The Road to Understanding is a road not taken

If Burke Denby had not been given all the frosted cakes and toy shotguns he wanted at the age of ten, it might not have been so difficult to convince him at the age of twenty that he did not want to marry Helen Barnet.

That opening sentence of The Road to Understanding made me hopeful that the novel was going to be better than the pabulum I expect from Eleanor H. Porter.

I was disappointed.

The Road to Understanding by Eleanor H. Porter
Mary Greene Blumenschein, Illus., Houghton Mifflin, 1917. 373 pp. 1917 bestseller #4. Project Gutenberg eBook #35093. My grade: B-.

Man listens to woman holding baby girl
Helen seeks a Henry Higgens to turn her into a lady.

Burke Denby is rich and spoiled; Helen Barnet is poor and spoiled.

Their fairy tale romance turns sour: Neither has life skills, self-control, or experience considering anyone’s perspective but their own.

Other than giving Burke an entry-level job in his business, John Denby does not help the newlyweds.

The birth of their daughter adds to the strain.

John Denby steps in with an offer of separate vacations for the pair at his expense: Burke to come with him to Alaska, Helen to take the baby and go visit in her hometown.

Helen and baby Betty disappear without a trace.

Burke never sees either again until Betty is a grown woman.

After establishing the personalities and conflict, Porter doesn’t let them develop as their natures and situations suggest. She has the spoiled Burke happily accepted as a regular guy by the men at his father’s plant, and Helen learn to manage servants so she need not have to cook for her family.

The book ends with a happy family reunion as believable as a zombie Santa Claus.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

O, Money! Money! financially sound fun from the glad girl author

Eleanor H. Porter recovered from writing two Pollyanna novels with the 1918 publication of Oh Money! Money! a rollicking tale that makes “the glad girl” look downright dull.

It also manages to make good financial sense.

Stacks of money with surprinted message that money won't buy happiness unless exchanged for things that will bring happiness

Oh, Money! Money! A Novel by Eleanor H. Porter

Helen Mason Grose, illus. 1918 bestseller #5. Project Gutenberg ebook #5962.
My grade: B+.

At age 52, bachelor Stanley G. Fulton knows he should name an heir to his $20 million.

His only family are three cousins named Blaisdell whom he’s never met.

He decides to them each $100,000 a test of their ability to manage a sudden windfall.

Calling himself John Smith, a man doing research into the history of the Blaisdell family,  Stan travels east to Hillerton and becomes a boarder with his cousin Fred’s family.

His research allows “Mr.Smith” entree into the homes of all his relatives so he can see how each recipient handles a windfall.

His unassuming personality soon has them accepting his presence at every discussion of family business.

Stan is introduced to “Poor Maggie,” a relative by marriage whose good sense and empathy make her a favorite with everyone in Hillerton.

Unlike the Pollyanna novels that sound forced, Money! sparkles.

“Mr. Smith” and “Poor Maggie” don’t have to play a glad game: They’re mature people who’ve learned how to be content.

And the three Blaisdell households’ different attitudes toward money reflect small town America into the 1930s.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Just David is just dumb

Eleanor H. Porter produced Just David, a male version of “the glad girl,”  three years after Pollyanna.

The similarities are striking; the differences work to Just David‘s detriment.


Just David by Eleanor H. Porter

1916 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg ebook #440. My Grade: C.

As the story opens, David, a 10-year-old prodigy, is living in the remote woods with his father.

Realizing he’s seriously ill, the father starts down the mountain with his son, their violins, and a few belongings.

Two days later, the father dies in a Hinsdale barn in which they’ve sheltered.

The surly farmer and his wife take David in.

David transforms their village, has a nearly fatal illness, and recovers in time to arrange a marriage.

Sound familiar?

Whereas Pollyanna was notable for her unusual attitude, David is odd in nearly every way a boy can be:

  • He knows French and Latin but not his own last name.
  • He knows the names of all the local plants, but has no idea what money is.
  • He’s spent days in the woods, but never seen any dead animal.
  • He understands the necessity of training for a musical career, but not the necessity of having wood for a fire.

The other characters are as implausible as David.

You’ll be glad not to have to read this novel.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Credit: Violinist, a double exposure photograph by Dora Mitsonia


Pollyanna grows older but no more mature

Eleanor H. Porter’s “Glad Girl,” Pollyanna, captivated readers, who clamored for more about the plucky orphan.

Porter obliged with Pollyanna Grows Up.

 Pollyanna Grows Up by Eleanor H. Porter

Page, 1914. 306 pp. Project Gutenberg ebook #6100. 1915 bestseller #4. My grade: B-. 

Worried that her niece will be spoiled by being treated as a “cure” for depressed people, while she and her husband go abroad Aunt Polly lets Pollyanna spend a year in Boston with a rich, miserable widow.

Under Pollyanna’s influence, Mrs. Carew adopts a crippled orphan with the same name as her lost nephew, Jamie, and befriends a shop girl, Sadie.

After the year in Boston, Pollyanna goes to live with with her Aunt Polly and her husband in Europe.

When Aunt Polly’s husband dies, she and Pollyanna return to Beldingsville, where they have a house but no income.

Pollyanna decides to take in boarders, beginning with Mrs. Carew and her entourage. Pollyanna introduces them to her Beldingsville friends, resulting in a web of romantic entanglements.

The plot of Pollyanna Grows Up is even more clumsy and contrived than that of its predecessor.

What’s more, the self-assurance that made the child Pollyanna invulnerable to insult makes the adult Pollyanna appear stupidly insensitive to emotional tone.

All but die-hard Porter fans will find, I fear, that Pollyanna hasn’t so much grown up as grown old.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dawn Shows Work Is Necessary to Happiness

After hitting the sales charts with Pollyanna in 1913 and Pollyanna Grows Up in 1915, Eleanor H. Porter repeated her feat in 1919 with Dawn, a novel that’s better than either of them.

As the story opens, young Dan Burton learns the man who mends toys for neighborhood kids has gone blind. Dan immediately decides his blurred vision means he’s going blind, too.

It turns out Dan is right.

He undergoes several operations, none successful.

Boys Dan’s age are being sent to the trenches of France. Dan’s father seeks to avoid seeing anything that’s unpleasant, including the son who can’t go to war.

Susan, the Burton’s maid-of-all-work forces Dan to accept his blindness as a challenge. When the wounded start being sent home, Dan finds he can be useful to others who have lost their sight, which was often associated with facial disfigurement common in WWI trench warfare.

There’s none of the upbeat sentimentality of the Pollyanna books in Dawn. Dawn‘s characters accept reality or hide from it, but they don’t attempt to sugar coat it.

Dawn is moderately entertaining as a novel, but more intriguing as artifact of an author working to master her craft. Alert readers will see echoes of other novelists’ works — they’re the off-key notes in Porter’s melodies.

By Eleanor H. Porter
Illustrations by Lucius Wolcott Hitchcock (not available in digital text)
1919 bestseller #7
Project Gutenberg e-book #5874
My grade: B-

© 2014  Linda Gorton Aragoni

Orphan Stories My Favorites from 1913

To say bestsellers of 1913 haven’t held up well is an understatement.

Of the 10 novels that topped the sales charts in 1913, only Pollyanna is a title that will ring a bell  with most modern readers. It’s fame is probably due more to the 1960 movie version starring Hayley Mills than to Porter’s novel.  In most of the other bestsellers  of 1913, the message gets in the way of the story.

Forced to choose my favorites of the 1913 bestselling novels, I’d pick two  novels by women authors known for juvenile fiction:  Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter, and T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Both of my picks are eponymous novels about orphans . (Orphans were as common in America up to World War I as children from single-parent homes are today.)   Neither novel is realistic, though T. Tembarom is marginally superior to Pollyanna on that count.

Both orphans have cheerful dispositions and a willingness to make the best of whatever comes their way.

And, since I’m a sucker for cheerful kids, I’ll choose these two as the best of a bad crop of bestselling novels.

Pollyanna Shows Kids Power of Positive Thinking

Pollyanna is Norman Vincent Peale for children.

Orphaned at 11, Pollyanna Whittier comes to stay with her spinster aunt in Vermont. Aunt Polly never approved of her sister’s marriage to a penniless preacher, but she feels it is her duty to give her niece a home.

Friendly and outgoing, Pollyanna was taught by her father to look for something to be glad about in every bad situation. Before long, she’s taught dozens of people in Beldingsville to “play the glad game.”

Pollyanna assumes her aunt is kind and generous, leaving Aunt Polly little choice but to live up to her expectations.

Aunt Polly lets Pollyanna bring home a stray kitten and stray mutt, but draws the line at adopting orphan Jimmy Bean.

When bachelor John Pendleton wants to adopt her, Pollyanna gets the idea he was once Aunt Polly’s suitor. She’s wrong. Pendleton was in love with Pollyanna’s mother.

Aunt Polly’s suitor was Dr. Thomas Chilton. When Pollyanna is struck by a car, need you guess what doctor comes to the rescue?

Of course, the plot and characters are totally implausible, but Pollyanna herself is totally engaging.

And the cliché that you can be happy by looking for happiness has enough truth in it to make Pollyanna worth rereading.

by Eleanor H. Porter
310 pages
1913 bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg e-book #1450
My grade:  C+

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mary Marie Joins Smiles and Sense

Mary Marie is a sweet and funny novel about divorce written from the perspective of Illustration from Mary Mariea precocious 1920’s teen.

Mary Marie, 13, is excited that her parents are divorcing on grounds of incompatability. She is to live six months a year in Boston with her mother, whom she adores, and who calls her Marie. The other six she’s to live with her father, an astronomer and college president to whom the daughter he calls Mary is, in her words, “nothing but a daughter by order of the court.”

Mary Marie watches to see which of the men who buzz around her mother is most likely to become Mary Marie’s second father. She realizes that her mother is not seriously interested in any of them.

Her first summer in Andersonville, Mary Marie’s father takes an intermittent interest in her, asking enough about her life in Boston and siding with her wish for fun to make the girl wish for a closer relationship with him.

Mrs. Anderson wrongly blames herself entirely for the divorce. “It’s the child that always pays for the mother’s mistakes and short-sightedness, just as it is the soldier that pays for his commanding officer’s blunders,” she says.

Eleanor H. Porter has made Mary Marie both observant and believably naive, much as Elizabeth Berg did more recently with Katie in Joy School. Adult readers will sense how close Mary Marie comes to getting into real trouble, even though teenagers may miss that entirely.

Whether you’re 14 or 64, this slender novel is worth reading.

Mary Marie
by Eleanor H[odgman] Porter
1920 bestseller #6
Project Gutenberg ebook #11143
My grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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