The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land Honors WWI Noncombattants

Canadian military chaplain Canon Frederick George Scott
Canadian military chaplain Canon Frederick George Scott

The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land begins like a romance for religious spinsters, but within 20 pages, the handsome missionary Barry Dunbar turns out to be asthmatic, pedantic, and tactless.

When war breaks out, Barry, a Canadian, tries to enlist. He is rejected on medical grounds, but his father is accepted.

Barry reluctantly accepts a chaplaincy and attempts to enforce godliness among the troops.

On the eve of his arrival in France, an elderly Anglican chaplain sets him straight: “My dear fellow, remember they are far from home. These boys need their mothers… And, my boy, they need God. And they need you.”

Those words change Barry’s attitude.

Later as Barry watches while his father, both arms blown off, die of his injuries, he learns personally what it means to be alone far from home.

Ralph Connor’s descriptions of trench warfare are horrific. Oddly, the descriptions of the sleep deprivation, loneliness, and submerging of their own needs that Barry and other non-combatants endure are even more painful.

Despite some implausible elements — the medically unfit Barry remains healthy, for example—Connor spins an unforgettable yarn about men and women who picked up the pieces of those who went over the top.

Though Connor’s story is fiction, the war’s horrors are not. In The Official History of The Canadian Forces in The Great War 1914-1919, Vol. 1, A. Fortescue Duguid writes: 

Carrying out their spiritual duties the Chaplains were to be found both in the field and at the dressing stations giving comfort to the dying. Major (Canon) F. G. Scott on the evening of the 22nd encouraged an advancing battalion with the words “A great day for Canada, boys—great day for Canada,” and he was in their midst when they charged the wood.

The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land
By Ralph Connor
1919 bestseller #6
Project Gutenberg e-book#3288
My grade: B

Photo of Military Chaplain  (and noted Canadian poet) F. G.  Scott is from the George Metcalf Archival Collection  of the Canadian War Museum.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Lord Vanity‘s weak characters done in by history

French surrender at Montreal
French surrender at Montreal

Lord Vanity is a sweeping historical romance spanning two continents in the age of enlightenment.  For some readers, the period details, such as  the marvelous description of the battle for Montreal, may compensate for the novel’s flaws. Unfortunately, for most readers, the lead characters are not strong enough to stand out against the background of Samuel Shellabarger’s scholarship.

A handsome bastard, Richard Morandi, is toggling together a living in Venice as an actor-musician. He falls for a charming ballerina. Maritza’s pedigree is as socially unacceptable as Richard’s.

Richard falls under the influence of one rogue after another until the details of his background become public knowledge. Then he goes off to Montreal to serve under Wolfe.

Thanks to Richard, the British beat the French in North America. His past obscured by the victory, Richard becomes a spy for the British in Paris. There he meets Maritza again.

Lord Vanity is a romance, so a happy ending is contrived for the couple.

Richard’s lack of perception and his absurd pretension of morality render him joke even as the juvenile lead in this farcical plot. Maritza is almost equally implausible with her emotional acuity and moral purity.

History buffs won’t care; they’ll love this novel for its details.

Lord Vanity
by Samuel Shellabarger
Little, Brown, 1953
473 pages
1953 bestseller #9
My grade B-

Credit: The original image above is one of many on the website, which is a wonderful resource of well-written and well-illustrated information about Canadian history.

 © 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Maria Chapdelaine, Teenage Pioneer

Maria Chapdelaine  opens in late winter, just ahead of the ice breakup in the river. With spring, Maria will awaken to love.

Instead of a gushy tale of teenage lovers, however, novelist Louis Hemon delivers something harder, more mature, and more incredible.

Old Quebec Coat of Arms
Old Quebec Coat of Arms

Maria’s good looks are enough to attract suitors willing to cross a river and trudge through a road-less forest to the compound where Samuel Chapdelaine’s pioneering family “make land” with axe and saw. Maria’s choice is Francois, a handsome woodsman and Indian trader.

When Francois is lost in a blizzard, Maria is numb with grief. What shall she do for the rest of her life?

She could marry Lorenzo Surprenant and go to live in Boston.

Or she could marry Eutrobe Gagnon and live on a half-cleared farm doing pretty much what she does on her father’s half-cleared farm. If she marries Eutrobe she might, like her mother, have a few words of praise from her husband after she’s dead.

The characters of this novel are the sort of folks you’d want as your neighbors if you were in any sort of trouble, but they aren’t probably folks you’d invite to a party. Simultaneously insignificant and magnificent, their idea of the good life is a game of cards with friends while a smudge pot keeps the mosquitoes at bay.

What Maria decides to do with her life, Hemon implies, is what any of the Quebec pioneers would do. They are “people of a race that knows not how to perish.” Duty and responsibility tied to a sense of community and of their roots gives them the courage to do what needs to be done.

Maria Chapdelaine: A Tale of the Lake St. John Country
Louis Hemon
Trans. W. H. Blake
Illus. Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Côté
New York 1921
1922 Bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg ebook #4383

Photo Credit: Old coat of arms of Quebec (from the [[Wilfrid Laurier]] monument, Montreal) – personal snapshot by Montrealais. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Valley of Silent Men lovely place for absurd novel

On his death bed, James Grenfell Kent, 36, sergeant in the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, confesses to a murder he didn’t commit. From his deathbed, he also  falls in love with the mysterious raven-haired beauty, Maretta, who tells him she knows who really committed the murder.

Instead of dying, Kent recovers, which means he’ll be hanged for the murder, unless someone else is found guilty, in which case he’ll do 10-20 for deathbed perjury.

Finding either of those outcomes undesirable, Kent plots his escape.

The plan misfires.

Kent finds the Mounties Inspector Kedsty dead, strangled with black hair, and Maretta standing over the body.

Kent and Maretta flee, becoming separated when their boat breaks apart in river rapids. Desolate, Kent wanders for almost two years before heading toward Maretta’s home in the Valley of Silent Men.

There he learns how Maretta knew he had not  killed Barkley and discovers how she was involved with Kedsty.

There’s a happy ending, all mysteries solved except why the legalistic Mounties decide not to place those perjury charges.

James Oliver Curwood’s plot is absurd and his characters utterly  implausible, but his description of the Canadian scenery is breathtaking. This is one novel that you’ll enjoy most by ignoring the story and focusing on the descriptive passages.

Thee Valley of Silent Men: A Story of the Three River Company
By Janes Oliver Curwood
1921 bestseller #5
Project Gutenberg EBook-No. 29407
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Finch’s Fortune Is Readers’ Misfortune.

Finch’s Fortune is the ninth of Mazo de la Roche’s 16-volume series about the Canadian Whiteoak family on the farm called Jalna.

Finch’s Fortune opens on Finch Whiteoak’s 21’s birthday, reluctantly celebrated by his relatives who thought Gran should have  given her $100,000  to them.

Finch buys one brother a car and piggery, assumes his sister’s mortgage, and takes his two elderly uncles off to visit their sister in England, frittering away money as he goes.

After his uncles go home, Finch stays in England doing nothing in particular, but doing it, for him, remarkably well. Finch falls in love with a cousin who marries his best friend. Finch accompanies them on their honeymoon.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, Finch’s sister-in-law, Alayne, has gone to stay with an aunt.  Her husband, Renny, is busy with his horses and dogs and doesn’t seem to notice her absence.

Both Alayne and Finch return home.

The homecoming is marred by Renny stomping off in a snit after yelling about Finch wasting the money his grandmother left him.

Renny is found later in his grandmother’s bed whimpering, “No one has ever understood me but Gran.”  The family accepts this as proof the mantle of family leadership has fallen to Renny.

The novel ends as Finch’s nephew is born on Finch’s birthday and named for him.

Unfortunately, Mazo de la Roche’s novel is as ridiculous as the summary makes it sound.

If you are smart, you’ll find something else to read.

Finch’s Fortune
By Mazo de la Roche
Little, Brown 1931
443 pages
1931 bestseller #9
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Shadows on the Rock Lacks Substance

Shadows on the Rock is Willa Cather’s light, historical novel about the French in Quebec around 1700.

Apothecary Euclide Auclair came to Quebec as physician to the Count de Frontenac. When his wife died, Euclide was left to raise their daughter, Cecile, by himself.

His skill at compounding drugs makes Euclide welcome in homes of the elite as well as the poor.

At 12, Ceclie keeps house for her father, does all her mother’s charitable works, studies the classics, tends the shop when her father is out on calls, and spends hours playing with her friend, Jacques.

Between them, Euclide and Cecile know everyone and everything that goes on in Quebec.

Although there is always the potential for serious trouble from the British or the Indians, daily life revolves around petty annoyances that take on monumental proportions in the closed community. People take sides in the feud between the count and the old bishop and in the feud between the old bishop and the new one.

I kept anticipating a crisis that never came.

Euclie and Cecile are pleasant, but not memorable, characters. Their only heroism is in facing the daily monotony of their lives without complaint — a heroism that makes for better lives than for entertaining reading.

Shadows on the Rock
by Willa Cather
Alfred A. Knopf, 1931
280 pages
1931 bestseller #2
My grade: C
©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

River’s End Holds Unexpected Laughs

With its mix of Western adventure, mistaken identity, mystery, and romance, James Oliver Curwood’s 1920 bestseller, The River’s End, reads like Hollywood film plot.

As he is dying, lawman Derwent Conniston urges the outlaw John Keith to assume his identify and thus evade recapture for the killing of Judge Kirkstone. The two men look as alike as twins. Keith figures it’s worth a try.

Keith passes muster with the Royal Northwest Mounted Police commander, who is too upset by the late judge’s daughter’s dalliance with a shadowy Chinese businessman to ask many questions. Shan Tung, however, recognizes Keith for who he is.

Within hours, Conniston’s sister arrives from England looking for the brother she’s not seen for seven years. It’s love at first kiss for Keith, who has to figure out how to get the girl without getting hanged for the judge’s murder.

Keith first has to learn what Shan Tung knows that’s kept him from identifying Keith to the authorities and why Mariam Kirkstone is in thrall to Shan Tung.

If that all sounds silly, it’s nothing compared to the plot wrap up which features, among other events, Shan Tung showing off his Yale diploma.

You’ll enjoy The River’s End for all the wrong reasons. It’s an awful novel, so absurd that reading it is tremendous fun.

The River’s End
by James Oliver Curwood
1920 bestseller #4
Project Gutenberg ebook #4747
My grade: C

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Project Gutenberg

Loser Oliver Wiswell’s View of Revolution Is a Winner

In Oliver Wiswell, Kenneth Roberts explores history from Bunker Hill to Yorktown from the perspective of a Loyalist historian who views the revolution as “the American Civil War.”

Oliver Wiswell rescues Tom Buell from a mob of the Sons of Liberty who turn the pair and Oliver’s dying father from their Massachusetts home.

Oliver and Tom wind up as British spies. Their spying takes them to England and France, but Oliver never forgets the girl he left in Massachusetts.

Later Oliver and Tom go back to the colonies to see what’s happening to the Loyalists. The two are in New York when Cornwallis surrenders to Washington.

Afterward, the Loyalists have to flee. Some go south to the Caribbean. Oliver and Tom lead an emigration to Canada.

This novel’s historical detail is more interesting than either its plot or its fictional characters. Roberts makes the usual points about both sides in a war being bad, equally disillusioned, equally disgusted by incompetent leadership.

Where the novel shines, however, is in showing how both rebels and loyalists were insulted by British criticism of Americans. Perhaps if American diplomats were to read Oliver Wiswell, they’d have better insight into contemporary events in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, and Java.

Oliver Wiswell
By Kenneth Roberts
Doubleday, Doran, 1940
836 pages
1940 Bestseller #7
My Grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni