A. J. Cronin’s novel The Keys of The Kingdom headed the bestseller list in 1941. It was still on the list in 1942, although it had dropped to tenth place.
The novel remains good entertainment today. It is an intriguing character study of someone who finds that fitting is definitely overrated. Keys’ lead character, Francis Chisholm, the missionary priest to China’s “rice Christians,” could probably have answered “yes” to each of Leonard Felder’s 15 self-analysis questions to determine if one is an “insightful outsider.”
A full review of the novel is included with the 1941 bestsellers.
Public recognition of the sufferings of slaves, such as the one in “Chains” monument shown in the photo from the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris, is not common. However, novelist Margaret Steen produced something even more rare: a public recognition of the misery slavery inflicted on slave traders.
In 1942, Steen’s novel about a slave trader, The Sun Is My Undoing, made the bestseller list for a second year in a row. My review of this extraordinary novel is filed with the reviews of 1941 novels.
The 1941 bestseller list contains two fine novels: For Whom the Bell Tolls (a hold-over from 1940’s bestseller list) and The Sun is My Undoing.
For Whom the Bell Tollsis a classic by an acknowledged master of fiction, Ernest Hemingway. It is the superior book in terms of its literary quality. However, it’s subject—an insider view of an insurgency—seems positively wimpy compared The Sun is My Undoingby an untouted novelist, Marguerite Steen. Steen writes about the slave trade from the perspective of a slave trader
The rest of the 1941 line consists of relatively undistinguished novels of which James Hilton’s Random Harvest is best known and H. M. Purlham, Esquire by John P. Marquand is the best written.
In September of 1938, two American tourists can watch a convoy of German military trucks carrying unsmiling young soldiers headed for maneuvers on the Rhine. Watching, each woman thinks of home.
On that ominous note, Mary Ellen Chase sets readers up to expect Windswept to be a passionate war story. Instead, Chase gives us a nice, dull book about nice, dull people.
The story begins when a man named Phillip Marston buys a chunk of Maine seacoast on which to build a home for himself and his son, John. He gets it cheap because nobody wants it.
When Phillip is killed in a hunting accident, John, aided by a Bohemian immigrant whom his father befriended, sees that the home is built. Jan Pisek is a second father to John and later to John’s children.
Three generations of Marstons call Windswept home. They revere Windswept the way Scarlett O’Hara reveres Tara. Whenever anything bad happens, they head for Windswept.
But Windswept is no Tara.
Among the entire Marston clan there’s not one memorable personality. Chase’s sea-gray characters meet every crisis with New England stoicism. These are practical people, with no passion for anything except Windswept itself.
If gray is your favorite color, you’ll love this novel.
Mary Ellen Chase
1941 # 10
My grade: C-
Edna Ferber’s Saratoga Trunk holds the germ of a great novel for another author to write.
The novel opens with a a press conference. “Colonel” Clint Maroon wants to tell how industrialists ripped off America. As his wife predicted, reporters won’t listen.
The rest of the novel is a flashback to how Clint and Clio Dulaine met in New Orleans, fell in love, and decided to pool their resources to get rich quick.
Clio sent Clint off to Saratoga Springs, New York, posing as an authority on railroads to set up a scam among the millionnaires. She followed posing as a widowed French countess.
Clio’s scam might have worked, except that Clint found his Texas intimidation skills an easier avenue to big money than playing poker.
Saratoga Trunk is a real page turner. Ferber’s narrative has more bubble and vitality than Saratoga water. Even its historical characters are all larger than life. Saratoga Springs itself sparkles as the American playground of the rich and famous in the 1870s.
But the real story—the one Clint wanted to tell—gets shunted aside. Taylor Caldwell would have made a good novel from this material. Edna Ferber merely made an entertaining one.
by Edna Ferber
1941 bestseller #9
My grade: C+
Like Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver, which made the bestseller list in 1940, Isabel Scott Rorick’s 1941 novel, Mr. and Mrs. Cugat: The Record of a Happy Marriage, is a series of episodes rather than connected narrative.
The Cugats’ adventures are related by an omniscient narrator who appears be observing from behind Mrs. Cugat’s right shoulder. Rorick never lets readers get close enough to the characters to drop the courtesy titles.
Mrs. Cugat is an airhead. After an education that included social skills and field hockey but skipped arithmetic as being too difficult for her, she made her debut and snagged Mr. Cugat.
Mr. Cugat’s own education included arithmetic. By the time they married, he was third vice-president of his bank.
Unencumbered by children or annoying relatives, Mrs. Cugat leaves the housework to the cook and maids while they lead the busy, alcohol-soaked social life of America’s pre-World War II country club set.
For Mrs. Cugat, a serious crisis is her husband forgetting to hire a costume for a masked ball or unexpected guests for dinner. Rorick plays for laughs and Floyd A. Hardy’s cartoon illustrations underscore the frivolity of her text.
Mr. and Mrs. Cugat: The Record of a Happy Marriage
by Isabel Scott Rorick
Illus. Floyd A. Hardy
The World Publishing Company
My grade: C
In H. M. Pulham, Esquire, novelist John P. Marquand provides readers with one of the greatest delights open to fiction readers: feeling superior to the characters.
Harry Pulham is a genuinely nice, average guy. He’s not too smart, or too rich, or too talented. He does his work, avoids the spotlight, never intrudes. Above all, he’s loyal.
But is he happy?
After his father’s death, Harry moved back to his small hometown, leaving the girl he loved in New York City. He married a girl he’d known for years. Harry and Kay have two children.
As his 25-year reunion nears, Harry’s college pals pop up again, especially Bill King. Bill and Kay go way back. Bill knows all about Harry and his old flame, too.
Readers see Harry’s marriage is on the brink of disaster, but Harry never sees the clues. It’s not that he’s just dense. He habitually thinks the best of people. He credits others with as much personal integrity as he has. To Harry, doing the right thing is more important than being happy.
Can this marriage be saved?
You’ll have to read the novel to find out.
H. M. Pulham, Esquire By John P. Marquand Little, Brown, 1941 431 pages 1941 Bestseller # 7 My Grade: B-
No matter how you look at it, Marguerite Steen’s 1941 novel The Sun Is My Undoing is extraordinary.
Three times average novel length, it covers 40 years, intertwines characters on three continents, and its hero is a slave trader.
Plenty of books tell about how slavery degraded slaves; this one tell how slavery degraded the slave traders. A mediocre writer couldn’t have envisioned this story, let alone written it.
In Bristol in 1760, the old reprobate Hercules Flood dies. His heir, Matthew Flood, sets up as a slave trader like his grandfather, even though it costs him marriage to lovely abolitionist Pallas Burmester.
After selling his first slaves, Matt “marries” his African concubine in a drunken mock ceremony in Havana. He leaves their daughter to be cared for by nuns and goes back to sea.
Years later, Matt’s quadroon granddaughter comes to Bristol to inherit the Flood money. She is shunned by everyone except Pallas Burmester.
When a lunatic slave captured by the British Navy turns out to be Matthew Flood, the news turns Bristol on its ear. I’ll leave you to read the heart-stopping ending for yourself.
The Sun Is My Undoing is a novel you won’t soon forget.
The Sun Is My Undoing
By Marguerite Steen
1941 bestseller #4
My grade: A-