Ship of Fools is vehicle for unpleasant truths

Ship of Fools is not a pleasant story, but Katherine Anne Porter’s rendition of the ship of the world voyaging to certain disaster makes compelling reading.

A German ship, the Vera, leaves Veracruz, Mexico, for Bremerhaven, Germany Aug. 22, 1931. Most of the first class passengers are ex-patriots returning home. They are joined by a sprinkling of students going to study in Europe, tourists, Catholic priests, and an aging Spanish Contessa who has been deported from Cuba for political reasons.

In steerage are 876 Spanish agricultural workers being deported from Cuba because the sugar industry in which they worked has failed.

Despite the number of characters, Porter makes them distinctive individuals. Each elicits , if not sympathy, at least a measure of understanding.

Being confined in a small ship for 27 days brings out the cruelty and bigotry of individuals. National and religious biases are magnified. All leave the ship with relief at finally being home in a familiar, comfortable place.

Readers see what the voyagers do not: home will not be better. Europe will soon be torn apart by cruelty and bigotry on a colossal scale, yet World War II will change nothing. People will remain blind to any interests but their own.

Ship of Fools
Katherine Anne Porter
Little, Brown 1962
497 pages
 1962 #1
My grade B+
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Exile Is Worth Bringing Home Again

To relieve her widowed mother’s financial burden and escape England’s gray drizzle, Miss “Billy” Brown goes to Tindaro. Her lack of Italian is no handicap for her job at Julia Lord’s English library and tea shop.

Before long, even Tindaro’s misfit exile community are shocked when novelist Oscar Slade decides to add the lovely and innocent Billy to his conquests through marriage. His jealous housekeeper prevents the marriage by murdering Slade before drowning herself.

Billy, who knew nothing of Slade’s reputation, hardens herself against her loss. She turns her energies to business, helping transform Julia’s modest operation into a thriving service agency.

Thomas Isherwood. an architect gassed in the war, has come to Italy to repair the damage to his lungs. In her professional capacity, Billy helps Isherwood locate and furnish a villa. In her unprofessional capacity, Billy helps him repair the damage to his emotions and softens her own in the process.

In outline, this plot sounds trite, but the novel has depth and perception.

Warwick Deeping’s keen eye for character and detail raise Exile above the pedestrian, subtly revealing the far-reaching consequences of youthful choices. His portrait of her mother’s relationship with Billy is a gem, but it’s only one of the nuanced portraits that make Deeping’s readers feel they are making discoveries about real people.

By Warwick Deeping
Alfred A. Knopf, 1930
330 pages
1930 bestseller #2
My grade B+

©2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Family: People without Passports

A Russian family, “ex-big, ex-great, ex-prosperous” has dwindled to five members living in Tientsin, China in 1937. They operate a boarding house whose rooms they rent to a rag-tag assortment of people of various nationalities whose lives are defined in terms of what they no longer have.

The family is loving, interested in life, and hopeful for the future.

Before long, the Japanese invade China and the family’s already precarious financial situation becomes dire.

Mother has to let the young people leave: Lida to become an American war bride, Dima to be adopted by a lonely English woman, Peter to be smuggled back into Russia. As the biological family scatters, Mother loves the boarders into becoming a family.

Nina Fedorova’s fluid prose will be welcomed by anyone put off by the dense, turgid paragraphs that mark most Russian works. She writes with wit, and  sensitivity about the struggles of people whose lives consist mainly of looking for work and doing without. By then end of The Family, however, her praise of strong women slips into sentimentality.

Despite that sentimentality, The Family remains an eye-opening glimpse of the lives of people without passports in a hostile world.

The Family
by Nina Fedorova
Little, Brown, 1940
346 pages
My grade: B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni