Monday, May 26, 2008


This post contains the second half of the bestseller list for 1953.

The High and the Mighty, Ernest K Gann, William Morrow & Company Inc, 1953, 342 pp

This novel was the #6 bestseller for 1953 and takes place on an airplane during a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, a trip which took 12 hours in those days. It is an early version of books like Night Over Water, by Ken Follett. The plane develops trouble and the main suspense concerns whether or not they will have to "ditch" which means "land" on the ocean.

Gann was a pilot himself and wrote many novels about flight. This one was also made into a movie starring John Wayne, for which Gann wrote the screenplay. He was considered a good writer in his time, but I found the book formulaic: introduce the characters, both the flyboys and the passengers; finally the plane takes off; several odd bumps and noises foreshadow the trouble to come; personal issues of the characters come to light during the crisis; then the last minute save.

What was interesting to me were the facts about air travel in the early 50s: propellers not jets, slower speeds and lower altitudes (no pressurized cabins), rudimentary radio contact and radar. The end of the book was highly dramatic and made it a good read finally. I also saw the movie which was not bad.

Beyond This Place, A J Cronin, Little Brown and Company, 1953, 247pp

This was #7 on the 1953 bestseller list and is the fourth bestseller I've read by this author. His first book, The Keys of the Kingdom, still rates with me as his best. All of his books concern young men with unusual childhoods and hardships they must overcome.

In Beyond This Place, Paul was raised by his pious Christian mother in Belfast, Ireland. He remembers a father from his very young years and has always been told that the father died in an accident. At the age of 20 he learns that all this time his father has been in prison, serving a life sentence for murder.

Paul sets out for a small town in England, where the murder occurred, determined to find his father. He faces innumerable obstacles but is finally reunited with his dad. The entire story is overwrought with emotion which I found to be a bit much. Luckily it is a fairly good tale, involving an examination of how politics corrupts justice.

Time and Time Again, James Hilton, Little Brown and Company, 1953, 286 pp

At #8 on the list, James Hilton suffers from the opposite problem that plagued Beyond This Place. Here we have Hilton's accomplished and readable prose but not much in the way of a story.

Charles Anderson is a minor English diplomat and is reflecting back over his life, including two World Wars, two women and one son. For anyone who has read as much fiction from the 1940s as I have, there is really nothing new here. Hilton's point seems to be that life moves on and youth will take over. Not an original idea but so nicely put.

Lord Vanity, Samuel Shellabarger, Little Brown and Company, 1953, 397 pp

This is the last of Shellabarger's historical novels to reach Top 10 Bestseller status. It was #9 in 1953 and takes place in 18th century Italy, France and England.

Richard Morandi is the bastard son of an English lord and at the opening of the story works as an actor and musician entertaining Venetian nobility. He falls in love with a young equally impoverished ballerina. Throughout the story, his fortunes fall and then rise to great heights when he is reunited with his father. Finally he must choose between fortune and his true character as well as between two women.

The author, as in his earlier books, does well on historical detail and evoking the sense of the time, but Richard's tale is just not as exciting as that of the heroes and heroines of his earlier novels.

The Unconquered, Ben Ames Williams, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953, 698 pp

This was the hardest longest slog of the 1953 bestsellers. It was #10 on the list and oh how I wish it could have been #11. Williams continues with the families from A House Divided, to tell a story of reconstruction. Most of the story takes place in New Orleans, where the clash between carpetbaggers and old Southern gentlemen; between freed slaves and poor whites; and between Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans was the most brutal.

The point of the story seems to be the refusal of the South to admit defeat after the Civil War and the deeply ingrained racism that was born in the practice of slavery. A point well taken but the story telling is pedantic in the extreme and the political details way too detailed. It took me three separate segments of reading over many months to make my way through this tome and may I never have to read Ben Ames Williams again.

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