Sunday, August 20, 2006


This is the final post concerning books I read for 1947. It includes the award winners for that year.

In a Yellow Wood, Gore Vidal, E P Dutton & Company Inc, 1947, 216 pp
This is Vidal's second novel. It was not very good and luckily short. Robert Holton is just out of the service, after World War II, living in New York and working in a brokerage firm. He is alone, his life is dull, but he feels he is on the right track.

The whole book takes place in less than two days. I think the author means it to be the "slice of life" method of fiction. Robert gets a chance for another more free and exciting kind of life provided by a relationship with a woman but decides to stick with what he has. Ho hum.

Second Growth, Wallace Stegner, Houghton Mifflin, 1947, 240 pp
I found this book also rather boring. It takes place in a New Hampshire village shortly after World War II. There are village people who live there all year round and summer people. One of the village people is a Jewish man, one of the summer people is a Jewish woman who marries the man and stays. There is a bit of drama and then the book is over.

Stegner was trying to show a town that stagnated while the world moved on and to show what that did to the inhabitants. Just not one of his best, I suppose, because The Big Rock Candy Mountain which I read for 1943 was fantastic.

The Big Sky, A B Guthrie Jr, William Sloane Associates, 1947, 436 pp
This is an astonishing book! It is the best thing I have ever read about the American West. I was somewhat prepared for the subject matter by having read Undaunted Courage by Steven Ambrose and Sacajewea by Anna Lee Waldo, but this story is even more unique. Lewis and Clark were fairly civilized guys, sent out by the government. The hero of The Big Sky, is just a guy from Kentucky.

Boone Caudill is a rebellious boy when he leaves his family. The impetus for leaving is a cruel and drunken father but Boone is the kind of person who was born to leave home and born to be a loner. It is 1830, a generation after Lewis and Clark, and Boone has heard about the West. It is before the great exodus of the covered wagon folks. The West is still a complete wilderness of mountains, rivers, primeval forests, wild animals and Indians, with a very few trading posts here and there.

So after a very exciting getaway, where Boone falls into every innocent, greenhorn trap and misfortune, he finally gets a buddy and finds himself on a keelboat going up the Missouri River. He meets Dick Summers, who is already a mountain man and before a year is up, Boone is one as well.

The book is long but never boring for even a page. The writing lures you into that world with the descriptions, the dialogue and the action all evenly distributed. All the while, you know that there can only be a tragic ending for these characters, but none of them are looking for the ususal kinds of happiness. They want unlimited space and freedom--a state which cannot be achieved for any length of time in the material world.

I read this book because Guthrie's next one, The Way West, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. I am worried that despite the prize, it will not top The Big Sky.

Now for the prize winners of 1947.
The Pulitzer Prize:
All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren, Harcourt Inc, 1946, 609 pp
I can see why this won the Pulitzer. It is definitely in the "Great American Novel" category, which seems to be the kind of novel that wins. The edition I read is called the "restored edition." Noel Polk, a professor of American Literature at the University of Southern Mississippi, studied Warren's original manuscript and restored passages that had been edited out for the original publication. In fact, the main character was called Willie Stark in the original edition, but was initially named Willie Talos by Warren. That is the name used here.

The novel follows the rise and fall of Willie Talos, a fictional Southern demogogue who is similar to the infamous Huey Long of Louisiana. (I read a book from 1945, A Lion is in the Streets, by Adria Locke Langley, the #6 bestseller of that year, which was basically the same story but set in Mississippi. Huey Long also came up in The River Road by Frances Parkinson Keyes and in The Foxes of Harrow by Frank Yerby, both of which were bestsellers in 1946. Long is portrayed as a politician hated by the established sugar growers. I have no idea why there would be so much writing about that area of the country in 1946.)

In any case, All the King's Men is as much Jack Burden's story as it is the story of Talos. Their lives became intertwined when Jack was in his twenties. He was a disillusioned man in pretty much all areas of his life; his education, his love-life and his hopes for the future had all bottomed out. He was a cynical newspaperman when Willie hired him as a sort of fact finder. His job was to get the dirt on people Willie was having trouble with politically, which Willie used to engineer either cooperation or the opponent's downfall. As time goes on, Jack gets the whole story of both his own family and the family of his lost love.

The novel is a tragedy, a search for truth and the meaning of truth, and a study of "good" and "evil," definitions of. The writing style is the kind I like best: long, beautiful sentences which flow like a leisurely boat ride; insights into people which ring true to me; lots of commentary about life in general, which Southern writers do best. It was a hard book to put down and one of the best books I read for 1947.

Note: I also saw the movie, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1950. It did not begin to have the power of the book.

The Newbery Medal Winner:
Miss Hickory, Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, The Viking Press, 1946, 123 pp
I thought this would be dumb but it was charming. Miss Hickory is a homemade New Hampshire doll, made of a twig body and a hickory nut head. She lives in a corncob hut under a lilac bush until the young human girl who made her goes off to Boston for the winter to go to school. A chipmunk invades Miss Hickory's home and she begins to have adventures.

It is a similar theme to other children's books, where the animals have personality types that parallel humans. It is a kind of dorky and obvious idea, but Aldous Huxley did it with Brave New World, which is a classic. In the end, I was enchanted.

The Caldecott Medal Winner:
The Little Island, Golden MacDonald and Leonard Weisgard, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1946, 40 pp
This picture book has beautiful illustrations in both color and black and white which look like oil painting. The text goes through the seasons, explains what an island is and even defines what it means to take something on faith. It has aesthetics and gives true information. Good!

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