Second year for The Yearling

In seventh place on the 1939 bestseller list was  The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which had occupied first place honors the previous year.

You will find my review of The Yearling listed among the 1938 bestsellers. I won’t repeat it here.

Instead tomorrow, I’ll review the #8 novel on the 1939 list, Elizabeth Page’s The Tree of Liberty.

Two ’38 top books held over on 1939 list

On the 1939 bestseller list are two titles that were in the top 10 the previous year as well.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier  held third place in 1939, up from fourth place on the 1938 bestseller list. The tale of the romantic lass who finds herself playing second fiddle to her husband’s late wife in Manderley still has the power to raise goosebumps.

The other holdover from 1938 also concerns a wife who meets an untimely death.

All This, and Heaven Too by Rachel Field moved from sixth place in 1938 to second place in 1939. The fictionalized biography f the author’s great aunt had something for everyone. The first half of the book recounts a sensational European sex scandal and murder trial . The second half recounts her later life as genteel wife of a prominant American clergyman.

You’ll find reviews of both these books on the Categories menu at the right under 1938. I won’t be reposting the reviews.

– Linda Aragoni

Several keepers on 1938 bestseller list

You may have noticed I posted only seven novels in this series on 1938 bestsellers. The 1938 bestseller list contains three novels that had also been on the 1937 list

Of the 1938 entries, none are really great literature — Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son comes closest — but there are several great yarns.

The 1938 bestseller list contains two fine coming-of-age novels, neither of which is about sex.

The Mortal Storm by Phyllis Bottome sets a coming of age story in Nazi Germany in a household half Nazi, half Jewish. The protagonist is a young, female medical student, oblivious to politics until it affects her personally.

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is a better book than the movie version might lead you to believe. It is about a young boy, an only child, who yearns for love and finds it in his family.

Also new in 1938 and still worth reading today is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a fine mystery in the Gothic-romance style, and Action at Aquila by Hervey Allen, a historical romance that defies the cliches of most Civil War novels.

You can’t go wrong with any of those stories.

The first half of All This and Heaven Too, Rachel Field’s biographical novel of her great aunt whose murder trial scandalized Europe in the mid-1800s, is great reading, but the story fizzles in the second half.

Of the novels that carried over from1937, I can recommend only one: The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield. Both The Citadel by A. J. Cronin and Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts are badly flawed, though in different ways.

I hope you’ve found something intriguing from among 1938’s vintage novels.


Action (and More) Make Action at Aquila a Keeper

Action at Aquila is a Civil War novel that breaks the mold.

On his first leave four years into the war, Colonel Nathaniel Franklin is appalled by the “hang the rebels” sentiment of his pre-war Pennsylvania neighbors. Having to execute Sheridan’s scorched earth policy in the Shenandoah Valley had drained his desire for revenge.

Back at camp in the Southern Shenandoah, Franklin befriends a confederate family whose home he had torched at Sheridan’s orders.

When the rebels attack Aquila, Franklin’s careful planning lets his men repel the vastly larger force with a minimum of bloodshed. Then Franklin, a cavalry man, blunders. Unwilling to let artillery decide the battle, he attacks. It’s a bloodbath.

Hervey Allen enlists reader’s sympathy for Franklin from the start. He’s smart, brave, kind, but a soldier. In battle he does what he is trained to do, almost at the cost of his own life.

The plot appears predictable, but at the last minute Allen twists it to keep readers guessing. He tops off the story with a romance, and oddball characters that made me laugh out loud, and musings on how the Civil War changed America.

You’d be hard pressed to find a better evening’s entertainment than Action at Aquila.

Action at Aquila
By Hervey Allen
Farrar & Rinehart, 1938
369 pages
1938bestseller # 10
My Grade: B+
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Mortal Storm Has Gale-Force Power

In The Moral Storm, Phyllis Bottome rejuvenates the tired brother-against-brother theme by putting it into the setting of Nazi Germany.

The story concerns a young medical student, Freya Roth. With her first year exams over, she begins to notice that her parents aren’t thrilled with her two half-brothers’ infatuation with Hitler. Freya thinks, “What do politics matter?”

Olaf and Emil warn their parents that Freya’s friendship with a Communist peasant lad could have serious consequences since Dr. Roth is Jewish. As a matter of principle, Dr. and Mrs. Roth refuse to close the door to Hans because of his politics.

By the time Freya begins to see how serious the German situation is, her lover has been shot dead by a Nazi patrol lead by her favorite bother, her father is in a concentration camp, and Freya is pregnant.

Freya has to get out of Germany. She also has to decide what to do with her baby and what to do about her 12-year-old brother who is part Jewish.

The novel derives its power from the contrast between the loving concern the Nazi boys show to their Jewish stepfather and the self-absorption of their Jewish half-sister. The family is divided by politics, but united by love.

The Mortal Storm
By Phyllis Bottome
Little, Brown, 1938
357 pages
1938 bestseller # 9
My Grade: B+
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Rebecca Hasn’t Lost Her Fascination

Rebecca is Daphne du Maurier’s most famous novel, and with good reason.

The book’s narrator  meets Max de Winter at Monte Carlo. He is twice her age, widowed, wealthy. She’s kind, unaffected, middle class. They marry on the spur of the moment and, after a brief honeymoon, Max brings her home to Manderley.

The young woman isn’t prepared for a husband with an estate to run, or for the social hostess role she’s supposed to assume, a role Rebecca (the first Mrs. de Winter) played superbly.

Fortunately, the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is more than capable. She’s also more than a little sinister.

I won’t spoil the story for you. Let me just say the novel takes the standard features of the Gothic mystery romance and puts them in twentieth century garb with spine-tingling success.

The story that untangles is a sordid, nasty business, but told with a reticence appropriate to the innocence of the narrator.

Du Maurier refers to her heroine by name  just once in the book. That technique makes readers identify closely with the storyteller.

After all, her story could just as easily have happened to them.

This isn’t great literature, but it’s great story-telling.

Give it a five-goosebump rating.

By Daphne du Maurier
Doubleday, Doran, 1938
1938 #4
457 pages
My grade: B+
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni

And Tell of Time Solid but Stolid Saga of Texas

And Tell of Time is the tale of a Texan, Cavin Darcy, who marries his Georgia cousin at the end of the Civil War and takes her to live on his farm on the Brazos. It takes over 30 years for Lucina to regard Texas as home.

Most of those years, Cavin is occupied with the political issues growing out of the North’s Reconstruction of the South. Lucina is responsible for running the house and the farm, teaching the children she bore and the orphans Cavin took in.

The background of And Tell of Time is much like that of Gone with the Wind. The white landowners suffer from laws that favor the blacks so the Northerners can exploit all Southerners, black and white.

But Laura Krey is no Margaret Mitchell, and Cavin and Lucina are pallid compared to Rhett and Scarlett. Cavin and Lucina are probably closer to real people, but they are not memorable figures.

There are so very many minor characters that it’s hard to keep track of them all. That difficulty is compounded by Krey’s omniscient narrator who skips around, producing a constantly-changing point of view.

All told, the novel is solid, but stolid.

And Tell of Time
by Laura Krey
Houghton Mifflin, 1938
712 pages
# 3 bestseller of 1938
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

All This, and Heaven Too: 1847 Scandal Makes Sensational Novel

As a child, Rachel Field was curious about her great aunt, Henriette Desportes, whose tombstone told the date of her death but nothing of her life. In All This, and Heaven Too, Field fleshes out the facts she later learned with details she imagined.

After eight years in England, Henriette returns to her native Paris as governess to the children of the Duc and Duchesse de Praslin. The Duc is a handsome, unhappily married man. The Duchesse is a nut case.

When gossip links her name with the Duc’s, Henriette is sacked without a reference. Later the Duchesse is found brutally murdered, the Duc is accused of the murder. He commits suicide. Henriette stands trial. Defending herself, she wins acquittal.

Afterward, Henriette meets and marries a American minister, Henry Field, through whom she comes in contact with the most important figures of Civil War era America.

Field makes Henriette come alive in her warts-and-all imagining of the story. The tale loses steam after trial, so the latter chapters are less exciting than the early section.

By the time readers get to the end of the book, they may have forgotten the lesson of Henriette’s life: pride in one’s virtue can be deadly.

All This, and Heaven Too
By Rachel Field
Macmillan, 1938
594 pages
# 6 on the 1938 bestseller list
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My Son, My Son a Sad, Wise Novel

In My Son, My Son, Howard Spring takes the Biblical tale of King David’s painful relationship with his beloved, despicable son Absalom and sets it in early 20th century England.

Novelist William Essex narrates the story. Having grown up poor, Essex determines that his son, Oliver, will have everything he missed as a child.

Essex’s Irish immigrant friend Dermot O’Riorden wants to see his son, Rory, fulfill his own youthful dream of being an Irish freedom fighter.

Both men come to regret having gotten their wishes.

Like the Old Testament story, Spring’s novel is a twisted tale seeped in sex, narcissism, and violence related in a matter-of-fact tone. The title makes Oliver’s fate clear. The awful fascination of the novel is watching how others react to the golden-haired schemer.

In retrospect, William sees Oliver’s duplicity and scheming. He never, however, seems aware that this son takes after him. Oliver’s flaws are his father’s flaws writ large.

Nellie Essex senses that and pities her husband while grieving for her son. Perhaps that’s why Oliver respects his mother and despises his father.

Masterpiece Theatre aired a superb adaptation of the novel, but the novel is just as fine seen on the screen of your imagination.

My Son, My Son
By Howard Spring
Grosset & Dunlap, 1938
649 pages
1938 bestseller # 3
My Grade: A
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Time at the Top

Prior to 1950, it wasn’t uncommon for an author to have a book on the bestseller list for several years at a time. Of the ten 1938 bestselling novels, there are three that also were on the 1937 list: The Citadel by A. J. Cronin, The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield, and Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts.

(I won’t be reposting my reviews of those novels. You can check the archives to see my recommendations.)

Even more startling, perhaps, are novels that topped the list two years running. Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen was #1 in 1933 and 1934; Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was #1 in 1936 and 1937.

Years ago, readers might see two novels by the same author on a year’s bestseller list as well. For example, in 1933, Lloyd C. Douglas had two bestsellers: Magnificent Obsession and Forgive Us Our Trespasses among the top ten.

How many of the novels have you read?

How many of those titles and authors do you even recognize?

Styles in reading come and go. Big names drop from popularity.

But good stories endure.

Next week I’ll review a story that’s been almost forgotten, except, perhaps, by dedicated Masterpiece Theatre fans: Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son.

Until then,

Happy reading.