Colleen McCullough’s novel An Indecent Obsession is emotionally raw tale told with restraint and respect.
The story begins as World War II is about to end for men in Australian military hospital “troppo” ward who broke under the stresses of jungle warfare.
Nurse Honour Lantry has just five men left in ward X: Neil, their leader, whom Honour thinks she might like to know better post-war; blind Matt; hypochondriac Nugget; sadistic Luce Daggett, who scares her; and severely withdrawn Ben Maynard, the only one Honour thinks really belongs in a mental hospital.
The men call her “Sis.”
All except Luce respect and adore her.
The group’s dynamic is upset when Sergeant Michael Wilson appears at the ward. Compared to the others, Mike is obviously normal.
Honour can’t figure him out. His paperwork says he had a violent crisis; he says he tried to kill a man.
Honour, having served in the field for the entire war, is emotionally exhausted. She allows herself to feel unprofessional interest in Mike, which provokes a crisis.
McCullough relates the story from Honour’s perspective but with a degree of distance that refuses to let Honour be exonerated when she misinterprets what her senses perceive.
The Dim Lantern is old-fashioned romance that, despite a well-worn theme and predictable plot lines, is as cozy as hot tea and scones in a room smelling faintly of lavender.
Jane and Baldwin Barnes live in an unfashionable suburb of Washington, D.C. in mortgaged house inherited from their parents. Baldy is artistic, but works in an office to pay off the mortgage. Jane exercises her creativity by stretching money and having faith that good will ultimately prevail. There’s a nice boy next door, badly traumatized by his experiences in The Great War. Jane is a dim lantern in the blackness of his depression.
On his way to work, Baldy gives a ride and his heart to a young woman who obviously has never had to make her money stretch. Socialite Edith Towne is running away after the humiliation of her bridegroom’s failure to appear at their wedding.
Baldy enlists Jane to speak for Edith to her wealthy bachelor uncle, Frederick Towne. He falls for Jane, luring her with the prospect of how his wealth can provide the medical care her ailing sister desperately needs.
By page 344, Temple Bailey has provided all the answers everyone who has ever read a romance novel expects except one: Where did city-bred Edith acquire her knowledge of black Berkshire pigs?
The Dim Lantern
by Temple Bailey
Grosset & Dunlap, 1923
1923 bestseller #5
In The Road Back, Erick Maria Remarque follows the remnant of a German platoon returning home after for years in the trenches of France. They expect life to be as they remember it from their school days.
Some things haven’t changed. Mothers still dote on sons. Father still expect obedience. School administrators still wave the flag and talk about the glory of dying for one’s country.
But much has changed. The poor are poorer, the war profiteers richer.
And the boys have changed. They each suffer what we today call post-traumatic stress. The only people they can trust to understand are their buddies from the trenches.
Several of the men can’t adjust to post-war life.
Two commit suicide.
One is committed to a mental institution.
One ends up in jail for assault.
Remarque’s soldiers rail against the society that turned them from idealists into angry, bitter men — and which is already preparing to send another generation into war. Remarque’s fiction rings with such truth the Nazis banned his work.
As horrific as their experience has been, these men do not evoke sympathy. By necessity, they have hardened themselves until they seem a species apart.
Remarque’s novel is not the least bit entertaining. That’s why it remains an engrossing and an important novel.
The Road Back
By Erick Maria Remarque
Trans. by A. W. Whreen
1931 bestseller #6
My grade: A
The Desert of Wheat is an unsatisfactory romantic novel by the master of westerns, Zane Grey.
The story is set in the Bend Country of eastern Oregon in 1917 after America had declared war on Germany. The Industrial Workers of the World is organizing farm and timber workers to disrupt the war effort by sabotaging America’s food production.
Kurt Dorn sides with his father’s mortgage-holder, Anderson, against the IWW, causing a breach with his father. Anderson tells Kurt how to save his wheat crop. The plan succeeds, but the IWW burns the harvested wheat before it can be sold. Kurt’s father dies attempting to save the wheat, and Kurt deeds the farm to Anderson to pay the mortgage.
Kurt insists on going into the military to fight Germans. Anderson’s daughter Lenore promises to marry Kurt when he comes home.
Grey held me spellbound with the IWW material and his description of trench warfare in France. Lenore’s letting Kurt go to war made psychological sense to me, too. But I never got the sense that the issues that gave rise to the IWW were solved, nor that Kurt’s post traumatic stress was over.
I can’t help wondering what this novel might have been if Grey had shaken off the conventions of cowboy romance.
Pilgrim’s Inn is Elizabeth Goudge’s gentle novel of an English family pulling themselves back together after World War II.
Lady Lucilla Eliot gets her daughter-in-law to the country to interview a prospective governess. She lures Nadine’s husband and their five children out the same weekend to see a nearby country inn that’s for sale.
George and the children fall in love with Herb o’ Grace, and Nadine succumbs to their enthusiasm. The Eliots return to their roots in a setting the children recognize as being straight out of The Wind in the Willows.
Before long they are in residence and remodeling. They take in paying guests, including a famous painter and his daughter.
Meanwhile, Lucilla’s grandson, David, a noted actor before the war, has come home to recover from a mental breakdown.
The house is discovered to have been an inn for pilgrims. The renovation of the Herb o’ Grace becomes an opportunity for each member of the extended household to find peace and to restore and build relationships.
Goudge is not a great writer — her perspective shifts are a bit disorienting — but she is a kind one. Her compassion for people keeps The Pilgrim’s Inn readable when better but more cynical novels have been laid aside.
By Elizabeth Goudge
Bestseller # 9 for 1948
My Grade: C