Change hits ordinary folks hard in best 1935 bestsellers by women

Ellen Glasgow’s Vein of Iron and Edna Ferber’s Come and Get It would have tied for first place on my list of the best of the 1935 bestsellers, with Rachel Field’s Time Out of Mind as runner up, if they had not been up against Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

(My review of The Forty Days is here. My discussion of its historical significance is here.)

All three women’s novels are first-rate, with believably complex characters and situations and real insights into the long-term cultural significance of those situations.

Glasgow shows us how ordinary working people were affected by the depression. Their lives were very hard, but Glasgow shows how they coped. She makes readers understand that merely coping can be an act of bravery.

Vein of Iron isn’t a cheerful novel, but it’s an optimistic one: If you can cope with today’s problems, you can cope with tomorrow’s.

Ferber’s characters are real people on a different scale. The boy who cried, “Come and get it” to lumbermen grows into a giant of a man who makes millions by outworking and outsmarting other late nineteenth century giants.

Ferber reveals not only how big American industrialists were, but how big an impact they had on the environment for decades to come because they focused on short-term profits.

Field’s story also looks at people in a time of economic transition.

In Time Out of Mind, the main characters are in the household of a New England shipbuilding family in the period when steam was replacing wind power for commercial vessels. Dysfunctional to begin with, the family unit falls apart as their business falls apart.

Field lacks Ferber’s and Glasgow’s skill with characterization and the story’s outcome is predictable, but her insight into into the far-reaching negative impacts that changes in technology and the economy can have on people’s lives is still relevant today.

You can’t go wrong with any of these three novels.

Musa Dagh began history that repeats itself

I rarely have a problem narrowing my choices for best novels of a year to three. The 1935 bestseller list, however, contains four very fine novels, each of which deserves to be one of my top picks.

Today I’ll devote to my topmost top pick from 1935, Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the other three, all of which are by woman authors.

painting of Armenian genocide is background for title 'The Forty Days of Musa Dagh'

It’s hard today to imagine a time when there was no word to mean the premeditated, systematic liquidations of one racial, religious, ethnic, or national group by another, but until late in World War II there was no such word.

Surprisingly, when Raphael Lemkin coined the word genocide sometime in 1943-44, he wasn’t talking about the Nazi extermination of Jews but about the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman government during World War I.

One hundred years ago, there were about 2 million Armenians living in Turkey. By the early 1920s, three-quarters of those Armenians were dead. Many of those who survived had been forcibly removed from the country.

Most of the world uses Lemkin’s term to describe those events, but even today in Turkey it is illegal to call it genocide.

Turkey  fought in World War I on the side of Germany and Austrio-Hungary. The Turks declared Jihad against Christians, which included Armenians.

To keep Armenians in the Caucasus from supporting its Russian enemies, Turkey began “resettling” Armenians in great waves of refugees, like the refugees we see  today fleeing the Islamic State.

News of the atrocities reached the west in 1915. Armin T. Wegner, a German second-lieutenant, took clandestine photos of Armenians in deportation camps in the Syrian desert, smuggled them to the US through Germany.

Of all the Armenian villages whose residents the Turks ordered to move, only four organized to oppose the order. One of those was Musa Dagh, the Mountain of Moses, located near the Mediterranean Sea, west of the ancient city of Turkish Antioch.

Alone of the defiant Armenia villages, Musa Dagh was saved from slaughter by the Western Allies.

Franz Werfel turned the story of Musa Dagh’s fight into a novel. Published in 1933, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh became a bestseller, which drew so much attention to Werfel, who was Jewish, that he was forced to flee Vienna for France.

(At one point, Werfel and his wife took refuge in Lourdes, which inspired him to write The Song of Bernadette, which also became a bestseller.)

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was banned in Germany and countries it occupied, but copies still circulated throughout World War II. In ghettos, the novel was read as a call to fight the Nazis.

The characters’ individuality, memorable though they are, seems to recede as the novel moves to its conclusion. Werfel leaves readers with an inspiring sense of people united in a cause.

Despite its enormous popularity, Musa Dagh was never turned into a movie. MGM wanted to do a film, but the Turkish government protested. The film was never made.

A updated version of Werfel’s novel was released this year, the centennial of start of the Armenian genocide. The new version of the novel, like the events it commemorates, is as contemporary as tweets from Tikrit.

Europa: The Days of Ignorance isn’t a smart pick

Robert Briffault packed Europa with wise and witty sentences. Unfortunately, he neglected to include a plot in the novel.

What story there is concerns Julian Bern, a deep thinker.

Europa: The Days of Ignorance  by Robert Briffault

Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935. 510 pages. 1935 bestseller #10. My grade: C-.

"Europa" cover shows woman riding bullJulian spends a lot of his time thinking deep thoughts about God, beauty, truth, social justice and sex.

Julian has a wide range of acquaintances who do not think as deeply as he, but who have far more extensive knowledge of sex in all its perversions.

In his late teens, Julian acquires a girl friend. Zena’s parents rush her into an arranged marriage with a Russian homosexual lest she be tainted by Julian’s middle class values.

A decade later, Julian and Zena link up again just as Europe plunges into World War I.

Most of the novel consists of party gossip about who is sleeping with whom, but the tittle-tattle lets Briffault get in some good lines. For example, Julian’s aunt complains to her brother,

Julian reads far too much, and I’m afraid it puts ideas into his head.

The theme of the novel appears to be that education prevents people from perceiving ideas.

Perhaps it does.

At any rate, my education prevents me from perceiving any value in this novel.

© 2015 by Linda Gorton Aragoni


Come and Get It marries human story to cultural history

Barney Glasgow begins his career as a lumberman at age 13. Part Paul Bunyan, part Horatio Alger, Barney works his backbreaking way up from a chore boy yelling, “Come and Get It,” to logger, then to timber buyer, then to land buyer.

Sharp practices and marriage to the boss’s daughter turn Barney into a millionaire paper mill operator.
Forest in fog

Come and Get It  by Edna Ferber

Doubleday, Doran, 1935. 518 pages. 1935 bestseller #9. My Grade: A-.

In 1907, Barney is 53 and unhappily married when he meets the gorgeous granddaughter of one of his former lumber camp cronies.

Lotta prefers Barney’s son, Bernie.

Bernie and Lotta marry after his parents die in an accident.

Edna Ferber’s nineteenth century characters are vivid individuals, drawn with candor and an eye for detail. No one in the novel is a stereotype or caricature.

As lumber wagons give way to automobiles, Ferber revs the story. Her lingering 1800s portraits become snapshots, insubstantial, blurred.

Bernie lives to work.

Lotta lives to play—until the 1929 crash leaves her no money to play with.

Barney and his ilk in the 19th century had considered replanting timber too expensive.

Now the giant pines are gone. There’s nothing to replace them.

The giant men are gone, too.

Will the generation coming of age on the brink of World War II become giants like their grandparents?

Read Come and Get It and draw your own conclusions.

 © 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Hilton’s Lost Horizon dead loss to literature

Lost Horizon‘s only contribution to literature was make Shangri-La synonymous with paradise on earth, thereby providing a name for raunchy bars.

James Hilton’s novel is just plain stupid.

Lost Horizon by James Hilton

William Morrow, 1934. 277 pages. 1935 bestseller # 8. My grade C-.

Cover of Lost Horizon shows Shangri La clinging to mountainsidesHilton presents Lost Horizon as a second-hand tale, a device that’s supposed to relieve the teller of responsibility for veracity. However, the story is so ridiculous, the characters so implausible, that it could be plausible only to British school chums who topped off an old school dinner with plenty of brandy.

The novel is about four people whose plane goes down in the Himalayas: Conway, a British consul; Mallison, his youthful vice-consul; Roberta Brinkow, a missionary; and Henry Barnard, an American fugitive.

Monks take them into Shangri-La, a Tibetan valley where people life very long lives.

The monks pick Conway to become High Llama when the current leader snuffs it. All but Mallison would be content to stay put.

Mallison scorns Conway’s story that Lo-Tsen, the girl he’s fallen for in Shangri-La,  is really an old woman.

Love and duty demand he get back to England.

Conway leads the pair get out.

Does Lo-Tsen really age overnight?

Does Mallison see his folly?

Can Conway ever get back to Shangri-La?

Does anyone outside a raunchy bar know — or care?

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Heaven’s My Destination ridicules stupid faith

Some novels cross genres.

Thornton Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination tangles them.

Heaven’s My Destination by Thornton Wilder

Harper & Row, 1934. 304 pages. 1935 bestseller #7. My grade: B+.

Cover of "Heaven's My Destination" calls it as a famous novel by Thornton WilderThe book is a funny, coming-of-age, religious novel.

Handsome, young George Marvin Brush, a traveling textbook salesman, is the novel’s ridiculous central character.

George didn’t put himself “through college for four years and go through a difficult religious conversion in order to have ideas like other people’s.”

One of George’s ideas is to found “an American home,” which at 23 he has not yet been able to do.

He’s looking for the farmer’s daughter he comforted in a barn one night at age 22, which made him “her husband until she or I dies.”

Since that night, George hasn’t been able to find the farm or the girl.

Her name might have been Roberta.

Or Bertha.

Wilder’s story romps along Tristram Shandy-style as George stumbles along making enemies by trying to live up to his principles.

The story is saved from farce by George’s shout, “Can’t you see that you don’t know anything about religion until you start to live it?”

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Cheers and tears for The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

Despite its whopping length and gory topic — the Armenian genocide of 1915 —The Forty Days of Musa Dagh kept me riveted.

And it left me wanting to read the novel again to see what I missed.

Map of locale where Amenian genocide took place.
Map of locale of “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” inside the cover of early hardback editions.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel

Trans. Geoffrey Dunlop. Modern Library, Random House, 1934. 817 pages. My grade: A.

Gabriel Bagradian comes back to Armenia with his French wife and son. While he waits to be recalled to active duty in the Turkish army, Gabriel revisits his childhood haunts.

Sensing anti-Armenian feeling, Gabriel prepares to move the local population to Musa Dagh and fight from the mountain’s strategic position. He wins over the church leaders who rally the people.

Some 5,000 men, women, and children move to Musa Dagh and dig in, expecting to fight to the death.

The feisty Armenians don’t do so well at preparing to live.

A rainstorm ruins their bread and flour, leaving them nothing to eat but meat.

Jealousies and grievances fester.

Unsupervised teenage boys run wild.

Gabriel saves most of his people at an enormous cost to himself.

Franz Werfel writes formidable page-long paragraphs. Yet despite that, his prose flows, even in translation.

Werfel makes you care about the Armenians.

As a bonus, you’ll get insights into Christian-Islamic issues behind headlines on the evening news.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Time Out of Mind is an immersion in memory

Time Out of Mind is a fictional memoir penned by Kate Fernald,  a woman about 50.

Kate writes about what happened because her father forgot to take his jacket some 40 years before.

Time Out of Mind   by Rachel Field

MacMilllian, 1935. 462 pages. 1935 bestseller #4. My grade: A-.

After Kate’s father’s death, her mother became housekeeper for the Fortunes, a Maine shipbuilding family that refused to adapt to the age of steam.

Living on the premises, Kate was thrown together with the Fortune children, Rissa and Nat.Black type on red ground: Cover of "Time Out of Mind" by Rachel Field

Kate adored Nat, even risking Major Fortune’s displeasure to help Rissa arrange for Nat to play the piano, which their father had strictly forbidden in his attempt to make a man of his son.

When he discovered the children’s deliberate disobedience, the Major sent 11-year-old Nat to sea on the last vessel the Fortune Shipyard built.

Nat had to be carried off when the ship returned a year later.

From then on, enabling Nat to write and conduct music became the focus of Rissa’s life.

Rissa takes Nat abroad, returning only when she needs money. Nat returns because Maine is in his blood.

Kate asserts that chance rules life, but Rachel Field’s story shows clearly the role choice plays in events.

Field leaves nothing to chance in her management of the plot or her depiction of character.

Time Out of Mind is not just a book. It’s an immersion in memory.

 © Linda Gorton Aragoni

Of Time and the River is a tough slog

Thomas Wolfe is one of the great exemplars of the “writing is rewriting” school of literature.

Wolfe’s editor appears to have gotten tired of waiting for him to finish reworking the material in Of Time and the River and published several rewrites before Wolfe figured out what he wanted to say.

 Of Time and the River   by Thomas Wolfe

A Legend of Man’s Hunger in his Youth. Charles Scribner, 1935. 886 pages. 1935 bestseller #3. My grade: C-.

Dust jacket for "Of Time and the River" by Thomas Wolfe: white type on wave-like pattern.A southern boy, Eugene Pentland, is studying play writing at Harvard. After his father’s death, Eugene returns home.

On that slender thread, Wolfe hangs odd bits of writing, but there’s no actual plot.

Eugene attracts, or is attracted to, eccentrics, weirdos, and nutcases. Wolfe tells their stories without weaving them into Eugene’s.

While the stories are often compelling — the description of Eugene’s father’s death is a prime example — the stories cannot stand alone and serve no clear purpose in the overall book.

Some of Wolfe’s writing is sure and clean, but large portions are sluggish and bloated: I counted 149 words in one sentence.

Certain descriptions, like that of the Boston train station, appear more than once, giving the impression that Wolfe hadn’t decided where to put it.

The novel is an “interesting” book rather than a good one. In the last analysis, Of Time and the River accomplishes nothing except to prove that great writers don’t necessarily write great books.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni