Recommended 1920, 1929 bestsellers

Since I just recently reviewed a few of the bestsellers of 1920 and 1929 I missed when their anniversary years came up in my schedule, I’ll update my picks for the best of the lists now.

None from the 1920 bestsellers

There are really no titles among the 1920 bestsellers that are more than just mildly interesting today. The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim kept my attention while I was reading it, but aside from recalling that it’s about two men that exchange identities I can’t recall anything about it now.

I can recall a few impressions about others novels on the 1920 list, but none that calls me to reread them. You can check out the entire list on the bestsellers list page.

The 1929 list is another kettle of fish entirely.

Three durable novels from the 1929 list

Cover of All Quiet on the Western Front shows young German soldierThe top selling novel of 1929,  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, is still a powerful novel that deserves to be reread. And it’s still timely as the western world commemorates the 1914-1918 war that was to end all wars.

The story about German soldiers who left the schoolroom for the trenches draws on Remarque’s own experiences.

Before the war, he had been training to be a teacher. He was conscripted and fought for Germany on the Western Front, where he received shrapnel wounds that confined him to a hospital until the war ended.

His novel shows how the war changed schoolboys into soldiers, hardening them, but not quite destroying their sensitivity.

Although none of the other nine titles comes close to being as good as All Quiet, several are better than average.

Inside cover of Scarlet Sister Mary
Inside cover of Scarlet Sister Mary

Scarlet Sister Mary by Julie Peterkin is the second of my top picks for the year. It explores the experience of a proud, Southern black woman who by her early 30s has five children by five different fathers and two grandchildren to raise on her own.

Although the novel is set on a plantation just after the end of the Civil War, the story is not about race relations but about interpersonal relationships. That alone makes it worthy of rereading today.

Mary’s promiscuity makes her unwelcome in the church that called her  “Sister Mary” when she was a teen and there is no other support system she can call on as she sees herself growing old.

cover of Dark Hester is dark blueMy third choice from the 1929 list is Dark Hester by Anne Douglas Sedgwick. It is the story of a mother who has built her entire life around her son.

Monica can barely stand her daughter-in-law. Hester ruined all the plans she had for a happy life as the center of her son’s universe.  Monica thinks, “No one cared if old hearts break.”

The principal characters tip-toe around their distrust and resentment until events conspire to bring mother and daughter-in-law to a confrontation.

Despite its creakily concocted plot, Dark Hester has an air of reality. There’s no happy ending, only a slightly-less-unhappy-than-expected one.

And that is realistic.

Explore Time and Eternity in The Galaxy

Graphic image of galaxy

The Galaxy opens with the birth May 10, 1862, of Laura Alicia Deverell, Harry and Rosa Deverell’s first child, and ends with her death on a December evening in 1928.

Harry Deverell is a Pharisaical tyrant to his wife and their children.

The two elder children reject their parents’ religious and moral values. For his rebellion, James is turned out of his home.

Laura sees marriage as the only way a girl can get away from home; she marries sexy Horace Leighton, an armaments manufacturer 19 years her senior.

Five years, two children, and one mistress later, Laura realizes her mistake.

Laura meets a German writer she wants to marry.

Horace refuses to give her a divorce, and Laura refuses to become Arthur’s mistress until her son and daughter are grown.

Laura and Arthur have just moved in together when World War I begins. Arthur sits out the war in a concentration camp.

They have a few years together after the war.

Between the first and last pages of The Galaxy, Susan Ertz records four generations and distills monumental social changes. The incredibly complex characters direct attention to the world around them, allowing readers to reflect on age-old questions of time and eternity.

The Galaxy (published in the UK under the name The Milky Way)
By Susan Ertz
D. Appleton, 1929
397 pages
1929 bestseller #8
My grade: A-
Graphic credit: Galaxy by gilderm created in Photoshop®

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Dark Hester Lifts Curtain on Adult Growing Pains

Steam locomotive coming down the track
In-law troubles can make a woman want to run away or throw herself under a train.

Dark Hester is less dark than Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s earlier bestseller, Tante, but it, too, confronts the problem of growing older.

After burying her husband in India, Monica Wilmott returned with their infant son to England. By hard work and good management, she provided Clive with a happy childhood and an Oxford education.

She even selected a woman for him to marry.

When Clive married Hester Blakeston,  after the Great War, Monica couldn’t like her.

Everyone knew it, including Clive, but he hoped for the best.

‘We are all nothing more than children,’ thought Monica…And we discover, as we grow old, that we never grow up’

As the novel opens, a man about Monica’s age buys an adjacent farm. He makes clear he’s interested in Monica. Despite an instinct, supported by gossip, that he’s the wrong sort, Monica is attracted to Captain Ingpen.

Her daughter-in-law, however, is repelled by him.

Monica realizes the two have met before. By some sleuthing, she learns Ingpen and Hester were lovers.

That knowledge could break up Clive and Hester’s marriage.

It could also shatter the close mother-son relationship.

Monica and Hester are sufficiently well delineated that their parts are plausible, but Clive appears too bloodless to inspire the devotion of either woman.

Despite all that goes wrong, Sedgwick holds out the possibility that, given the right incentives, even adults can grow up.

Dark Hester
By Anne Douglas Sedgwick
Houghton Mifflin, 1929
300 pages
1929 bestseller #3
My Grade: B+

Photo credit: Puffing Billy by timobalk

 © 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni



The cream of 1929 bestselling novels

The top novel of 1929 was,  and remains, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The novel bares the callousness that soldiers develop as protection against the brutality of war.

Both the novel and the film based on it are classics.

The other 1929 bestsellers I recommend are both about black women. Mamba’s Daughters by DuBose Heyward and Scarlet Sister Mary by Julie Peterkin examine strong women determined not only to survive, but to leave a legacy to their children.

I’ve not been able to find a copy of  Dark Hester by Anne Douglas Sedgwick  or  The Galaxy by Susan Ertz, which were number 3 and number 9 respectively on the 1929 bestseller list.

The remaining five novels on the 1929 bestseller list have interesting features, but none has strong entertainment value for today’s readers.

Linda Gorton Aragoni

Land Lures, Blood Ties Joseph and His Brethren

Needing a housekeeper for himself and his five grown sons, widowed farmer Benjamin Geaiter hires a young woman he sees scrubbing a doorstep: He’s impressed by her muscular arms.

Nancy’s cooking and housekeeping skills soon have the sons vying for her favor. When she becomes pregnant, Benjamin confesses he’s the father.

The farm is the center of the Geaiter’s lives. They live and die on it; they measure success by its yields.  Though the boys fear their father will leave the farm to the son of his old age, they love Joseph devotedly.

Thanks to his half-brothers,  when Benjamin dies, Joseph would hardly have missed his father had Nancy not married a n’er-do-well she thought she could reform through her love.

As Nancy’s fortunes fall, the  brothers take Joseph in. Together they get the farm back. When Joseph wants to marry and move to the city, his brothers  find a way to keep him on the farm.

H. W. Freeman describes character through behavior. His details capture individuals with photographic insight.  You’ll remember bits of  Joseph and His Brethren long after you’ve forgotten the plot.

Joseph and His Brethren
by H. W. Freeman
Henry Holt,  1929
372 pages
My grade: B-
©2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Scarlet Sister Mary: Memorable Black Single Mom

In Scarlet Sister Mary, Julia Peterkin writes a deceptively shallow story of the post-Civil War South that focuses on a black woman.

Mary is a pretty, spirited teenager raised by Maum Hannah, a pillar of the Quarters church that calls the teen  “Sister Mary.”

Pregnant, Mary weds July, who promptly deserts her. The church that would have rallied around a deserted wife has little sympathy for a girl who had premarital sex, a scarlet sin.

Mary  keeps the roof patched and food on the table by field work. July’s twin brother, June, long in love with Mary, is close at hand.

Before Mary is much more than 30, she has five children by different fathers and two of her grandchildren to raise as well.

When July comes back, she kicks him out.

Mary is a proud woman. She’s also getting old. What’s she to do with a passel of kids to raise?

Peterkin deftly shows how one woman copes as a single parent. Mary’s choices may not be good ones, but Peterkin makes them appear plausible. Similarly, she makes believable Mary’s easy acceptance of both organized Christianity and black magic.

You may not side with Mary, but when you’ve finished Scarlet Sister Mary, you’ll feel you understand her.

Scarlet Sister Mary
by Julia Peterkin
Bobbs-Merrill. 1928
345 pages
1929 # 9
My grade B+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mamba’s Daughters’ Story Trumps Technical Flaws

In Mamba’s Daughters, Du Bose Heyward takes readers inside America’s black community in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Mamba, a lower class black woman, attaches herself to an impoverished but genteel South Carolina white family, the Wentworths. Through them, she inveigles a job for herself and protection for her daughter and granddaughter.

Mamba terrorizes her brawny, dull-witted, liquor-loving daughter, Hester, into putting granddaughter Lissa’s interests above her own. Through the Wentworth’s son, Mamba gets Hester a job mining phosphate. Both women’s incomes go mainly to a fund for Lissa’s education.

Lissa is raised a “light black” snob but part of her longs for the fun-loving “full black” life. Mamba’s quick thinking and Hester’s muscles rescue Lissa from being raped. They send Lissa off to pursue a singing career in New York City.

As literature, Heyward’s work has plenty of technical flaws. Foremost among them is Heyward’s failure to maintain a consistent point of view. A 360-degree perspective on  black gentrification is more useful for the student of history than for the reader of literature.

Not only does the viewpoint shift, but Hester’s final assertion of her mother’s role shows more mental acumen than she had proven capable of to that point.

However, Heyward puts his tale of the rise of black professionals in a story that rises far above technical failures.

Mamba’s Daughters will knock your socks off.

Mamba’s Daughters
By Du Bose Heyward
Doubleday, Doran,  1929
311 pages
1929 bestseller # 7
My Grade: B+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Peder Victorious Suffers Fractures

In Peder Victorious, O. E. Rolvaag looks at the second generation of Norwegian pioneers who broke the Dakota prairies to the plow.

Peder Victorious Holm and his siblings think of themselves as Americans. Their mother, Beret Holm, still regards herself as Norwegian. She wishes her children to speak, read, think in Norwegian; have only Norwegian friends; marry within the Norwegian community.

The outcome is never in doubt: the Norwegians will assimilate.

The Norwegians cannot get along among themselves.  Even Beret displays American independence in speaking out in church in defiance of tradition over the matter of the Lutheran congregation split.

Moreover, Norwegians are deeply divided over the question of whether the Dakotas should be admitted to the Union as one state or two.

Against this background, the adolescent Peder is trying to define his identity.

Rolvaag’s plot is pulled in as many directions as Peder is. Rolvaag will focus on Peder, then on Peder’s mother, zoom out to talk about the community, zoom in on a church deacon. The shifting point of view has an unsettling, centrifugal effect.

Eventually Beret’s late husband appears to her in a dream and tells her how to handle Peder.

Too bad he didn’t appear to Rolvagg. The author needed serious help with this fractured plot.

Peder Victorious
By O. E. Rolvaag
Trans. Nora O. Solum &
Harper & Brothers, 1929
350 pages
1929 bestseller #6
My Grade: C-
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Roper’s Row Is Clear-Eyed Romance

Roper’s Row is an engaging romance about a brilliant doctor who finds love on his doorstep and tries to step around it.

Christopher Hazzard works his way through medical school, hoping to do medical research. Socially, Kit finds medical school as unfriendly as grammar school. He is mocked for his lame foot and hated for his brilliant mind.

A romantic young woman rooming in the same house with Kit takes an interest in him. Ruth Avery is hard working, clean living. Kit hardly notices her until she get sick.

Ruth attempts suicide when vicious rumors of an illicit relationship kill Kit’s chance of a hospital appointment. Kit responds by marrying her: She’s a really good housekeeper.

Secure in the marriage, Ruth flourishes. She scrimps and saves, looking for a way to provide Kit with enough income to allow him to do research. She mothers Kit until a crisis makes him realize she’s not his mother.

Warwick Deeping freshens the humdrum plot by letting Kit and Ruth mature without transforming them into ways that deny their roots. Kit and Ruth come to love and respect each other, but Kit remains for the most part an emotional isolate. With his background, anything else is impossible.

Roper’s  Row
By Warwick Deeping
Alfred A. Knopf, 1929
365 pages
1929 bestseller # 5
My Grade: B+

© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Plot Tops Characterization in Bishop Murder Case

Philo Vance is an unemotional,  suave, intellectual of independent means who solves mysteries for fun.

His sidekick relates the tale of how Vance assists the district attorney to solve a bizarre series of murders patterned after a nursery rhyme:  First Cock Robin is shot with an arrow, then John Sprigg is shot through the head, and then a hunchback dies in a fall from a wall.

After each murder, newspapers receive a note from the murderer pointing out the nursery rhyme similarities and signed, “The Bishop.”

One thread ties all the suspects: They are each mathematicians or mathematicians’ relatives.

S.S. Van Dine plots the mystery well. There are enough clues to let readers eliminate some suspects but not enough for them to solve the mystery.

As heroes go, Vance is not particularly interesting. He knows something about everything from Greek literature to astrophysics, and is all too willing to share his knowledge with people who couldn’t care less.

The other characters are no more striking. Professor Dillard may have been alarmed by his daughter’s romance with his protégé, but the lovers’ relationship is scarcely noticeable to readers.

If you don’t mind mysteries with plastic characters, you’ll find The Bishop Murder Case a good read.

The Bishop Murder Case: A Philo Vance Mystery
by S. S. Van Dine
My grade: Grade: C-
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni