The Keys of the Kingdom, AJ Cronin, Little, Brown and Company, 1941, 344 pp This book was #1 on the bestseller list for 1941. Father Francis Chisholm, the main character, is a Catholic priest who spent a couple of decades as a missionary in late 19th and early 20th century China. Part of the book is the story of his early life and how he came to be a priest; a truly Dickensian tale. As a priest, Father Chisholm is a humble, very decent man who never feels successful but who achieved much through hard work and love of people. In the end, war, old age and church politics bring him back to England. He is a renegade in the eyes of church authorities because he has integrity and speaks aloud what is true for him, regardless of how it will affect his position or comfort.
This is a very English book, it is religious and pacifist, sentimental but contains many truths. The writing is excellent, the style is one of conservative storytelling. I enjoyed reading it and found it to be one of the gems of the year.
Random Harvest, James Hilton, Little, Brown and Company, 1941, 327 pp
James Hilton is the author of Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr Chips. I read Lost Horizon many years ago and remember it as a somewhat spiritual story and a very emotional tale. Funnily enough, I will get to revisit it soon since one of my reading groups is reading it.
Random Harvest, at #2 on the 1941 bestseller list, did not strike me as strongly but it is good storytelling. Charles Ranier, son of a prosperous merchant family in England, goes to fight in World War I, is wounded and loses his memory. After a period of trying to put together a new life, he finds out who he was and his memory returns, but in an interesting twist he then loses the memory of his period of amnesia.
By the end of the book he has pieced it all together, with the help of a woman he fell in love with during his amnesia, and there is a happy, romantic ending. Charles is the typical hero of those times. He is upright, hard-working and not quite in the mainstream, though of it. Once again, the novel is against war.
This Above All, Eric Knight, Grosset & Dunlap, 1941, 473 pp
The #3 bestseller in 1941 is another war-time romance. World War II is raging, it is just after Dunkirk and the Germans are beginning to bomb London.
The main characters are Clive and Prudence. Clive is a soldier who grew up in the slums but through many different jobs and plenty of reading, educated himself. He is on leave and meets Prudence, an upper-class girl who is serving in a WAF (Women in the Air Force) camp.
Clive has become disillusioned with war and has turned into a conscientious objector. He is planning to desert when his leave is up. They go on holiday, fall in love and it is all a tragedy from there. The story is extremely well told and like most of the other war books of this time, is basically anti-war. Very enjoyable.
The Sun is My Undoing, Marguerite Steen, The Viking Press, 1941, 1176 pp
It took a long time to read this one; so many pages and such small print. It was #4 on the bestseller list. It is a historical romance with lots of bigger-than-life characters, passion and heartbreak.
Matthew Flood, the main character, is the grandson of a wealthy shipping magnate in Bristol, England, during the 1700s. The wealth was made from slaving and Matthew inherits the fortune. He is a wild, impulsive young man who wins the love of Pallas Burmeister, but fails to win her hand in marriage because she is a strong, independent-minded young woman who is opposed to slavery.
So Matthew sets out on one of his own ships, picks up another fiery woman on the Gold Coast (Sheba: the ultimate proud and passionate Negress) and they head for Barbados and Cuba. Many misadventures follow for Matthew and his offspring. Forty years later, he and Pallas meet up again in Bristol and together push an abolition bill through Parliament.
The most interesting aspect was how slavery was so tied in to the economy in England, due to all the plantations in the various colonies; how prejudice, social conventions and money are what controls this planet; how change comes about often due to a combination of sexual passion, human love and strong-minded individuals who actually have a sense of ethics. At least that is the way it looks in a historical romance novel.
For Whom The Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
I read this in the 1940 section when it came in at #5 on the list. It was also the #5 bestseller in 1941. For my review, see post of January 6, Books Read From 1940 Part One.