Friday, October 05, 2007


This post contains micro-reviews of the first five of the top 10 bestsellers of 1951.

From Here to Eternity, James Jones, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951, 860 pp

The #1 bestseller in 1951 is also the longest book on the list. Along with many other books from this era, we are back in the army again, on Schofield Army Base in Hawaii, just before, during and a bit after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This is a very good book and hard to describe because it encompasses so much.

Using the microcosm of one army company, Jones writes about life including men, women, hopes, goals, love, politics, organization, justice, ethics and philosophy. The two main characters are career army guys; called 30 year men. They are in the army because it is the best thing they have found in life, but they are not upper class West Point officers; they are just guys.

Robert E Lee Prewitt is a Kentucky boy, a coal miner's son. After some youthful years riding box cars and being on the bum, he enlisted as soon as he was old enough. He is a musician, a tough guy full of energy, but he has certain limits beyond which he will not go. He is basically what's needed in a soldier when there is a war going on but he has a problem with authority, so he gets in lots of trouble.

Sergeant Milt Warden runs the orderly room. He is one of those guys who actually keeps the regiment organized and gets away with just about anything because he is the only one who can do the job.

But underneath all the politicking, the drinking, the whoring, of which there is plenty in this story, these men are looking for a woman to love, something to make sense of it all and, probably most basic, they are looking for action. Huge periods of time in army life are boring: either mind-numbing drills and drudgery or just plain waiting. In peace time it is one hundred times more boring.

So, great stuff for stories, trouble, humor and tragedy. This is my favorite kind of book. It might be thought of as a man's book but I was never bored because it is about people. The novel stands way above most of this genre because the characters are so real, so interesting and the writing is superb.

The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk, Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1951, 494 pp

The #2 bestseller in 1951 is also about World War II, but in the US Navy this time. Willie Keith was raised with money and comfort. He went to Princeton and was knocking around New York City as a nightclub entertainer when it was time to get into the armed forces and fight the war.

He is already a conflicted character, trying to escape his overbearing mother but not sure what to do with his life. His girlfriend is from an Italian family of recent immigrants and would not fit in his mother's world. So Willie joins the Navy and thus begins to grow up. He has to confront the discipline of military life, life on a small minesweeper, cranky incomprehensible commanding officers, etc.

When I read these novels about the military, it is truly a wonder that we won the war. The quality of people, in all levels of rank, was just not that high. It always sounds like they barely muddled through. On Willie's ship, the officers are guys like Willie, who rose up because of the demands of war. He is a spoiled boy, another is an aspiring novelist with no faintest sense of responsibility, a third is a blue collar fisherman who would rather be in the Navy than go back to fishing.

Between them, they actually create a mutiny on their ship. There is a Court Martial. Lives are ruined. Willie gets off fairly unscathed and figures out his love life. He is stronger, more responsible, but still has a bunch of silly illusions.

The Caine Mutiny was a pretty good story, too long and I'm not really sure what the message was. It represents a huge leap in writing quality for Wouk and won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1952.

Moses, Sholem Asch, G P Putnam's Sons, 1951, 505 pp

I dreaded another dreary slog through a Sholem Asch book, but this one was his best and actually moved along very well. It is the story of the Exodus. (I'll be reading the Leon Uris version when I get to the 1959 list.) Asch follows the bible story closely, at least as I remember it, but adds enough Egyptian history to place the story in the world.

I was the most struck by the plight Moses faced. He took a people who had been slaves for generations and had to make them into a nation united with a common purpose. He had to teach them their destiny as God's chosen people, teach them discipline and righteousness, teach them what he felt was God's will. He also had the role of intervening between God and the people and convincing God to have mercy on the people when they were disobedient and went astray.

As a child, learning this story in Sunday School, I did not grasp the many significances of the story. Who knows how much in this novel is Asch's interpretation? Since I have always been on some spiritual path in my life, I was intrigued by the concept of a group of people made responsible for mankind's destiny. That responsibility most assuredly sets such a group of people apart from the common, run-of-the-mill antics of human beings. It is a lot to ask and the big question is, would such a group ever achieve the goal of bringing all of mankind to a higher spiritual plane?

From my studies of religion, every different one has a version of that same goal. I think it is the dream of all people.

The Cardinal, Henry Morton Robinson

This book is a holdover from 1950, when it was #1. See my review in the post "BOOKS READ FROM 1950, PART ONE." I will just say here that this is one of three highly religious books on the bestseller list for 1951 which says much about the beginning of the decade.

A Woman Called Fancy, Frank Yerby, The Dial Press, 1951, 309 pp

Another Frank Yerby bestseller; #5 in 1951. I am not a fan of Frank Yerby.

Fancy is a poor girl from the Carolina hills who runs away to Augusta, Georgia in 1880. After escaping from lecherous men with her virtue intact, she falls for Courtland Brantley, son of an antebellum plantation family fallen on hard times. Court naturally is hopelessly in love with his brother's wife but he marries Fancy, who rises from her humble origins and helps Court make a fortune.

Improbable romantic historical fiction as usual for Yerby, though Fancy is a more rounded character than most of Yerby's heroines. He also gets in some good digs at racism and the treatment of Blacks in the South and the North.

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