Heaven and Hell

Front cover has 1 image suggesting 1800s western plains,1 suggesting Reconstruction-era South.Heaven and Hell is the novelistic equivalent of a film with “a cast of thousands” but no leading man or woman.

The novel is the third volume of John Jakes’ North and South trilogy and shouldn’t be read without reading the prior volumes, preferably with little time between the readings.

Of the leading men of volume one, Orry Main is dead and Charles Hazard emotionally deadened by America’s War Between the States.

The men’s family, friends, and enemies are scattered from South Carolina to California.

Jakes attempts to follow what happened to all characters, jumping in a single chapter from character to character, state to state, often separating the fictional events with quotations from newspaper headlines and other contemporaneous sources.

Jakes’ featured characters, who even in the trilogy’s first volume were scarcely more memorable than Danielle Steel’s, are as distinctive as anatomy class skeletons.

The history in the novel, particularly the rise of the Klu Klux Klan and its terror tactics, is the most interesting aspect of the book.

Unfortunately, Jakes finishes by restoring his leading characters who survived the war to a semblance of normality. The one exception is the blacks, whose post-war situation is as bad in different ways as the pre-war one.

Heaven and Hell by John Jakes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ©1987. 700 p.
1987 bestseller #9; my grade: C-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni


Lady Baltimore is multiple-layer novel

I had to read Owen Wister’s Lady Baltimore a second time last week, having failed to save the review I wrote of the bestselling novel in May of 2015.

Despite its confectionary name, it’s a novel that withstands repeated reading.

Lady Baltimore by Owen Wister

1906 bestseller # 2. Project Gutenberg Ebook #1386. My grade: B.

A young gentleman named Augustus tells the story. His snobbish aunt has sent him to Kings Port, South Carolina, to research family history.

Augustus is having lunch at the Women’s Exchange, when a young man comes in and orders a Lady Baltimore cake for the following Wednesday.

It’s clear to Augustus and to pretty, young counter clerk (who also happens to bake the cakes) that young man is ordering his own wedding cake.

When he’s not in the library, Augustus uses his letters of introduction and his fondness for Lady Baltimore cake to find out about the would-be bridegroom, John Mayant; his finacée, Hortense Rieppe; and the charming cake baker.

Readers must pay close attention to figure out how Augustus figured out what happened.

Wister called Lady Baltimore a romance. It’s that and more: Mystery, history, social criticism, and generous dollops of humor mingle pleasantly in its pages.

Augustus’s view of the American “Negro” may offend readers—but it’s an accurate picture of “enlightened” whites’ attitudes in the 1906.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Readers will find mouthwatering photographs, historical information, and recipes for the Lady Baltimore cake on the What’s Cooking America website.

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

Characters in The Deliverance Grow Up

Tobacco field in Stanford, KY
Tobacco field in the American South

Ellen Glasgow’s sets The Deliverance, a tale of repressed sexual passion and hatred, in the tobacco fields of Reconstruction-era Virginia.

When the Confederacy lost the war, the Blakes lost their slaves and money. Former overseer Bill Fletcher bought their plantation for $7000.

The remnants of the Blake family were forced to move to what had been the overseer’s house where they keep the truth of their economic situation from blind old Mrs. Blake.

Young Christopher Blake hates Fletcher with a passion. When opportunity comes to get back at Fletcher by turning his grandson against him, Chris takes it.

Fletcher’s granddaughter, Maria, arouses Chris’s passions, too. Fortunately she marries and goes to Europe before his rage turns to rape.

Though Glasgow could have taken the story in any of several directions from there, she sticks to the promise of her subtitle and produces a romance.

The printed Southern dialect is annoying, but there’s not much of it past the first few chapters.

In the intensity of its characters’ loves and hatreds, The Deliverance reminds me of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. In Glasgow’s novel, however, the main characters seem to outgrow their hatred rather than spending their passion. Even Glasgow’s minor characters mature in ways that are both surprising and realistic.

The Deliverance; A Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields
by Ellen Glasgow
Project Gutenberg ebook #2384
1904 bestseller #2
My grade: B

Photo credit: Tobacco Field by carterboy

© 2014 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

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 http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1399348

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Scarlet Sister Mary: Memorable Black Single Mom

In Scarlet Sister Mary, Julia Peterkin writes a deceptively shallow story of the post-Civil War South that focuses on a black woman.

Mary is a pretty, spirited teenager raised by Maum Hannah, a pillar of the Quarters church that calls the teen  “Sister Mary.”

Pregnant, Mary weds July, who promptly deserts her. The church that would have rallied around a deserted wife has little sympathy for a girl who had premarital sex, a scarlet sin.

Mary  keeps the roof patched and food on the table by field work. July’s twin brother, June, long in love with Mary, is close at hand.

Before Mary is much more than 30, she has five children by different fathers and two of her grandchildren to raise as well.

When July comes back, she kicks him out.

Mary is a proud woman. She’s also getting old. What’s she to do with a passel of kids to raise?

Peterkin deftly shows how one woman copes as a single parent. Mary’s choices may not be good ones, but Peterkin makes them appear plausible. Similarly, she makes believable Mary’s easy acceptance of both organized Christianity and black magic.

You may not side with Mary, but when you’ve finished Scarlet Sister Mary, you’ll feel you understand her.

Scarlet Sister Mary
by Julia Peterkin
Bobbs-Merrill. 1928
345 pages
1929 # 9
My grade B+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

And Tell of Time Solid but Stolid Saga of Texas

And Tell of Time is the tale of a Texan, Cavin Darcy, who marries his Georgia cousin at the end of the Civil War and takes her to live on his farm on the Brazos. It takes over 30 years for Lucina to regard Texas as home.

Most of those years, Cavin is occupied with the political issues growing out of the North’s Reconstruction of the South. Lucina is responsible for running the house and the farm, teaching the children she bore and the orphans Cavin took in.

The background of And Tell of Time is much like that of Gone with the Wind. The white landowners suffer from laws that favor the blacks so the Northerners can exploit all Southerners, black and white.

But Laura Krey is no Margaret Mitchell, and Cavin and Lucina are pallid compared to Rhett and Scarlett. Cavin and Lucina are probably closer to real people, but they are not memorable figures.

There are so very many minor characters that it’s hard to keep track of them all. That difficulty is compounded by Krey’s omniscient narrator who skips around, producing a constantly-changing point of view.

All told, the novel is solid, but stolid.

And Tell of Time
by Laura Krey
Houghton Mifflin, 1938
712 pages
# 3 bestseller of 1938
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Gone with the Wind, But Not Forgotten or Forgettable

Who doesn’t know the plot of Gone with the Wind?

At 16, Scarlett O’Hara, a spoiled, selfish, headstrong daughter of a wealthy plantation owner is passionately in love with Ashley Wilkes, a refined, scholarly man with no passion at all. It takes the Civil War, Reconstruction and her third husband, Rhett Butler, to make her realize Ashley was never the man for her.

Margaret Mitchell has an organic approach to character development. She introduces each character’s general tendencies and then grows them situation by situation.

For example, any time she’s faced with an unpleasant situation, Scarlett says, “I think of it tomorrow.” Any time she’s in trouble, she runs home to Tara. So, when Rhett walks out, her response is totally characteristic.

Most of what I remembered of Gone with the Wind was from the movie: the burning of Atlanta, ripping down curtains to make a new dress. However, Margaret Mitchell’s novel is far more than a collection of vivid scenes and characters.

Mitchell’s prose flows. She varies her paragraph lengths so reading is easy. There is lots of dialogue. Despite the book’s whopping length, I read it easily in a day.

This well-written classic deserved the Pulitzer it won.

Gone with the Wind
by Margaret Mitchell
MacMillan, 1936
1037 pages
#1 on the 1936 bestseller list
#1 on the 1937 bestseller list
Pulitzer Prize winner
My grade: A
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni