Surprise ending raises Lewis Rand above pot-boilers

In the early 1900s, readers relied on Mary Johnson to supply them regularly with novels about lower socioeconomic class individuals of superior ability who participate in history-making events.

In Lewis Rand, Johnson pulls out an unexpected ending that raises the novel above the pot-boiler class.

On river path, two mounted gentlemen in top hats fight while trying to control their horses
Lewis Rand fights Fairfax Cary, who thinks him allied with Aaron Burr.

Lewis Rand by Mary Johnson
F. C. Yohn illustrator. Houghton Mifflin, 1908.
[506+ pages] 1908 bestseller #7.
Project Gutenberg ebook #14697. My grade: B.

Lewis Rand wants to study law, but his father won’t even let Lewis attend school.

Their neighbor Thomas Jefferson intercedes on the boy’s behalf.

By 1804, Jefferson’s help and Lewis’s own ambition have marked him for at least the governorship, perhaps the presidency.

Lewis has an an accident outside the home of the pro-Federalist Churchills. While he recuperates in a Churchill bedroom, Jacqueline Churchill a proposal of marriage from his Federalist opponent.

Jacqueline marries Lewis against her family’s wishes.

After their marriage, Lewis becomes increasingly ambitious.

After turning turns down the nomination for Virginia governor, he begins corresponding in cipher with the audacious Aaron Burr about America’s newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase territory.

Johnson keeps the complicated political background understandable.

Where she falls down is in not allowing characters to speak for themselves.

The novel ends much as The Cruel Sea will end decades later. The one significant difference is that Nicholas Monserrat made readers care about George Ericson.

Johnson doesn’t make readers care about Lewis Rand.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Tree of Liberty Moves Slower than Congress

In  The Tree of Liberty, Elizabeth Page uses the family of Matthew Howard as a lens through which to view American history from 1754 through 1806.

The Howards had kin and connections throughout the colonies and among the political elite of the Revolutionary era. Page doesn’t have to invent situations to show the political turmoil of those days.

Page follows Matt as he grows up hearing tales of the frontier, adoring Colonel Washington and going to school with Tom Jefferson.

Matt marries a Tidewater aristocrat, Jane Peyton, who instinctively distrusts “the common people” as much as Matt champions them. Their political differences carry on through two more generations.

The novel really isn’t about the Howards, though.  The main character is really the American political system, the “tree of liberty.”

Page’s novel moves almost as slowly as the actual events she describes.

I felt as if I should care, that reading the novel was good for me, but that didn’t make me enjoy it.

The novel might have a salutary effect on Americans fretting over the slowness of the Iraqi government to achieve democracy, but, quite honestly, reading about the growth of the tree of liberty is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

The Tree of Liberty
By Elizabeth Page
Farrar & Rinehart 1939
973 pages
1939 bestseller # 8
My Grade: C +
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

House Divided is Good — and Long

House Divided deserves to be dusted off and reread. Ben Ames Williams gives us believable characters, high drama, and superb dialogue, all resting on an extensive base of facts about  the War Between the States.

Although the Currain family of Virginia own slaves, they are skeptical of secessionist propaganda and assertions that the South can whip the North. When letters are found revealing that their father was Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, the five adult Currains are shattered. Each attempts to find some way of living down the horrible shame of their kinship to “the black ape.”

As Williams follows the Currains through the war, his characters take the reader close to historical figures like Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth without taking his eye off the Currains. As he shows his characters’ quite ordinary responses to extraordinary situations, readers learn details of daily life in the Confederacy. A less skillful writer would have crammed the facts into fat paragraphs of description.

The novel’s message that “most of us, in the end, stand with our own people,” is worth remembering as we send American soldiers into foreign combat.

If you can heft this whopping novel (1500+ pages), you’ll find House Divided worth reading.

House Divided, a novel of the Civil War
By Ben Ames Williams
Houghton Mifflin, 1947
1514 pages
#7 on 1947 bestseller list
My grade: A-
© 2006 by Linda Gorton Aragoni