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


So Red the Rose Gives Back Home View of War

Thorns on a rose bush
Roses have thorns

So Red the Rose is a Civil War novel on which that label seems misplaced.

Stark Young looks at the war from the perspective of the people who stayed home. Instead of sweeping battle scenes, readers see women sweeping carpets, trying to keep their families and traditions alive.

Young writes the story as a series of scenes in the lives of the residents of two plantations along the Mississippi, Portobello and Montrose.  They learn about events from newspapers, letters, and gossip from someone whose cousin knew someone who was there.

You won’t catch these people crying in public.

It’s just not done.

When their homes are looted, their livelihood destroyed, their lovers and sons killed, their traditional courtesy requires the Southerners to sustain a semblance of normal life: To give in to misery would make others uncomfortable.

The novel is not a consecutive narrative. To understand what’s happening, readers have to imagine each scene, much as they would if they were reading a play.

Although So Red the Rose demands a lot from readers, it gives a unique perspective on ordinary life in a country at war.

So Red the Rose
By Stark Young
Charles Scribner’s’ Sons
431 pages
1934 bestseller # 3
My Grade: B+

Photo credit: Thorns by kriegs

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Laughs overlay nostalgia in The Reivers

black antique car
Antique Car

The Reivers is a zany tale of a none-too-innocent rural Mississippi childhood related by Lucius Priest to his grandson.

At age 11, Lucius and two pals who work at the family’s freight business borrow his grandfather’s automobile and drive up to Memphis from Jefferson, Mississippi, no mean feat in 1905.

While Boon and Lucius eat supper at a brothel where Boon’s girl friend works, Ned trades the car for a horse. Ned plans to race the horse, bet heavily, collect a pile, and get the car back when the horse wins.

Unfortunately, the horse hates to run unless there’s another horse ahead of him.

Ned has to enlist Boon and Lucius to help.

William Faulkner’s narrator tells the story in a wheezy, cracker barrel manner, letting readers deduce what actually happened—if that is possible.  The yarn may be only a few facts embroidered by an old man’s fancy, the characters might be just enhanced wisps of Lucius’ memory.

The charm of the story is believing there was once a time when people who cared about one another might have had exciting adventures together and never come to any harm.

The Reivers: A Reminiscence
William Faulkner
Random House, 1962
305 pages
1962 Bestseller #10
My grade: B
 © 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: Black Antique car uploaded by Still

The Prodigal Judge refuses to be a failure

Thrilling adventure, tender romance, pathos and humor combine to give The Prodigal Judge the sweep and cinemagraphic qualities of Gone with the Wind without that novel’s sexiness.

But what it lacks in sexiness, The Prodigal Judge more than makes up for its humanity.

In the opening pages, Vaughan Kester hooks readers with a mystery: why did General Quintart give a home to Hannibal Wayne Hazard yet refuse to ever see the boy?

The novel’s unlikely hero, 60-year-old Judge Slocum Price, a destitute drunk, doesn’t appear until chapter 9. By that time:

  • the General is dead;
  • 10-year-old Hannibal has survived two kidnapping attempts;
  • the lad’s trusted companion, Bob Yancy, has been saved by an English lord from certain death in the waters of the Mississippi;
  • a dastardly villian is plotting a slave uprising; and
  • the lovely Miss Betty Maloy has agreed to marry a man she doesn’t love.

By rights, Kester’s book should be a dismal failure. The book’s premise is far-fetched.  The plot is hopelessly complicated. The characters are an odd lot of rejects from other novels. And yet the whole book works.

The Prodigal Judge is proof a great read need not be a great book.

The Prodigal Judge
By Vaughan Kester
1911 bestseller # 2
Project Gutenberg EBook #5129
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni