Saturday, October 13, 2007


Finally we come to the end of the 1951 reading list. It is a long one: 34 books!

In this post, I will include the prize winning books for the year. Back in the early 50s, there were only four awards:

The Pulitzer Prize was created in 1917 by journalist Joseph Pulitzer for (among other categories) distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.

The Newbery Medal was created by the American Library Association in 1922 to award the most distinguished children's book. These books are usually for ages 8-12.

The Caldecott Medal is another American Library Association award, begun in 1938, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.

The National Book Award (NBA) is the newest one, created in 1950 by a group of publishers to honor the best work in fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

I only read the fiction winners of these awards because that is the main focus of my reading project. Although there may be politics or other dirty dealing involved in the choosing of books for these awards, I am reading them as part of my research into what was being read, sold or esteemed in fiction during these years.

Onto the list...

The Witch Diggers, Jessamyn West, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1951, 441 pp

This is her second novel and it was odd but excellent. It takes place in southern Indiana where a young man named Christie has just lost his mother. He is starting out in life as an insurance agent after graduating from college. It is the turn of the century: 1899-1900.

Christie falls in love with two women and wavers between the two, but the real story is about the Conboy family. One of their daughters is Christie's fiancee for part of the story. They live at a "Poor Farm", where the father is the Administrator.

This book is full of characters, that is quirky people. One thing I like about Jessamyn West is that everyone of her characters is as unique as any real human being. She does not do stereotypes. The relationships between the Conboy family members are complex, contradictory and violently emotional. Sometimes I felt that I was learning way too much personal information about these people.

The witch diggers are two poor farm residents, brother and sister, who are somewhat cracked. They believe that the answer to what makes people happy was buried by the devil and spend all their time digging (literally) to find it. They are symbols in this story where each person is looking for happiness but mostly finding confusion, heartbreak and difficulties in connecting to other people.

I think our country was really like this a century ago. People were much different in that they were more involved in life somehow, more vital, yet similar in that they were looking for the answers to the same life questions. This story had a big impact on me.

Lie Down in Darkness, William Styron, The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc, 1951, 400 pp

I finished reading this first novel of William Styron's on the very day that he died (November 1, 2006). How weird! The novel is dark and depressing. From the articles I have read since Styron's death, I glean that his mind was dark and depressed but also sharp and brilliant, as a writer's mind should be.

I have read Sophie's Choice, his 1976 novel, twice. Of all the novels I've read, which are many, that book made one of the deepest and most lasting impressions on me. While reading Lie Down in Darkness, I could hear the writing voice of Styron, the voice I know so well from Sophie's Choice.

Lie Down in Darkness is about the suicide of young Peyton, told in back story as her mother and father live through the day of her funeral. It is a tale of mismatched people, lost connections and emotional cruelty stewed in a terrible brew of alcoholism and religion. There is no hope for these people, yet they go on trying, each in his or her own way, to redeem themselves.

Styron has said that he didn't consider himself a Southern writer but has been compared to and looked upon by critics as a literary descendant of Faulkner. He sounds and feels Southern to me but then I can think of several writers from around the world with a similar gloomy outlook and ability to portray the dark side of love and human existence. It doesn't matter. Styron was a masterful stylist with a distinct voice who has spoken in this novel for anyone who has ever felt depressed, whether for a brief period or a lifetime.

He was given hell by critics throughout his career which I consider a sign of success. It is a good thing to rile a group of people who mostly can only pronounce judgement but either cannot or dare not write fiction themselves.

The Puppet Masters, Robert A Heinlein, Doubleday and Company, 1951, 340 pp

Heinlein wrote this in 1951 and later revised it. According to his website, the revised version is the one to read, so I did. (Published by Del Ray/Ballantine in 1990.)

He is such a good writer. Of all the sci fi I have read, he is the best as far as writing chops go, not to mention story telling ability. The Puppet Masters is also extremely creepy. The story is set in 2007 and there has been an invasion of aliens who are parasitic on human bodies and even mammals. Sam Cavanaugh is an agent in an extremely under-the-radar security organization. The "Old Man" who runs it turns out to be Cavanaugh's father; a genius who regards all agents as expendable, even Sam. Mary is the other agent on the case and eventually she and Sam become emotionally involved.

Together they must determine where the aliens are from and how to get rid of them. Sam and Mary both spend some time as hosts (called being hag-ridden) and the descriptions of what the aliens do to the humans, emotionally and mentally, are truly harrowing. The book gave me nightmares.

It is a fantastic read. If you've got the mental stability, I highly recommend it.

Prince Caspian, C S Lewis, Macmillan Publishing Co Inc, 1951, 208 pp

In the Chronicles of Narnia series, Prince Caspian is #2 by publication date and #4 in the later order-to-be-read wishes of C S Lewis. In fact, it tells of the second visit to Narnia by Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. They are pulled into Narnia by magic from a railway platform where they are waiting for the train to boarding school. (What is it about railway platforms that are portals into magical worlds?)

Only a year has gone by in England but centuries have passed in Narnia. There is a new evil King and all the talking animals and magical creatures have been driven into hiding. Prince Caspian, the nephew of the evil King, has always been drawn to the "old stories" and now has his chance to put things right. The children are transformed back into High King and Queen status and along with Aslan they come to the aid of the prince.

I remember that this volume was less loved by me as a child compared to some of the others. Now I see why. It is more about the history of Narnia and less about the children. Also the vocabulary takes a huge forward leap. Even now, I had to keep the dictionary close by. When I was a child, no one ever taught me to look up words. It is a wonder that I became such a reader.


PULITZER PRIZE: The Town, Conrad Richter, Alfred A Knopf, 1950, 433 pp

It took me two starts to get into this book but once I did I found it more than good. Conrad Richter wrote a trilogy: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946) and this one. All are about the same family, who first came to Ohio as pioneers, settled and prospered. I did not read the first two, but by the time of The Town, their little settlement has become the county seat, it is about 1840 and "progress" is changing many things including the name of their town.

Sayward Wheeler is the matriarch of the tribe. She came to Ohio as a small child and is now the mother of nine children and the wife of the town judge. She has passed her childbearing years and now watches her children grow, marry and in some cases leave. Through this character Richter unfolds the growth of the town and its increasing gentrification.

It could have been a dull read about a subject that has been covered many times but the writing is good and the stories of these people have impact. I found myself turning the pages and caring deeply for the characters. Finally I gained a deeper understanding of the history of the Midwest, which was my home for many years.

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD: Collected Stories of William Faulkner, Random House Inc, 1950, 893 pp

The second ever NBA is this huge book of stories. I must confess that I did not read the whole collection but I did read about half of the stories. Some of them were very good but too many were either not exciting or too hard to follow. There are 42 stories in all, some of which were collected in other books and some from magazines. I read in a biography of Faulkner that he wrote short stories to pay the bills. I see.

NEWBERY AWARD: Amos Fortune, Free Man, Elizabeth Yates, E P Dutton & Co Inc, 1950, 181 pp

Amos Fortune was a slave who was brought to America in 1725. He had been the prince of his tribe in Africa. He has the great good fortune to be sold to a Quaker in Boston, who treats him well, teaches him the trade of weaving and allows Amos to learn to read.

So Amos' life goes that way. He eventually gains his freedom, buys the freedom of other slaves (one of whom becomes his wife) and becomes a respected tanner who even owns his own property. He suffers the slings and arrows of prejudice without reacting in violence. He is hardworking and thrifty so he and his family are not poor.

It is possibly an unlikely story or at least unusual but I liked it because it portrays a man with many excellent virtues who happens to be Black; a man who never agreed that he should be a slave and rose above his misfortune; a man who never deserted his race or looked down on those who did not have the strengths he had. I cried at the end out of admiration for all the suffering that he overcame.

CALDECOTT MEDAL: The Egg Tree, Katherine Milhous, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950, 29 pp

The winner of the Caldecott Award in 1951 was written and illustrated by the same person. It takes place in Pennsylvania Dutch country on an Easter Day. A large group of cousins are having an Easter egg hunt at their grandmother's. One girl finds a box of beautifully painted eggs in the attic covered in Pennsylvania Dutch designs.

The grandmother shows the children how to make such eggs and another cousin has the idea to cut a small tree for the eggs to be hung on. This becomes a tradition for the kids who make an even bigger egg tree the next year. The idea spreads through the whole area.

The story brought back happy memories of coloring Easter eggs with my sisters. Eventually one of my sisters had the idea of making an egg tree. My mother still cuts a branch of forsythia at Easter time and hangs colored eggs on it.

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