The Foxes of Harrow not worth digging out

Steven Fox arrives in New Orleans in 1825, broke and friendless.

By his gambling and his good looks, he makes a fortune and buys land, working along side his slaves to make it prosper.

The Foxes of Harrow by Frank Yerby

Dial Press, 1946. 408 p. 1946 bestseller #6. My grade: C-.

Before long Harrow is the greatest plantation in Louisiana, its manor house a gem on the Mississippi.

Steven marries Odalie Orceneaux by whom he has two children.

After her death he marries her sister, Aurore.

And on the side he has a quadroon mistress.

As Harrow grows more prosperous and influential, the South prepares for war. Steven lays aside his anti-secession principles to fight for the South.

In the introduction to The Foxes of Harrow, Frank Yerby makes the glory and ruin of Harrow Plantation almost palpable, but the story never lives up to its setting.

Yerby starts out writing about people in the pre-Civil War South, and ends up writing an historical novel about the South.

The characters, too, are not consistent.

Initially conniving, thieving, self-centered, and cruel, Steven magically becomes loyal, generous, and statesmanlike by the book’s end.

The best thing to be said for The Foxes of Harrow is that it’s better than its sequels.

But it’s no Gone With the Wind.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Good entertainment on The River Road

Gervais d’Alvery comes home from World War I to marry his sweetheart, Merry Randall, and make his Louisiana sugar plantation profitable again.

Gervais sees state politics as a means of improving the economic climate for planters like himself. His war-hero status, family name, and good looks make him a natural.

The River Road by Frances Parkinson Keyes

Julian Messner, 1945. 747 p. 1946 bestseller #3. My grade: B.

Workers load long stalks of sugar cane on a wagonBy their 10th anniversary, the couple have five children, a huge mortgage, and a none-too-well-hidden secret.

As Gervais tries to resuscitate his family fortunes, other men with less aristocratic origins —and some with far fewer principles — are making their mark in business and politics.

Louisiana in World War II will be far different than in World War I.

In The River Road, Frances Parkinson Keyes displays the story-telling flair that made her one of the top names in fiction in the middle of the last century.

The plot is intricate, but nothing seems extraneous in this well-crafted novel.

The characters are complex individuals. They have annoying foibles as well as some outright flaws, but they are believable, likable human beings.

A few weeks after you close the covers, you’ll have forgotten what The River Road was about,  but while you’re reading, it will give as much pleasure as it did in ’46.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Lion Is in the Streets. Look for it.

Thanks to Adria Locke Langley’s decision to let Verity Martin tell the story of her charismatic husband’s political career, A Lion Is in the Streets is a political novel that can be enjoyed by folks who don’t like political novels.

As the book opens, Hank Martin is dead, killed by an assassin’s bullet. As Verity listens to a reporter tell the story of Hank’s life, she recalls the events as she saw them.

A Lion Is in the Streets by Adria Locke Langley

Blakiston, 1945. 345 pages. 1945 bestseller #6. My Grade: A-.

cover of "A Lion is in the Streets" is solid gray with title in silver
Don’t judge this book by its cover. It’s not a boring novel.

A Yankee schoolteacher, Verity fell for a southern peddler with dreams of being governor.

While he was out organizing a political machine, she stayed home in a little share-cropper cottage.

Almost from the first, Verity knew Hank’s sex appeal was a potential threat to her marriage.

It took her years to realize Hank’s lust for power is even more destructive than his sex drive, not only for their family but also for the whole state.

Langley does a superb job of making these people seem real. They are complicated bundles of inexplicable contradictions.

In some ways, each character knows the others better than they know themselves.

Like politics, much of the plot has to be grasped from innuendo. You’ll need to read slowly, picturing the scenes, or you’ll miss the point.

The effort is worth it.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Arthur Hailey Dishes Up a Literary Mac-and-Cheese in Hotel

Hotel is a lot like home: The settings, personalities, and action are all comfortably familiar. By the time you’re a quarter way through the novel, you know how the main plot line will end.

Fortunately Arthur Hailey packs his 1965 novel with enough subplots that, although each of them is also familiar, the collection will keep you entertained.

Multi-story hotel is image on front dust jacket of Arthur Hailey's novel "Hotel"


Hotel  by Arthur Hailey

Doubleday, 1965. 376 pages. 1965 bestseller #8. My grade: B-.

Peter McDermott is the young general manger of a failing, privately-owned New Orleans Hotel, He’s competent and reliable, though hounded by a youthful indiscretion.

Peter would have fired several incompetent and unreliable senior staff members had the St. Gregory’s dictatorial owner, Warren Trent, not protected them.

Unless Trent can refinance the hotel’s mortgage by Friday, they will have to take their chances under new ownership.

When an elderly guest stops breathing, Peter and Trent’s assistant, Christine Francis, cope with the medical emergency and the staff actions that triggered the respiratory crisis.

They also become aware of each other as attractive, unattached individuals.

Hailey did his research. Right down to the fat security chief who’s never around when needed, the problems and personalities of St. Gregory staff look like those I saw while working in an independently owned hotel.

Hotel will occupy your time without straining your brain.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Benton’s Row Is Uneven and Unoriginal

If I were asked whether Frank Yerby’s Benton’s Row is

a) a typical Yerby novel
b) better than the typical Yerby novel
c) worse than the typical Yerby novel
d) all of the above

I’d choose D.

Benton’s Row is in three parts. The first is standard Yerby: Tom Benton, an ambitious poor boy, irresistible to women, achieves fame and fortune in America’s South before the Civil War.

Part two, set during during Reconstruction, focuses on Tom’s widow, Sarah, remarried to the local doctor, and the extended family of Tom Benton’s legitimate and bastard children.

Yerby, who usually uses paper dolls for his female characters, does a surprisingly good job portraying Sarah.

In this middle section, Yerby also surprises with his depiction of plantations of the interior South as an unpainted log homes and the planters as not substantially better off financially than their slaves.

Unfortunately, Yerby destroys the impact of his original elements by ending the middle section with an incident distressingly similar to a scene from Zane Grey’s  To the Last Man.

The third part of Benton’s Row is a hodgepodge of stories about Tom Benton’s progeny and grandchildren during and after World War I. It’s hard to keep track of who’s who — and even harder to care.

Benton’s Row
by Frank Yerby
Dial Press, 1954
280 pages
1954 bestseller #10
My grade: C-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Anthony Adverse Proves Size Isn’t Everything

Anthony Adverse sold 300,000 copies in its first six months on the market. Perhaps the whopping size of Hervey Allen’s novel made thrifty, depression-era readers think they had a bargain.

Here’s the gist of the confusing tale.

In 1775, Spanish diplomat Don Luis dumps his dead wife’s love child at a convent. Anthony Adverse grows up and is apprenticed to a slave trader who is really Anthony’s grandfather, although Anthony doesn’t know that.

Anthony is seduced by his late mother’s maid, Faith, before he takes his first sales trip. When he returns, Faith has married Don Luis and one of Anthony’s old flames is Napoleon’s mistress.

Anthony’s work takes him to Louisiana where he marries another childhood sweetheart who dies when their plantation house burns.

After the fire, Anthony retreats into the wilderness where he becomes a spiritual giant through some vague metamorphosis.

Captured by Indians, turned over to Don Luis, now governor of Santa Fe, Anthony is rescued by another childhood sweetheart. The couple live happily until Anthony’s death in a freak accident.

The freak accident is the most plausible incident in the novel; the characters and message are equally improbable.

No matter how hard up you are, you won’t find Anthony Adverse any bargain.

Anthony Adverse
By Hervey Allen
Farrar & Rinehart, 1933
1224 pages
1933 Bestseller #1
My grade: C-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Unconquered shows unended War Between the States

Natural cotton plant
Natural Cotton

In The Unconquered, Ben Ames Williams picks up the story of the South during the mid-1800s that he began in House Divided.

Having lost their estates, Major Travis Currain and family move to New Orleans where he hopes to revive their fortunes by manufacturing cottonseed oil.

Trav’s old-South family ties and friendship with men of vastly different political persuasions let him see the events of Reconstruction from a variety of angles. Trav refuses to be drawn into Louisiana politics himself, but rising political tensions strike home anyway. Trav’s son, Peter, finds outlet for his sadism in murdering blacks; his daughter, Lucy, marries a former Maine schoolteacher who works for the despised Freedman’s Bureau.

Few writers can handle historical fiction as well as Williams, and here he is in top form.

The Unconquered shows the cauldron of Louisiana politics seething until it boils over, slinging death in all directions. Enough animosity remains for many years of smaller spills.

With the exception of the totally rotten Peter Currain,  the characters are each believable mixes of good and bad traits, but Williams makes even Peter believable.

The Unconquered drives home the point that the war isn’t over when the fighting ends—a truism as valid in Iraq or Afghanistan as in Louisiana.

The Unconquered
By Ben Ames Williams
Houghton Mifflin, 1953
683 pages
1953 bestseller #10
My grade A-

Photo credit: Natural Cotton by robertz65

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Keyes missed boat with ’52 novel


Ornate mansions reminiscent of Mississippi riverboats were the inspiration for Steamboat Gothic. Like the architecture, Frances Parkinson Keyes’ novel is massive, ornate, and richly detailed. But like its architectural counterpart, the novel lacks the realistic characters that are the literary equivalent of indoor plumbing. And the book is so long, I kept wishing Keyes had been inspired by Bauhaus.

The story concerns Clyde Batchelor, an orphan boy who makes a fortune as a riverboat gambler. He woos and wins a Civil War widow, Lucy Page, and settles her in a Louisiana mansion.

The two live happily ever after, happily, that is, except for problems created by Lucy’s two children. Bushrod, an unpleasant child, grows into a thoroughly despicable man. Cary, the apple of her stepfather’s eye, is a delight until on her honeymoon she falls in love with a man other than her husband.

The last half of the novel traces the adventures of Cary’s son, Larry, as he grows to manhood during World War I. Larry inherits not only the family real estate, but the consequences of wrongs committed by his grandparents. He triumphs in the end, but by then nobody cares.

Steamboat Gothic
Frances Parkinson Keyes
Julian Messner, 1952
560 pages
1952 Bestseller #5
My grade: C-

Photo credit: “Steamboat 3” uploaded by Des1gn

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dinner at Antoine’s always delights

Dinner at Antoine’s is an endlessly pleasing novel. Since I found it on my mother’s bookshelf back in the ’60s, I’ve read it many times. I never remember reading it until I’m almost done, but I enjoy it every time.

Orson Foxworth gives a dinner at Antonine’s restaurant to introduce his niece Ruth Avery to his New Orleans friends, including Amélie Lalande, the woman he plans to marry, and her family.

Ruth is immediately drawn to Amelie’s married daughter, Odile, but repelled by the sexually charged relationship between Odile’s husband and her sister — as well as by Amélie’s refusal to notice anything wrong.

When Odile is found shot to death the day after her doctor diagnoses her trembling as the first sign of an incurable condition that will paralyze her , there’s no shortage of suspects. Everyone from Odile’s mother to Foxworth appears to have a motive for murder — if it was murder and not suicide.

To the murder mystery, Frances Parkinson Keyes adds two love stories, a conspiracy to overthrow a Latin American government, and generous dollop of New Orleans insider tittle-tattle. The result is as pleasant an evening’s reading as you could hope to find.

Dinner at Antoine’s
By Frances Parkinson Keyes
Julian Messner 1948
366 pages
Bestseller # 3 for 1948
My Grade: B
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Blue Camellia makes impossible seem plausible

Blue Camellia is a typical Frances Parkinson Keyes novel of the post-Civil War South.

Well-plotted, founded on historical fact and peopled by believable characters, it neither ignores nor dwells on the seamier side of life.

In 1886, Brent and Mary Winslow and their daughter, Lavinia, sell their Illinois farm and head for Crowley, Louisiana, where enterprising developers plan a county seat on the prairie.

The town is a depressing few frame buildings in a mud sea when Winslows arrive. Brent buys farmland outside town, promising Mary that their fortunes will turn. Together, they will achieve the impossible. They’ll have a “blue camellia.” 

Ignoring snakes, Mary dons rubber boots and works in the rice fields with Brett. Hard work and shrewd investing makes the Winslows wealthy. Meanwhile, Lavinia has had her heart broken by the black sheep of the nearest Cajun neighbors’ family.

For a while, Lavinia’s problems absorb everyone except her father: He’s absorbed in trying to create a better strain of rice. Eventually even Brett realizes something has to be done about Lavinia. Somehow, she has to achieve her own blue camellia. 

Although there’s no long-term value to this novel, Blue Camellia will keep you entertained.

Sometimes that’s enough.

Blue Camellia
By Frances Parkinson Keyes
Julian Messner, 1957
430 pages
#5 bestseller of 1957
My grade: B-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni