The Tribe That Lost Its Head gives faces to headlines

As The Tribe That Lost Its Head opens, Oxford-educated Dinamaula Maula, 22, is returning home to become chief of his people on the British protectorate of Pharamaul, 600 miles west of South Africa.

From that beginning, Nicholas Monsarrat weaves a complex plot about complex people trying to govern a country moving from colonialism to independence.

The Tribe That Lost Its Head by Nicholas Monsarrat

William Sloane, 1956.  598 pp. 1956 bestseller #8. My grade: A.

Front dust jacket of has white lettering on wood-grain backgroundThe Maula are, for the most part, simple people: herdsmen, fishermen, domestic servants.

The British officials in Paramaul are dedicated civil servants on good terms with the Maula population.

Neither group expects or wants sudden change.

Before the plane lands, Dinamaula’s remarks to a journalist unwittingly set the country up for savage, black-white confrontation.

Under the press of fatigue, self-pity, the goading of the gutter press, and the merciless African heat, leaders on both sides flub crucial opportunities to maintain peace.

Monsarrat’s characters come alive in a few precise words: “a human windsock,” “a professional sore thumb.”

The plot includes political intrigue, romance, social comedy, and military campaigns.

Underneath all that is an appreciation for the challenges of governing an African nation in the 20th century.

As news from Somalia, Nigeria, and the Central African Republic stream across our TVs and tablets, The Tribe That Lost Its Head is as pertinent as it was upon publication in 1956.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Clansman: Racisim writ large, romance writ small

In his forward to The Clansman, Thomas Dixon says his novel shows how the Klu Klux Klan “against overwhelming odds…saved the life of a people.”

Readers can judge that for themselves.

The Clansman by Thomas Dixon

An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Illus.with scenes from photo-play The Birth of a Nation.
Grossett & Dunlap, 1905. 374 pages. Project Gutenberg EBook #26240.
1905 bestseller #4. My grade: C.

The novel opens April 10, 1865. Having won the war, Lincoln intends to win the peace by helping the South to recover.

Lincoln’s opposition includes Austin Stoneman, the power behind Congress.

Stoneman’s daughter and son have fallen for South Carolinians Ben and Margaret Cameron.

When Stoneman’s health requires a warm climate, Elsie and Phil select South Carolina for their father’s recuperation.

Quicker than you can butter a biscuit, Elsie and Phil turn Southern.

Ben Cameron organizes the Clan.

Stoneman recuperates in time to try to defeat the Clan.

You can guess the rest.

Stockman is the only interesting character in this dumb story, yet Dixon suggests no plausible explanation of Stoneman’s hatred of the South.

As a novel, The Clansman is a dud.

As a cultural and historical phenomenon, it’s dynamite.

I can’t recall a novel that gives a better sense of the nation’s emotional response to the Lincoln assassination, nor think of a better illustration of how Civil War mythology perpetuates itself in the South.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Outrageous man makes The Store worth revisiting

This is another of my occasional reviews of notable vintage novels that did not make the bestseller lists when they were published.  The Store won novelist T. S. Stribling a Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1933. A two-page illustrated biography of the author in pdf format is available from the Tennessee Literary Project.

Cotton Plant
Natural Cotton

Before the Civil War, Colonel Miltiades Vaiden was comfortably well off. Then he lost a year’s income when J. Handback declared bankruptcy the day Vaiden assigned him his cotton crop.

Vaiden’s fortunes haven’t recovered yet in 1884 when he learns Handback keeps a mistress, a former Vaiden slave named Gracie. Vaiden uses that knowledge to blackmail Handback into giving him a job in his store.

When Handback puts Vaiden in charge of the cotton bales, Vaiden sells them and pockets the proceeds, which he insists Handback owes him.

Though forced to return part of the money, Vaiden has enough to start his own store, invest in property, and think of himself as a Southern planter again.

Vaiden doesn’t realize the South’s future lies with shopkeepers not planters.  And he certainly doesn’t see that children of former slaves like Gracie’s son, Touissant, are becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Although T. S. Stribling hangs his hangs together on a string of coincidences, they are plausible coincidences. Even Vaiden’s descent into crime is more happenstance than choice.

But interesting as the historical portrait is, it can’t compete with the fascination of Vaiden himself. He is, as his one-time fiancée says, “an outrageous man” who “stick[s] at nothing and regret[s] little.”

Miltiades Vaiden doesn’t just invent his own facts; he believes every word he fabricates.

Look for The Store.

You won’t begrudge the time you spend there.

The Store
by T[homas] S[igismund] Stribling
Original publication 1932 by Doubleday, Doran
Republished 1985 by The University of Alabama Press
with an introduction by Randy K. Cross
571 pages

Photo credit: Natural Cotton 22 by robertz65

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Wallace’s The Man Is as Trenchant as Today’s News


The title character of The Man is a U.S. Senator horrified along with the rest of the nation to realize he has become American’s first black president.

Douglass Dilman has never made waves politically; he’s never felt secure enough to attempt to do so. He’s not even been able to get up courage to propose to the woman he’s loved for five years.

His party’s elite think Dilman will fall into line as US President as he did as Senate President, but just in case, they draft a bill that prohibits the executive from firing a Cabinet member without the approval of two-thirds of the Senate.

Dilman lets the bill become law without his signature; it’s his first, tiny act of personal political responsibility, and one that will lead to his impeachment.

Irving Wallace didn’t imagine Dilman as an elected black president, but that’s one of the few details of the story that don’t read like news from the post-LBJ years: Tussles between the US and Russia over fledgling African democracies, threats of presidential impeachment, blacks’ resentment of a black president who doesn’t support them over whites.

Everything Wallace gets right in the novel, points out everything that’s still wrong in America.

And that’s why, beyond its marvelously well-told story, The Man is worth reading once more.

The Man
By Irving Wallace
Simon and Schuster, 1964
766 pages
1964 bestseller #5
My grade: A-

Photo credit: White House, Washington, DC, November 2006 by t

© 2014 Linda Gorton Araagoni

The Crisis founders in crinolines and clichés

Winston Churchill sets The Crisis amid the crinolines and cavalry officers of nineteenth century St. Louis.

Stephen Bliss and his mother are Bostonian aristocrats who lost their fortunes. They move to St. Louis where Stephen is to study law with the eccentric Judge Whipple, a friend of his father.

Stephen is barely off the boat when on impulse he buys a slave to free and return to her mother. The deed charms the judge, a vehement abolitionist, and infuriates Virginia Carvel, who had hoped to acquire the girl as her servant.

Since Virginia’s father and Judge Whipple are best friends, Colonel Carvel soon meets Stephen., whom he likes.

Another New Englander, Eliphalet Hopper,  is already working in the Carvel’s business where his thrift, shrewdness, and lack of scruples bode ill for his employer.

The tale is the usual romantic nonsense about a Southern belle captivated against her will by a horrible Yankee who turns out not to be horrible.

Churchill brings some historical figures into the story, but his focus is the cliché-ridden love story.  It’s a shame, really.  The book is chock-full of minor characters who deserve to star in novels of their own.

The Crisis
by Winston Churchill
Illus. Howard Chandler Christy
MacMillan, 1901
522 pages
Project Gutenberg e-book #5396
My grade: C
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Racisim Is Sole Interest Left in Her Father’s Daughter

Her Father’s Daughter is a dumb romance whose only value is the explanation it provides of historical events 20 years after the novel’s publication.

Linda Strong, 17,  is her late father’s daughter. Linda is a naturalist and scholar, totally unlike her elder sister,  Eileen, a socialite and beau-collector.

When classmate Donald Whiting asks Linda why she wears such funny shoes, Linda decides it’s time she gets her fair share of her parents’ estate so she won’t have to wear funny shoes. Linda has been  freelancing articles and illustrations about edible wildlife on the sly, but apparently not using the proceeds for shoes.

While out exploring for things to write about, Linda meets writer Peter Morrison and architect Henry Anderson, who are looking for a building site for a home for Peter. Suddenly, Linda finds there are more interesting things in life than just edible plants.

The plot swings on a series of coincidences unrelated to characterization, which may be fortunate. Stratton-Porter’s  Linda is an implausible figure with the wisdom statesmen only wish for, incredible naivity, and absolutely no hormones.

Gene Stratton-Porter’s fixation with the “yellow menace,” the Asian population in the US, gives Her Father’s Daughter its only value. Such hostility among educated people made the confinement of Japanese-Americans possible in the 1940s.

Her Father’s Daughter
by Gene Stratton-Porter
Grosset & Dunlap, 1921
486 pages
1921 bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg e-Text #904
My grade C-
©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mockingbird still sings sweetly

To Kill a Mockingbird is a rarity among novels: good literature that’s both interesting and easy to read. A best-seller in the U.S., it also won a Pulitzer prize for literature.

The book has two threads. First, is about  the Finch youngsters, Jem and his sister, called Scout, and their summer-vacation pal, Dill. They invent wild plans to lure the town’s recluse, Arthur “Boo” Radley into the open so they can see if he really is a monster.

The town’s older generation has its own monsters. When a black man is accused of raping a white girl, Atticus Finch is appointed to defend him—hardly an enviable position for a white lawyer in 1930s Alabama. His children soon hear the epithet “nigger-lover”—and worse.

From these two threads, Harper Lee weaves a story about what it means to be grown up enough to respect other people who are different from ourselves, whether they are a different color or a different class or just from some other place.

The film version of the book, starring Gregory Peck, faithfully depicts the plot and main theme of the novel, but it cannot possibly show the details and nuances that make the novel a classic.

If you haven’t read the novel in a while, get it out again. It’s definitely worth rereading.

To Kill a Mockingbird
By Harper Lee
Lippincott, 1960
296 pages
1961 bestseller #3
My grade: A

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni