The Jungle is ferocious fiction

Anyone who could call Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle entertainment is morally bankrupt.

The novel, which rocked America in 1906, is exposé, propaganda, political theater.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Viking, 1905. 343 p. 1906 bestseller #6. My grade B-.

Corrupt Chicago politicians. Salmonella-tainted food. Sub-prime mortgages. Water supplies poisoned by industrial waste.

Sinclair exposed them all.first edition cover of The Jungle shows industrial age factories.

Sinclair weaves a journalist’s reporting around the fictional story of a Lithuanian peasant family that comes to the US for a better life.

They have little money, no English. The only person they know lives in Chicago, so that’s where they go.

They get jobs in the vast meat packing industry.

It’s brutally hard, dehumanizing work.

They can’t make a decent living.

They are dependent on credit.

One slip—an accident, an illness—and they may starve or freeze to death.

Sinclair is less interested in his characters as persons than as representatives. His omniscient narrator keeps readers from getting too close to them.

Scenes are Sinclair’s forté: Slaughterhouses, boarding houses, jails, saloons, and brothels are described in sickening detail.

Sinclair’s protagonist, Jurgis, finally comes to see that his personal problems are epidemic, systemic.

Jurgis becomes a socialist.

The socialists have one advantage over other workers: They believe someday things will be better.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Vein of Iron pulses with unsentimental goodness

The Fincastle family of Ironside is what, in the early 1900s was referred to as “salt of the earth folks.”

Poor, hardworking, highly principled, they can be counted on to tend the sick, comfort the dying, stick up for the outcast.

Vein of Iron  by Ellen Glasgow

Harcourt, Brace, 1935. 462 pages. 1935 bestseller #2. My Grade: B.

1930's commercial street  scene is on cover of paperback edition of Vein of Iron The boy Ada Fincastle plans to marry, Ralph McBride, is accused of getting a local girl pregnant. The families force Ralph to marry her.

Awaiting a divorce, Ralph entices Ada to spend a weekend with him before he is sent off to France.

Ada goes through the disgrace of an unwed pregnancy.

After the Armistice, they marry.

The family, including Ada’s father and her aunt, moves from Ironside to a poor section of Queenborough. They have money saved toward a home when Ralph has a car accident.

The household is just beginning to recover from that crisis in 1929 when the stock market crashes.

Ada’s father goes home to Ironside to die; the rest of the family go back there to live.

Ellen Glasgow tells the story in an unsentimental, matter-of-fact way that makes it feel like biography. That no-nonsense tone gives the novel authority and power.

You’ll come away respecting the Fincastles rather than loving them — which is precisely as they would have wished.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Little Man, What Now? Inspires and Terrifies

Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? is a good novel in good times. In an economic downturn, it’s absolutely chilling.

Pinneberg does the right thing by his pregnant girlfriend, Bunny. His salary as a clerk barely covers his own needs, and setting up housekeeping is far more expensive than either had expected. Pinneberg assures Bunny that a baby is almost no expense in the first year; they’ll manage.

Bunny, a sweet girl with no practical skills, learns to cook, to make do. She finds them an attic apartment, cheap because it’s accessible only by ladder and operating outside the law.

Then Pinneberg loses his job. He finds another selling clothes on commission. When the company imposes quotas, he is out of a job again and on the dole. An acquaintance lets them rent a shed on small country property he owns. They would be destitute except for what Bunny earns doing mending.

Bunny refuses to let Pinneberg steal wood for fuel.

“He must keep his self-respect,” she tells her father-in-law. “It’s our only luxury, we must stick to it.”

Fallada’s matter-of-factness makes the misery and courage of this young couple both inspirational and terrifying.

Put Little Man What Now? on your must-read list.

Little Man, What Now?
By Hans Fallada
Simon and Schuster, 1933
Trans. From the German by Eric Sutton
383 pages
1933 #10
My grade; A

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—and it still flourishing 50 years later

Tree Warm sunny day and blue sky.A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about Francie Nolan growing up in Brooklyn in the years just before and during World War I. Francie has a loving family, a library card, and little else.

Francie’s Mother is a cleaning woman, her father a singing waiter with a fondness for the bottle. Both parents want a better life for their kids.

After Johnny dies, Katie is forced to let Francie and her brother, Neeley, quit school to work, though neither is old enough to get working papers. Against the odds, Francie manages to work and get her diploma.

When Katie marries a well-off widower, Francie and Neeley feel sorry for their baby sister because she won’t have the fun they had.

The story outline sounds rather sentimental, but there is nothing sentimental about Betty Smith’s presentation. The characters are authentic individuals. Even the coincidences in the plot are plausible.

The book has a episodic quality that takes a little getting used to. It made me feel I was reading someone’s journal rather than a piece of fiction. The writing is not that of a teenager, but Betty Smith makes you feel you’re watching a teenager growing up.

For an optimistic look at real life, you can’t beat  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
By Betty Smith
Harper & Brothers, 1943
443 pages
My Grade: Grade: A-

Photo Credit: Tree by wense91

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

No Charm Left in Mrs. Wiggs’ Cabbage Patch

Nothing about Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch was what I expected. I was prepared for a quaint, Beatrix Potter-type tale for children. Boy, was I surprised.

The Cabbage Patch is the city slum where Mrs. Wiggs and her five children have lived since her drunken husband died and her country cottage burned to the ground.

On his deathbed, Jim, the family breadwinner, tells his mother to seek help from “The Christmas lady” who brought them basket from her church. Lucy, Jim’s Christmas lady, writes a newspaper story about the family’s situation. Contributions flood in that allow the family to scrape by for a year.

Meanwhile, a man helps Billy Wiggs and his sister get jobs that will allow the family to get along without accepting charity.

When Lucy meets Billy’s kind “Mr. Bob,” he is none other than the fiancé Lucy spurned for keeping bad company. The lovers are reunited and the book ends in a rose-colored glow.

Much of this 1901 story is foreign to today’s readers: horse carts, peg-legs, home Sunday Schools, for example. And I’m sure the moral issues over which Lucy and Bob split would be totally incomprehensible.

Despite its charming title, this sappy won’t appeal today’s readers, adult or juvenile.

Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch
Alice Hegan Rice
Century, 1901
160 pages
Bestseller #2 for 1902,
Bestseller #6 for 1903
Project Gutenberg ebook #4377
My Grade: C-
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Three Loves Reveals One Controlling Woman

Old photos of women

If you expect A. J. Cronin’s Three Loves to be one of his typical heartwarming tales of a dedicated doctor, you are in for a shock.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Lucy Murray married Frank Moore, an easy-going commercial traveler, whom she loves as much for what she thinks she can mold him into as for what he is. She’s willing to do anything for Frank except let Frank decide what he wants done.

Frank’s death in a boating accident for which Lucy was really responsible leaves her to raise their son, Peter, alone. She’s willing to accept any hardship to see that Peter becomes a doctor.

Lucy wrangles her way into Frank’s old job, and does it better than he. When the firm is sold, she is forced to take the only job available: collecting rent in the slums.

Peter gets his degree, but marries a rich girl whose father made his fortune renting the slum dwellings where Lucy collected rents. Lucy’s fortunes sink lower.

She wanders into a church where she falls in love with Jesus and decides to enter holy orders. Instead of the ecstatic spiritual union she seeks, she finds debilitating emotional and physical deprivation.

Lucy’s personality mingles resourcefulness, perseverance, and loyalty with a selfish passion for control, which she calls love. Having established her essential characteristics, Cronin turns her loose and watches what happens.

The novel is uneven. It would be stronger without plot elements Cronin introduces only to drop them again. But despite its flaws, Three Loves is a compelling portrait that readers won’t soon forget.

Three Loves
A. J. Cronin
Little, Brown, 1932
Pyramid Books, 1960
1932 Bestseller #10

Photo credit: “Old photos”  by juliaf

© 2012 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

Tomorrow Will Be Better Skewers the American Dream

Tomorrow Will Be Better is Betty Smith’s second bestseller about poor folks who ask nothing more than a chance to work so their kids can have a better life.

Maggy Shannon, 16, just out of school, finds her first job sorting correspondence in a mail-order firm. Her department head, Mr. Prentiss is about twice her age, but his courtesy to her and to his demanding mother make him the object of Maggy’s fantasies.

The only boy Maggy knows is Frankie Malone, a classmate at PS18. Despite disapproval from both families, they marry.

When Maggy becomes pregnant, the unexpected expenses of the birth and burial of the stillborn infant expose the shaky foundation of her marriage.

The central issue of the novel is whether poor people really can improve their lot just by working hard. Smith suggests they can’t. The Shannons and Malones can’t set money aside for unexpected expenses.

What’s even worse, living on the edge makes people cranky and irrational. Bitterness become entrenched. Bickering pulls families apart.

Smith tells Maggy’s story simply and with compassion. The characters are very believable and very ordinary. The plot, too, is a slice of ordinary life. That ordinariness makes Tomorrow Will Be Better both compelling and important.

Tomorrow Will Be Better
By Betty Smith
Harper, 1948
274 pages
Bestseller # 5 for 1948
My Grade: B+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni