Showboat, the novel, lacks liveliness of musical

A riverboat owner facing competition from the railroad in the waning years of the 19th century buys a successful touring company, the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theater.

To secure the company of his adored daughter, Magnolia, Capt. Andy Hawkes convinces his wife, Parthenia, to sail with the company.

Showboat by Edna Ferber

Doubleday, Page. 1926. 398 p. My grade: C.

Showboat first edition cover shows crowd going up gangplank to see the showThe child loves the life and riverboat people and is loved in return.

In her teens, Maggie becomes a part of the acting company, much to the distress of her rigid, narrow-minded mother.

Maggie marries a charming riverboat gambler who had joined the company during one of his losing streaks.

After several feast-or-famine years, Gaylord deserts Maggie and their daughter in Chicago, just as Maggie’s mother had predicted.

To support herself, Maggie returns to the stage to put Kim through convent school.

Meanwhile, Parthenia has taken over operation of the showboat after Capt. Andy drowned in an accident.

When Parthenia dies, Maggie returns to the showboat.

It’s easy to see why Showboat was turned into a Broadway musical: Edna Ferber’s novel reads like notes for a play.

All the elements of a drama are present in the novel—strongly drawn characters, conflict, pathos, romance—but there’s no life in the thing.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni


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.

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

My picks of 1924: So Big, So Driven, So French, So Misplaced

Of the 10 novels that were bestsellers in 1924, four stand out for providing far more than just an entertaining story: So Big by Edna Ferber, The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield [Fisher], The Little French Girl by Anne Douglas Sedgwick, and The Midlander  by Booth Tarkington.

Cover of So Big by Edna FerberAlthough the stories are very different, each explores obstacles that make understanding another person’s perspective difficult.

In Edna Ferber’s So Big, Selina Peake rejects her father’s philosophy that life is “just so much velvet” worth experiencing regardless of how good or bad it appears at the time.

Late in life Selina comes to regret teaching her son the only things worth having in life are earned through hard work. Dirk reaches mid-life without having enjoyed living.

In The Midlander (which became National Avenue when Booth Tarkington put it in his single-volume trilogy Growth in 1927), Dan Oliphant never varies from the real estate career he chose almost at random in his early twenties.

Dan is so sure that his housing development will be a success, he lets every personal relationship shrivel while he puts all his effort into the Ornaby Addition.
Spine of Anne Douglas Sedgwick novel The Little French Girl
Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s The Little French Girl is the only one of my quarter of favorites not set in America. Alix Vervier’s mother has decided her 15-year-old daughter will marry within the family of an English war-time acquaintance. Mme Vervier ships Alex across the cultural solar system from France to England.

Alix must mature enough to regard her mother with sufficient dispassion that she can determine what of her mother’s behavior is motivated by love and what is motivated by self-interest.

In The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield [Fisher] shows Eva and Lester Knapp trapped in roles they both hate. By accident, Lester becomes the stay-at-home mom and Eva becomes the wage earner.

There’s no doubt everyone in the household is financially and emotionally better off as a result of the switch. It is also clear, however, that those gains come at a significant moral cost that the family may regret in the future.

Cover of The Home-MakerEach of these insightful novels is worth reading. So Big and The Home-Maker are written in very accessible styles. The Midlander requires a bit more mental work, but it’s not difficult reading.

To understand what’s happening in The Little French Girl demands full concentration and either a French dictionary or a reading knowledge of French. Readers who give it a chance will find it worth the effort.

So Big, a Cameo for Motherhood

Jacket cover of So BigEdna Ferber’s So Big is a gentle, thoughtful novel peopled with believable characters and edged in tears.

Selina Peake grew up wherever her father’s profession—gambling—took them. Life was an adventure to her father. He told Selina to relax and enjoy it:

‘The more kinds of people you see, and the more things you do, and the more things that happen to you, the richer you are. Even if they’re not pleasant things. That’s living. Remember, no matter what happens, good or bad, its’ just so much’—he used the gambler’s term, unconsciously,—’just so much velvet.

When her father dies, Selina goes to teach at a rural school in a Dutch farming community. She causes merriment by saying the fields of cabbage are beautiful and consternation by her frivolous, city clothes.

Within a year, she marries a farmer with no talent for farming. They have one child, Dirk, whom Selina calls by his childhood nickname, “So Big.”

Widowed before Dirk is 10, Selina takes over running the farm, making it profitable so that Dirk won’t have to be a farmer.

She teaches Dirk life isn’t an adventure, that something good isn’t just around the corner. Dirk believes her, and at the time she believes she’s telling the truth.

Dirk does what’s necessary to becomes a success short of outright illegality.

Though Selina and Dirk remain close, as she grows older, Selina senses that she failed her son.

The Pulitzer committee agreed with readers that So Big is a gem.

Read it and find out for yourself.

So Big
By Edna Ferber
© 1924, Doubleday
1924 bestseller #1
283 pages
My grade: A

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

1924 bestseller review list July–August

Very few of the novels from the 1924 bestseller list are read often today, but several of them should be.

Finding print copies to read can be a challenge. Some of the titles are still under copyright, which means readers must rely on used booksellers.  I linked to the free Project Gutenberg downloadable ebook if a digital copy of the novel is available.

Cover of So Big by Edna Ferber

If you have time to read only one novel from the list, I suggest you try Edna Ferber’s So Big. It’s a good novel—it won a Pulitzer and was adapted for  film three times— and is readily available from booksellers. If you are interested in knowing Ferber herself, the Appleton Wisconsin Public Library collection includes information and photos of Ferber who lived in Appleton.

Here’s the list with the dates I’ll be posting my reviews:

  1. So Big by Edna Ferber [July 5]
  2. The Plastic Age by Percy Marks, ebook #16532 July 8]
  3. The Little French Girl by Anne Douglas Sedgwick [July 12]
  4. The Heirs Apparent by Phillip Gibbs [July 15]
  5. A Gentleman of Courage by James Oliver Curwood [July 19]
  6. The Call of the Canyon by Zane Grey, ebook #1881  [July 22]
  7. The Midlander by Booth Tarkington [July 26]
  8. The Coast of Folly by Coningsby Dawson [July 29]
  9. Mistress Wilding by Rafael Sabatini, e-book #1457 [Aug. 2]
  10. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher [Aug. 5]

Project Gutenberg

Saratoga Trunk side-steps great story for mere diversion

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.

Saratoga Trunk
by Edna Ferber
Doubleday, Doran
1941 bestseller #9
My grade: C+
©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Cimarron Sings Praises of Frontier Women

In her foreword, Edna Ferber says that only the “fantastic and improbable” events related in Cimarron are true. Perhaps that historical sense is what propelled Cimarron to the top of the charts in 1930.

The novel is about Sabra Cravat. Her husband, a lawyer, newspaperman, and adventurer, brings her and their young son, Cimarron, west to Oklahoma just after the 1889 run that opened the land to settlers.

Sabra soon learns her flambuoyant husband is already well-known for his oratory and his shooting. Yancey champions the Indian’s plight and teaches Cim to be pro-Indian, too.

Yancey periodically disappears for days, weeks, then years at a time.

Sabra keeps the newspaper going, makes it prosper, crusades for morality, education, and culture. Eventually she becomes US Senator.

When oil is found in Oklahoma, Yancey — always one to be where the action is — comes home again in time to die as dramatically as he lived.

Ferber makes the point that men went west for adventure. Frontier women were “the real hewers of wood and drawers of water,”  the ones who made life possible.

The plot and characters of Cimarron are forgettable, but they are just interesting enough to make the history turn-of-the-century Oklahoma easy reading.

By Edna Ferber
Doubleday, Doran 1930
388 pages
#1 on 1930 bestseller list
My grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Value of Ice Palace Has Melted

Edna Ferber dazzled readers in 1958 with Ice Palace, a tale that went behind the headlines of Alaska’s fight to become a state.

The story is about Christine Stone, a beautiful and brainy young Alaskan woman brought up by her two grandfathers, both Alaskan pioneers. Grandfather Thor Stone is passionate about the land and its people; Grandfather Czar Kennedy is passionate about getting rich from Alaska’s resources.

Czar is maneuvering to get Chris to marry Bay Husack, son of one of his wealthy “outside” friends. He wants Bay to be the first governor of Alaska and then become President.

Thor is working equally hard at undermining Czar.

The future of Alaska hangs in the balance.

Yeah, right.

Ice Palace is part travelogue, part tract. Ferber takes readers through Alaska with the enthusiasm of Rick Steen, then lambastes corporate greed with the zeal of John Bunyon. Even the names Thor and Czar are reminiscent of the symbolic names in Pilgrim’s Progress.

There are some interesting factual tidbits in Ice Palace, but if you want a plausible plot and believable characters, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

P.S. The guys in the white parkas win.

Ice Palace
by Edna Ferber
Doubleday, 1958
351 pages
1958 bestseller #7
My Grade: C-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni