The King's General, Daphne duMaurier, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1946, 369 pp
I started my reading for 1946 with the #1 bestseller of the year. It is historical fiction which concerns war. The time is 1640s and Parliament in England has created a Civil War in an effort to oust King Charles I. Basically merchants have risen up against the landed gentry and with Cromwell as their leader, want reforms.
The characters in this book are Royalists, fighting for the King and are mostly inhabitants of Cornwall. The main character, Honor, written in first person, takes the viewpoint that war has ruined their way of life. She had been betrothed to Richard Grenville, a wild and uncontrollable fellow, who becomes a general in the King's army. But Honor is crippled in an accident and refuses to marry him because of it, thought their love is true and strong. Ah, romantic fiction.
As the story progresses, she remains his "woman", a scandal in those times. She learns that his character is quite flawed and of course they are doomed. It is a good story and kept me reading. The tone is sadness and loss and duMaurier puts you right there in the period. The message is that war solves nothing, only creates destruction and it is definitely from a woman's point of view.
This Side of Innocence, Taylor Caldwell, The Sun Dial Press, 1946, 499 pp
This was the #2 bestseller of 1946. I am not a big fan of Taylor Caldwell because her books are long, wordy and very melodramatic. This one was no exception. The story revolves around a family in New York State from 1868 to 1888. They are a banking family in the small town of Riversend. Jerome (son of William) and his cousin Alfred (who was adopted into the family) have been rivals and enemies from childhood. They fight over a woman and though Jerome wins her, they remain enemies to the end.
The characters are stereotypes, the descriptions are endless and the resolution of it all is somewhat improbable. The author has truths to tell: about personalities, insanities, the state and character of the United States as it grows and changes. They are sound truths, but I wondered why the book was so popular. The melodrama must have appealed to women readers. I read The Emperor of Ocean Park, by Stephen L Carter around the same time that I read this book. Carter's book was a bestseller in 2002 and I think This Side of Innocence was its 1946 equivalent.
The River Road, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Julian Messner Inc, 1945, 622 pp
Overall I had a very good time reading the books for 1946 and this book, at #3 on the bestseller list, was one of the reasons. It took a long time to read. The print was very small, so it was probably more like 1200 pages, and the writing is loaded with description and historical data, but it was an incredibly good story.
The River Road runs along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was originally a long series of sugar plantations, mostly owned and worked by Creole people, who became a kind of aristocracy in the region with fixed customs and social pretensions.
As the story opens, it is 1918. A son of one of these families comes home from World War I a hero and marries a "common" girl. The grandmother, a neurotic hypocondriac and matriarch of the family, rules with an iron will but cannot prevent social changes in the world. The sugar industry has a couple of disastrous decades between the two world wars and if it hadn't been for new blood marrying in, this plantation would have died away like most of those around it did. So it is the story of the struggle to hold on, what that struggle does to the various characters and how the next generation carries on. This IS the story in the 1940s.
The book ends as World War II is ending. Merry, the "common" girl who married into the family, has an entire story herself. She is very talented and really the woman behind the man, but after too many heartbreaking experiences, she leaves the man and has eight years in Paris and New York as an executive in a department store chain.
In the end, she returns to her family and takes up her wifely, motherly and womanly duties, but she never has happiness again. Thus it is also the story of youth, starting out with hopes and loves, getting beaten down by life and passing the torch to the new generation.
This author writes most of her novels in a New Orleans setting and in this book, she brought the River Road to life so completely for me that I wanted to go to Louisiana and drive it. It is still on the map in my road atlas. I did not follow up on my impulse and how sad is that, because I am sure that after Hurricane Katrina, the River Road is not the same.
The Miracle of the Bells, Russell Janney, Prentice-Hall Inc, 1946, 511 pp
Here we have the #4 bestseller of the year and although it is sappy and melodramatic beyond belief, the author pulled it off and had me loving every minute. It is a story of hope, of the power of God working through human beings to better conditions and about the basic goodness of man.
A young girl from a coalmining town in Pennsylvania, makes it to Hollywood, films a highly successful picture and then dies of TB, which she had contracted in her youth in Coaltown. Her friend, Bill Dunnigan, a publicity man for New York and Los Angeles entertainment, takes her body home to be buried. Using his PR skills, he basically remakes the town. People cross all religious and class lines to work together, the villains get transformed into heros and everybody wins.
The story is told so well, it is almost believable. It is the hope of man and I think that is what America was dreaming of after World War II.
The Hucksters, Frederic Wakeman, Rinehart & Company Inc, 1946, 307 pp
Now at #5 comes the other side of the picture as far as public relations goes. The book is contemporary for 1946. The war is going on, but Victor Norman has just left the Office of War Information and come back to New York. He is a radio promotion man, very confident and competent. His biggest asset is that he doesn't give a damn, while everyone else in the business kisses ass continuously.
He gets a great job in an advertising firm which takes him to Hollywood, where he falls in love with a married woman whose husband is off fighting the war. It was a good portrayal of the industry, showing how radio is driven by the sponsors and how crazy that world is. It was a good tale about a hard-boiled man finding love and almost losing his free-spirited approach to life.
The love affair was the weakest writing in the book, but is probably what made it a bestseller because it was undoubtedly racy for its time.