Friday, December 29, 2006


This and the next two posts will cover other books I read that were published in 1950 or won awards in that year. I make up these "other" lists myself, choosing authors I admire or have always wanted to read.

The Grass is Singing, Doris Lessing, Thomas Y Crowell Company, 1950, 245 pp
This is Doris Lessing's first novel; hard to believe because the writing is so good. It takes place in South Africa and is a dark, disturbing story having to do with race. The climax of the story, told in the first few pages, is the outcome of the twisted lives and emotions of both races, which is what gives the novel its power.

Mary, the main character, came from a poor white family where her father was a hapless drunk and her mother a bitter man hater. After escaping poverty for a while through education and a job in the city, Mary enters into marriage with an incompetent farmer and moves to the bush. As she had never grown up emotionally, she descends into a sort of female madness. Her biggest problem is dealing with servants, who are all black men and with whom she is forever dissatisfied, until finally she meets her match. Moses, a somewhat educated native, has enough intelligence along with wiliness, to make Mary his emotional slave. In the end he kills her.

It is a strange and terrible revenge for what the white man has done to his race. This is not a pretty story but the telling is superb and held me with a gruesome fascination. There is just no end to what kinds of ways mankind can find to torture one another.

Another Pamela (or Virtue Still Rewarded), Upton Sinclair, The Viking Press, 1950, 314 pp
Sinclair takes a break from Lanny Budd but not from social commentary. Pamela is a poor, religious girl who gets hired as a modern day parlormaid for a rich family in 1930s California. She is pursued by the nephew of the woman of the house. He is a young, dissipated and spoiled run-around who lives off his aunt's money.

Pamela sticks to her religion and values until the man gives up liquor, gambling and fast women. Only then will she agree to marry him. Meanwhile, as the story is told by Pamela through letters to her mother and sister, you get all of Sinclair's views. Madam is a bleeding heart for all the socialist causes of the times.

The conceit of the book is its parallel with the novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, written by Samuel Richardson in 1742. In fact, the Pamela of this novel is reading the Richardson novel and quotes from it in her letters. I found it a somewhat amusing read which held my interest because Sinclair is a good writer, but it was really a bit too cute.

Dark Green, Bright Red, Gore Vidal, E P Dutton & Co Inc, 1950, 307 pp
Vidal published two novels in 1950. In this one he writes a story of politics and revolution in post WWII Central America. General Alvarez is a deposed dictator, a man in his 50s, who has decided to reclaim his position. While the General had been in exile in New Orleans, his son had joined the US Army and befriended Peter Nelson as they fought together in WWII. Peter has now been brought to Central America by Alvarez to train his army of Central American natives.

The cast of characters also includes the General's daughter Elena, a priest and de Cluny, a washed up French writer who is acting as the General's secretary. The General has, he thinks, secured the backing of "The Company", a fruit growing and exporting concern run by an American businessman.

The story is brilliantly told, as Vidal brings all these elements of Central American politics and human aspiration together. Somehow I had not realized before reading this novel, that American governmental and financial intervention into the unstable politics of Central America was going on as far back as the late 1940s. Certainly Vidal must have been one of the earliest writers to make it the subject of a novel.

A Search For the King, Gore Vidal, E P Dutton & Company Inc, 1950, 255 pp
In this novel, Vidal goes far back into history to tell a tale of Richard, the Lion Hearted, though it is actually the story of Blondel, Richard's troubadour. As Richard traveled home from the Crusades he was captured by King Leopold of Austria who hoped to use Richard as a pawn in the game of Kings, Emperors and Popes for power. The only problem is that Richard never could be a pawn for anyone. In fact, though I don't know that much about him, Richard the Lion Hearted has always been one of my heroes.

Richard is a hard guy to get close to, as most heroes are, but Blondel is a true friend and is acknowledged by Richard as such. Blondel also knows how to be a friend to a powerful person. He wanders all over Eastern Europe in the dead of winter, keeping track of Richard's whereabouts. Finally he makes it back to France and England, where along with Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard's wife, he helps to arrange Richard's release. In the end, he gets to go into battle with his hero again.

During his travels, Blondel has encounters with all manner of legendary characters: dragons, werewolves and a vampire in an enchanted forest. He also experiences revelations and mystical phenomena, as befit a true artist. Through it all, he keeps writing songs and using his talents to get into and out of sticky situations. This is a finely wrought tale.

The Preacher and the Slave, Wallace Stegner, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950, 403 pp
Wow! What a book! The slave in the title is Joe Hill, hero of the IWW (the Wobblies) in the very early days of labor organizing in the United States. The IWW was a big deal from 1905 to the early 1920s. The goal was to have One Big Union for all types of workers, but the movement finally fell apart due to schisms, communist influences and very bad PR due to a rather enthusiastic use of violence.

Joe Hill did not function as an organizer but wrote songs for the workers and the Wobblies were big singers. Every meeting involved singing, they had their own songbook and most of those songs were written by Joe Hill. He set his words to popular melodies; a tradition carried on by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

Joe himself was quite a conflicted character: a Swedish immigrant, a bastard (literally), a loner with violent tendencies but a tender heart. At least that is the way Stegner portrays him, admitting in his forward that he created this fictional account around a scanty amount of actual available fact about either Joe Hill or the IWW.

Joe is clearly a doomed man from the beginning of the book and his life is a tragedy. His songs gave him just enough notoriety that government and business interests who wanted to squash the labor movement could use him as a scapegoat. He spends the last years of his life in prison while various lawyers try to prove him innocent of a murder charge which was probably trumped up. The whole case is a rallying point for the IWW and created the mythical stature of Joe Hill. I was captivated and educated by this earlier beginning to the many Guthrie/Dylan tales I have read.

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