a fight that left his wife unbalanced, threatening to kill him, and the defeated opponent missing, believed murdered.

Von Ragastein decides to kill Dominey and assume his identify.

Shortly thereafter, a man calling himself Everard Dominey arrives in England. He’s rich, abstemious, and highly principled—a miraculously changed man.

This new Dominey takes up life as an English lord. Only a German-born colleague knows Dominey is being planted to provide political intelligence when Germany attacks England.

The plot quickly gets complicated as Dominey is recognized by his former lover while Lady Dominey refuses to recognize him as her husband.

The story gets increasingly murky as Dominey gets involved in the  discussions about whether the German pre-1914 military build-up means England should prepare for war.

Despite the corny look-alike plot hook, E. Phillips Oppenheim pulls off a clever and sophisticated mystery that will keep readers intrigued to the last page.

The Great Impersonation
by E. Phillips Oppenheim
1920 bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg ebook #1484
My grade: B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Project Gutenberg

Mary Marie Joins Smiles and Sense

Mary Marie is a sweet and funny novel about divorce written from the perspective of Illustration from Mary Mariea precocious 1920’s teen.

Mary Marie, 13, is excited that her parents are divorcing on grounds of incompatability. She is to live six months a year in Boston with her mother, whom she adores, and who calls her Marie. The other six she’s to live with her father, an astronomer and college president to whom the daughter he calls Mary is, in her words, “nothing but a daughter by order of the court.”

Mary Marie watches to see which of the men who buzz around her mother is most likely to become Mary Marie’s second father. She realizes that her mother is not seriously interested in any of them.

Her first summer in Andersonville, Mary Marie’s father takes an intermittent interest in her, asking enough about her life in Boston and siding with her wish for fun to make the girl wish for a closer relationship with him.

Mrs. Anderson wrongly blames herself entirely for the divorce. “It’s the child that always pays for the mother’s mistakes and short-sightedness, just as it is the soldier that pays for his commanding officer’s blunders,” she says.

Eleanor H. Porter has made Mary Marie both observant and believably naive, much as Elizabeth Berg did more recently with Katie in Joy School. Adult readers will sense how close Mary Marie comes to getting into real trouble, even though teenagers may miss that entirely.

Whether you’re 14 or 64, this slender novel is worth reading.

Mary Marie
by Eleanor H[odgman] Porter
1920 bestseller #6
Project Gutenberg ebook #11143
My grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Project Gutenberg

River’s End Holds Unexpected Laughs

With its mix of Western adventure, mistaken identity, mystery, and romance, James Oliver Curwood’s 1920 bestseller, The River’s End, reads like Hollywood film plot.

As he is dying, lawman Derwent Conniston urges the outlaw John Keith to assume his identify and thus evade recapture for the killing of Judge Kirkstone. The two men look as alike as twins. Keith figures it’s worth a try.

Keith passes muster with the Royal Northwest Mounted Police commander, who is too upset by the late judge’s daughter’s dalliance with a shadowy Chinese businessman to ask many questions. Shan Tung, however, recognizes Keith for who he is.

Within hours, Conniston’s sister arrives from England looking for the brother she’s not seen for seven years. It’s love at first kiss for Keith, who has to figure out how to get the girl without getting hanged for the judge’s murder.

Keith first has to learn what Shan Tung knows that’s kept him from identifying Keith to the authorities and why Mariam Kirkstone is in thrall to Shan Tung.

If that all sounds silly, it’s nothing compared to the plot wrap up which features, among other events, Shan Tung showing off his Yale diploma.

You’ll enjoy The River’s End for all the wrong reasons. It’s an awful novel, so absurd that reading it is tremendous fun.

The River’s End
by James Oliver Curwood
1920 bestseller #4
Project Gutenberg ebook #4747
My grade: C

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Project Gutenberg

The Portygee Proves Any Time’s a Good Time to Grow Up

In outline, The Portygee sounds like a standard romance, but Joseph C. Lincoln turns it into a sweet, funny story about a boy and his grandfather growing up together.

When his opera-star father dies, Alberto Miguel Carlos Speranza, 17,  is sent to live with his grandparents in Cape Cod.  Al knows nothing of his parents’ history and was not even aware his  grandparents were living.

Al learns Lote Snow had disowned his daughter for eloping with a  “Portygee” (Lote’s term for foreigner). Lote’s prejudice against foreigners extends to his grandson.

Al’s boarding school manners  make him a hit with the rich summer people, but don’t endear him to the other employees of his grandfather’s lumber company.

Al’s artistic temperament is at odds with his grandfather’s practicality, but his grandmother intercedes for him. Pretty, level-headed Helen Kendall’s friendship helps, too. Eventually, Lote realizes if he’s not careful he will lose his grandson as he lost his daughter .

In the pen of a less astute writer, these characters would have been stereotypes. Lincoln breathes life and quirkiness into his cast that elevate the novel from a string of cliches to reminder that people can grow up at any age.

Note: Although I found a hard copy of the book (hence the blurry photo), it is easier to find online.

The Portygee
by Joseph C. Lincoln
D. Appleton, 1920
361 pages
Project Gutenberg ebook #3263
1920 bestseller #7
My grade B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Project Gutenberg

Re-Creation of Brian Kent: Short and Overly Sweet

The Re-Creation of Brian Kent is a syrupy, sentimental novel about how Auntie Sue, a retired schoolteacher, helps a writer-turned-bank-robber become a writer again.


When small boat occupied by a drunken man washes up on the river bank by Auntie Sue’s Ozarks home, the spunky spinster sees  in him the son she’d always wanted. Even when she learns Brian Kent is  wanted for a bank robbery that included her own money, she is determined to rescue him.

Dried out, literally and metaphorically, Brian stays on with Auntie Sue, clearing trees for cropland and writing  a book.

When the book is done, Auntie Sue summons a girl she knows who can prepare a typewritten manuscript from  Brian’s handwritten draft. They fall in love, and after appropriate trials, the novel ends at the altar.

Because Auntie Sue is an artificial character around whom any plot will be implausible, Harold Bell Wright’s novel feels like a sermon. The sermon is, in Auntie Sue’s words, “Before you can DO anything that is worth doing, you must be something.”

Fortunately, the novel is short so you won’t  get sugar overdose.

The Re-Creation of Brian Kent
By Harold Bell Wright
1920 Bestseller #3
Project Gutenberg ebook #3625

Photo “Early Morning on the Buffalo” by OakleyOriginals shared under Creative Commons License.

©2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Project Gutenberg

Man of the Forest Has Feminine Appeal

If Zane Grey is synonymous in your mind with plot-heavy cowboy stories, The Man of the Forest might change your thinking.

Taking shelter from a rain storm in the Arizona mountains, Milt Dale overhears outlaws plotting to kidnap Helen Reyner so their boss, Beasley, can get the Auchincloss ranch to which she is heir. Milt decides to save her. He doesn’t know she’s also being stalked by an Eastern scumbag named Riggs.

With the aid of a quartet of Mormons, Milt rescues Helen and her younger sister, Bo, and keep them safe in his forest hideaway until Auchincloss comes for them. Bo falls for a handsome Texas cowboy, and Helen falls for Milt.

The requisite number of narrow escapes, show-downs and shoot-’em-ups occur before the story reaches its happy ending.

Grey uses the story to explore the virtue  and destructiveness of a solitary life. Milt instructs Helen in the code of the lawless American frontier. He shows her the impulse for self-preservation in herself.

Helen teaches Milt that “work that does not help others is not a real man’s work.”  By the end of the novel,  Milt accepts Helen’s  civilized values and saves her happiness just as he saved her life.

The Man of the Forest
by Zane Grey
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919
383 pages
1920 #1 bestseller
Project Gutenberg Ebook No. 3457

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Details Make The Man for the Ages Worth Reading

Abraham Lincoln
Mr. Lincoln

Irving Bacheller has set his novel A Man for the Ages in the guise of an historical account drawn from the narrator’s family diaries and oral history. The result of this literary stratagem is neither a wholly satisfactory history or a wholly satisfactory novel.

Samson Traylor and his family left Vermont in 1831 to settle in Illinois.  Samson is a gentle giant, wise and loyal. He makes friends easily and makes enemies only when principles are at stake.

One of the first people the Traylors meet in Illinois is young Abe Lincoln, with whom they are to be lifelong friends.

The novel twists around the misfortunes of Harry, a lad the Traylors take in, and Bim, the local lass whom he loves; both their stories repeatedly cross that of Lincoln.

A Man for the Ages has too much plot resting on too little character support to be an entertaining novel. The historical elements, however, provide interesting reading.

For example, Lincoln’s personal business failures are well-known. Less well-known is how Lincoln’s lack of business acumen contributed to a land speculation bubble that nearly bankrupted the state and did bankrupt many of its citizens.

A Man for the Ages may not excite you, but it won’t waste your time.

A Man for the Ages: A Story of the Builders of Democracy
By Irving Bacheller
Illus.by John Wolcott Adams
Bobbs-Merril, 1919
416 pages
1920 bestseller # 5
Project Gutenberg ebook #17237
My Grade: B-

Photo credit: Mr. Lincoln by Margantz

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni