Saturday, March 18, 2006


The Robe, Lloyd C Douglas
I reviewed this in the 1942 section, when it was #7 on the bestseller list. In 1943, it was the #1 book.

The Valley of Decision, Marcia Davenport, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1942, 768 pp
The #2 book on the list is a long story covering four generations of a family in Pittsburgh, PA, who owned a steel mill. The main character is Mary Rafferty, a young Irish girl who comes to work as a maid for the Scott family. She and one of the Scott sons fall in love but they never marry because Mary feels their difference in class would be a detriment to any children they would have and therefore to the family. She stays on for years and years as a maid and housekeeper.

The premise of the story is that her determinism and vision keeps the family going and though many changes occur, including the rise of unions, and though sons and daughters are weak or stupid, finally a granddaughter picks up the legacy.

There is lots of patriotism and talk about using steel to help America fight her enemies, which was very timely for 1943. Despite all the foolishness it is a well told story and it mostly happens in the city of my birth and in the industry in which my father worked. As a child I had many tours of steel mills. It is also the most pro-war novel I've read so far in the 1940s.

So Little Time, John P Marquand; Little, Brown and Company; 1943; 595 pp
At #3 we have one of those New Yorker type novels. Philip Wilson came from humble beginnings, married a moneyed young woman and ended up working as a "play doctor." He had been a pilot in World War I and it is now the year before the United States enters World War II.

The title is the theme and Philip is haunted by several things: how he never wrote his own plays; how his wife doesn't really understand him; the fact that his older son may soon be in the army; and that his country may soon be in the war.

The book is probably an accurate depiction of how America was at that time-not wanting the war but watching England and France getting defeated by the Germans. Also, Marquand can really do the kind of dialogue that married couples do and he captures that middle-aged feeling that one is running out of time. He is a good writer.

I was struck by how repressed and conservative those times were. This feeling has been building in me through all of the novels of the 1940s. It was such a different time than it is now.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith, Harper, 1943, 420 pp
The #4 bestseller in 1943 is one of my all-time favorite books. I have read it four times and I will probably read it again someday. It is sentimental and unrealistically idealistic, but I love it. Francie, the main character, is growing up poor in Brooklyn, her father is an Irish drunk and her mother is a charwoman who supports the family. It is Francie who gave me the idea of reading all the fiction in the library from A to Z. I did that for years but never got out of the A's. There must have been fewer books in those days. It is the reading of one book a day on the fire-escape of her tenement building that leads Francie to a job as a proofreader and out of poverty.

What is amazing to me is how different are the things I get out of a book at different readings. When I was younger, I identified with how much Francie loved her father even though he was a loser. As a young mother, I identified with the mother as she let her kids have a cup of coffee with milk everyday, whether they drank it or not, just so they would get the feeling of richness in their bleak world. This time I saw how the fact that reading and education were stressed in that family made it possible for Francie to escape poverty.

The Human Comedy, William Saroyan; Harcourt, Brace & Co; 1943; 192 pp
Saroyan got #5 on the list this time. I was looking forward to this book because I'd heard so much about it. It was alright but not great. Saroyan has something I like: an innocence, a joi de vivre despite all the horrors of life. His characters have a humanity, an ability to grant beingness to others, not found very much in literature. But his writing is a bit off somehow. When he wants to state his philosophy or how he looks at things, he suddenly becomes prosaic and stilted. Perhaps it is his Armenian background.

In The Human Comedy, we are back in that small town in the San Joachim Valley with all its immigrants. There are a mother, three brothers and a sister in this family. The father is dead and one of the brothers is off fighting in World War II. Homer is fourteen and a telegraph delivery boy, learning about life through the joyous and sad telegraphs he has to deliver. It is a more serious book than My Name is Aram and another story about the impact of the war.

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