My 1947 top picks

There are many pounds of entertaining reading on the 1947 bestseller list for 21st century readers. Novel buyers that year got plenty for their money.

My favorite is the weighty novel of the Confederacy, House Divided by Ben Ames Williams. Williams really makes history come alive.  He knows how to present information naturally, in “how was your week?” sorts of conversations.

William’s story provides insight into how people respond to an enemy occupation. (If you’ve ever lived in the South you know that  even today southerners think of the Civil War as they time the damn Yankees occupied their land.)  And, perhaps most important, Williams shows that all partisans of a cause are not identical in motivation or goals. Perhaps House Divided ought to be required reading for Bush administration foreign policy wonks.

My second choice is East Side, West Side by Marcia Davenport. This novel is about the aftermath of World War II on American civilians at home, particularly about how and why divorce  became socially acceptable in our post-war era. In many ways, the society Davenport describes seems as remote and foreign as the 1860’s society Williams describes.

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger and The Moneyman by Thomas B. Costain round out my list of best reading from the 1947 bestseller list.  Both are historical novels that immerse readers into exotic locations  replete with intrigue, suspense, and romance. In each case, the history is subservient to the entertainment, Both novels are exciting reading.

In its own way, each of these four novels takes readers into a world that doesn’t exist any more. But while there, they will meet people who seem remarkably human and familiar.

That’s my take on the 1947 bestseller list.

Happy reading!

Linda Gorton Aragoni

Prince of Foxes will keep you intrigued

Prince of Foxes is historical fiction at its swashbuckling best. Samuel Shellabarger sets his tale of a blacksmith’s son who picks up the armor and identify of a fallen cavalier in 1400s Italy when the Borgias were top dogs in the city states.

Andrea Orsini goes to work for Cesare Borgia. Borgia sends him to conquor Citta del Monte as part of Borgia’s plan to create a unified Italian state.The city’s lady, Camilla, is to be Orsini’s reward. Orsini falls for Camilla and switches sides, letting himself in for a lot of trouble.

Few settings lend themselves so well to tales of cross and double-cross as the Italian Renaissance. Shellabarger, a Renaissance scholar, knows the era backward and forward, yet he makes all his knowledge serve his story.

Shellabarger draws his characters with bold strokes, but with just enough hesitancy in each personality to make them plausible. You may wonder how a blacksmith’s son acquired all of Orsini’s skills and polish, but while you’re reading you won’t doubt for a minute that he has them.

The plot is masterful. Shellabarger prepares readers for each plot twist with an adroit touch.

Prince of Foxes is a real page-turner, a made-for-the-imagination mini-series.

Don’t miss it.

Prince of Foxes
By Samuel Shellabarger
Little-Brown, 1947
431 pages
#10 on 1947 bestseller list.
My grade: B+
© 2006 Linda Gorton Aragoni

East Side, West Side shows ordinary events become pivotal

Marcia Davenport’s East Side, West Side is a psychological novel that holds a mirror up to ourselves.

Jessie Bourne had been passionately in love with New York aristocrat Brandon Bourne when they married. Over 17 years, dissimilar tastes and interests along with Brandon’s womanizing have killed that passion.randon will never divorce Jessie. He has never actually loved any of his women. Besides, Jessie has money.

Jessie won’t divorce Brandon; she regards divorce as an admission of defeat.

At a party, Jessie meets General Mark Dwyer. They are moving discretely toward an affair when Brandon comes home in a panic. His brother had seen his mistress killed by a man who had been using the woman as a tool in his blackmail schemes.

Jessie’s quick thinking and loyal contacts save Brandon’s family from scandal, but in the process Jessie takes a hard look at Brandon and herself.

East Side, West Side is almost too good for comfort. In its pages we see how ordinary experiences like being bored by one’s relatives or arguing with one’s spouse can become catalysts that change the course of a person’s life.

Find a copy of East Side, West Side.

It’s a novel worth rereading.

East Side, West Side
By Marcia Davenport
Schribner’s, 1947
376 pages
1947 bestseller #9
My Grade: B+

© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Kingsblood Royal is timeless but irritating

About 70 pages into Kingsblood Royal, Sinclair Lewis throws a bombshell into his boring characters’ boring lives—and the rest of the book is a real page-turner.

Capt. Neil Kingsblood has come home from World War II to a comfortable, suburban, middle-America life. Neil’s father sets him to chasing down his ancestors. Neil discovers his father’s forebears were ordinary yeomen, not aristocrats as his father had hoped.

He decides to look up his mother’s French ancestors.

The state historical society supplies copies of a letter by Xavier Pic, one of Neil’s ancestors who described himself as “a full-blooded Negro from Martinique.” That ancestry makes Neil a Negro by 1940s law most places in the US.

Should he keep quiet for the sake of his family or reveal his findings?

To help him decide, Neil makes it his business to meet Negroes and find out what it is like to be “colored.”

Kingsblood Royal demonstrates that prejudice arises from fear. While making that point, however, Lewis continually makes snide remarks about his white characters, ridiculing their intelligence, their perceptivity, their motives. After a while, the comments become irritating.

Even in race relations, few things are as black-and-white as Lewis makes them.

Kingsblood Royal
By Sinclair Lewis
Random House, 1947
348 pages
#8 on the 1947 bestseller list
My Grade: B
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

House Divided is Good — and Long

House Divided deserves to be dusted off and reread. Ben Ames Williams gives us believable characters, high drama, and superb dialogue, all resting on an extensive base of facts about  the War Between the States.

Although the Currain family of Virginia own slaves, they are skeptical of secessionist propaganda and assertions that the South can whip the North. When letters are found revealing that their father was Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, the five adult Currains are shattered. Each attempts to find some way of living down the horrible shame of their kinship to “the black ape.”

As Williams follows the Currains through the war, his characters take the reader close to historical figures like Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth without taking his eye off the Currains. As he shows his characters’ quite ordinary responses to extraordinary situations, readers learn details of daily life in the Confederacy. A less skillful writer would have crammed the facts into fat paragraphs of description.

The novel’s message that “most of us, in the end, stand with our own people,” is worth remembering as we send American soldiers into foreign combat.

If you can heft this whopping novel (1500+ pages), you’ll find House Divided worth reading.

House Divided, a novel of the Civil War
By Ben Ames Williams
Houghton Mifflin, 1947
1514 pages
#7 on 1947 bestseller list
My grade: A-
© 2006 by Linda Gorton Aragoni

Don’t Take The Wayward Bus

Despite believable characters, a plausible plot, keen observation, and superb writing by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, The Wayward Bus is a totally unappealing novel.John Steinbeck’s novel is about a group of people who have nothing in common, seemingly, except that they are on the same bus, stuck in the mud on a  rarely used road in the central California mountains. Although their backgrounds and goals are quite different, it turns out that they do something else in common: Each is insistent on getting his or her own way.

It’s not the bus that’s wayward; it’s the passengers.

Steinbeck gives the reader a glimpse of the forces that that have shaped each character. Yet it’s clear they are what they are because of the choices they made.

Even though we may understand these people, maybe feel a pang of pity for them, we can’t like them. Because Steinbeck describes them so well, readers are left with the queasy feeling that there are millions of people in the world just like these characters.

That is a very depressing thought.

Don’t feel bad if you miss The Wayward Bus.

You’ll feel worse if you read it.

The Wayward Bus
By John Steinbeck
Viking Press, 1947
312 pages
#6 Bestseller for 1947
My Grade: B

© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Vixens Deserves Extinction

Frank Yerby had a smash hit with The Foxes of Harrow in 1946. The next year, he published a sequel, which also became a bestseller, even though The Vixens is even more awful than its predecessor.

The story is about ex-Union soldier Laird Fournois who returns to Louisiana hoping to get elected to the state legislature and make his fortune.

Laird meets the rich, unscrupulous Hugh Duncan and marries Hugh’s cousin Sabrina. Sabrina goes mad. Laird wants to be faithful, but succumbs to the charms of Denise Lascals, a sexy Creole who has loved him since childhood.

The dastardly Hugh has also fallen for Denise. Ultimately Hugh and Laird have to fight for their principles and Denise.

The totally unbelievable characters in this story fit perfectly in the totally unbelievable plot.

The interest in the novel is primarily in the historical background of the story. For example, at one point Laird goes looking for the polls whose locations whites move several times during the night to keep blacks from voting. That may not seem exciting, but compared to the story line, it’s hot stuff.

The Vixens is neither a good romance nor a good historical novel. It’s simply a bore.

The Vixens
By Frank Yerby
Dial Press, 1947
#5 bestseller in 1947
My grade: D+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Only Returning Vets Could Love Lydia Bailey

Lydia Bailey burst onto the post-war literary scene, securing author Kenneth Roberts a niche in popular historical fiction for years. Today the novel serves only as a glimpse into the background of events that occasionally erupt onto the evening news.

In 1800, lawyer Albion Hamlin reluctantly leaves his New England farm to represent clients fighting government regulation and red tape.

Hamblin’s work takes him to Haiti, where he meets and marries the lovely Lydia Bailey. Caught in the hostilities surrounding the French re-invasion of the island, the couple escape and sail for Europe.

In the Mediterranean, they are captured by forces of the Baashaw of Tripoli, who has declared war on America. The couple saves their skins, but their lives are never the same afterward.

Hamlin says the things most soldiers just home from the front lines would like to say. I suspect his bitterness made Lydia Bailey a success among folks who had just come through World War II.

Today’s returning vets may have the same gripes, but they wouldn’t go for Roberts’ writing. All Roberts’ meticulous research can’t hide the implausible plot. And his flat, one-dimensional characters and paragraph-length sentences would sink the novel.

Lydia Bailey
By Kenneth Roberts
Doubleday, 1947
488 pages
#4 bestseller in 1947
My Grade: C
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Gentleman’s Agreement Victim of Its Own Success

Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement shook readers who had just come through World War II and considered themselves unprejudiced.

Journalist Phil Green decides to pose as a Jew to get the inside angle on anti-Semitism. Initially, only his mother, his girlfriend, and his editor know his Jewishness is only a pose.

Green becomes increasingly sensitized to prejudice. First he notices disparaging language, and then feels the slights and rejections. But it’s the reaction of those closest to him—his sister, his girlfriend, his son—that hit Green hardest.

Hobson tries to make her characters a mixture of good and bad, but they never quite ring true. Greene displays a naiveté that borders on stupidity. It never occurs to Green, for example, that his 8-year-old son is going to have questions about the charade.

Although anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of prejudice are probably as strong in America today as when Hobson was writing Gentleman’s Agreement, the novel wouldn’t have much impact on contemporary readers. Since 1947, we’ve seen too many stories about someone who goes undercover to get the scoop on being a minority.

The plot that confronted readers in 1947 is a cliché today.

Gentleman’s Agreement has become the victim of its own success.

Gentleman’s Agreement
Laura Z. Hobson
Simon and Schuster, 1947
275 pages
#3 bestselling novel in 1947
My Grade: C+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Moneyman Gives Good Value

The Moneyman, Thomas B. Costain’s novel of 15th century French intrigue and counter-intrigue. is a much better novel than the tales of the Christian era for which Costain is famous.

“The Moneyman” is Jacques Coeur, semi-official financier for Charles VII. For years, Coeur manipulated French policy through the king’s mistress, Agnes Sorel. When Agnes becomes ill, Coeur must find a replacement so the king won’t turn to other advisers after Agnes dies.

Coeur finds and trains Valerie, a poor girl who looks like Agnes. When Agnes dies shortly after Coeur and Valerie visit her, the pair is charged with her murder. Coeur’s worst enemies are to be the judges at the trial; Coeur is not allowed to examine witnesses or call witnesses.

Right to the end I couldn’t figure out how Coeur and Valerie were going to get out of their predicament—and it mattered to me that they did.

Oddly enough, neither the plot nor the characters of  The Moneyman are unusual. In The Moneyman, however, Costain has woven them so well into the historical account of battles to evict the English from France that the plot and characters seem alive.

Rediscover The Moneyman. It’s still a great read.

The Moneyman
By Thomas B. Costain
Doubleday, 1947
434 pages
#2 Bestseller for 1947
My Grade: B+
© 2006 Linda Gorton Aragoni