1946 Near Miss: The Wayfarers by Dan Wickenden

From the Dust Jacket:

When Norris Bryant emerged from his nether world of grief and desolation and took stock of himself, he was appalled. True, he was an outstanding newspaperman still, but that was cold comfort compared with his failure as a father.

Laura, his dynamic beautiful wife, had died ten years before, leaving Norris a legacy of despair and four children. The tenuous thread binding him to his two oldest, now living in neighboring Detroit, had thinned to a sporadic correspondence limited to the announcement of Charlie’s marriage and the birth of his son; the disquieting news that Laurette was now supplementing her meager salary by singing in a night club.

The two younger, living with Norris, were as aloof and impenetrable as strangers. There was thirteen-year old Joel, a calm solid enigma; and Patricia, nineteen, whose inscrutable facade hid a turbulent struggle. Clearly, Norris Bryant was not the only wayfarer groping along a dark passage fraught with many pitfalls.

And then Vincent Rourke, a talented but unstable young Lochinvar from the East, became casually interested in Patricia, opening a new realm of emotional experience for her, and a disturbing problem for Norris. The situation was not improved by the idle gossip of divorce Carola Wilmot, who resurrected disastrously an old scandal involving the hallowed Laura. Continue reading

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1946 Near Miss: Apartment in Athens by Glenway Wescott

From the Dust Jacket:

This is the story of the inhumanity of the Germans in their occupation of defeated countries, of the anguish and the heroism of ordinary men under them—a story which will continue to have a great meaning for our time long after the actual defeat of Germany on the battlefield. It is the story of a simple, middle-class family, which in this book is Greek but which might be of any captive nation, for Greece in its pathetic fate and noble resistance only typifies the other conquered nations of Europe.

Mr. and Mrs. Helianos were nearly beaten—starving and ill in both mind and body—but their existence had been more or less their own until Captain Kalter was billeted in their best rooms, controlling their meagre rations and monopolizing their lives. Helianos had cousins who, because they were active in the underground, were heroic in the ordinary sense. But he and his wife were gentle and timid, conciliatory and long-suffering, with nothing to sustain them in their defeat except the tenderness of their old marriage and their pity for their children. Dulled by privation and spiritually crippled, they had watched their abnormally childish little girl grown imperceptive and as undemanding as a small, sick animal. They had seen their son Alex, still a small boy, already with the light of vengeance in his furtive eyes and a sad lust for blood, if it was German blood. The intrusion of Kalter only increased their grief, lowered their voices to fearful whispers, and made more miserable an already wretched existence.

It is the development of Kalter and his subtle calculated influence on the Helianos family that makes this book one of the most dramatic, penetrating studies to come out of this war. There are many types of Germans but few have been portrayed of the insidious, cunning brutality of Captain Kalter. Never once could he have conceived of wavering in his admiration for his Fuehrer even after hideous tragedy had fallen on his personal life as a product of his master’s war. In one way, however, Kalter was changed by this personal catastrophe, but a leave home and a promotion to the rank of Major. It allowed his self-pitying sentimentality to show itself. It led him to seek the companionship of Helianos to whom he preached the violent, mystical philosophy of Nazism; a doctrine frightening in its narrow, cold-blooded assurance. It was this doctrine, unsoftened by personal experience, that turned Kalter against the Greek and carried the German to his self-destruction. It was the tyranny of this single German on the family rather than the total effect of war that consummated the Helianos’ despair, that made the husband a martyr and the son a hero and turned the widowed mother from her hypochondria, in a final moment of sacrifice and strange worldly wisdom, to give her son over to the underground. Like the widow of the Gospel she “of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had.” Continue reading

1945: A Bell for Adano by John Hersey

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From the Dust Jacket:

This is a novel by the young war correspondent who wrote Into the Valley. It is a novel, but it is also the truth. It is about Americans in Italy. It tells of the Italian-American major who tried to rebuild an occupied town along the lines of his own good instincts and democratic upbringing. He understood the wonderful, simple people of the town-the fishermen, the officials, the cartmen, the children who ran in the streets shouting to American soldiers to throw them caramels-and he knew how much they wanted to carry on the customs of their homeland but also how much they wanted and needed a new freedom. He found that an ancient bell which the town had loved had been taken away by the Fascists to make gun barrels and he did something about it. He discovered that there were pretty girls in Italian towns just are there are in American towns. And he and his new friends ran into some crippling difficulties-red tape and prejudice which revealed themselves in astonishing quarters.

Mr. Hersey spent three months of the summer of 1943 in the Mediterranean theater, covered the Sicilian campaign, and lived for some time in a village like the Adano of his story. His novel has the kind of truth that could come only from first-hand knowledge coupled with profound understanding and feeling. But the story also has rich meaning for the future, for it deals with men who are already facing problems that will follow in the wake of the war. It makes startlingly clear the fact that charters and agreements are only as effective as the men who are sent to implement them. Continue reading

1945 Near Miss: The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters by Joseph Stanley Pennell

From the Dust Jacket:

For dramatic impact, imaginative power, vividness of characterization and emotional intensity, there are few American novels that compare with this remarkable story in which the American past and present are so brilliantly blended.

This big strange book is the record of young Lee Harrington’s ancestors—chief among them his heroic great-grandfather Rome Hanks—as recreated by Lee from what he saw and was told. The characters are men and women of both North and South who lived and fought through the Civil War and then struggled for a livelihood in the impoverished South or the little towns of the West. Lee began to brood about the lives of these people when nettled by the beautiful Christa Schell’s bored responses to his reminiscences—“I am sure your grandfather must have been a fine old Southern gentleman!”

All the memories of the Civil War and of the years afterward up to Lee’s birth, gathered largely from a loyal friend and admirer of Rome Hanks, Thomas Wagnal, formerly surgeon in the 117th Iowa, and from others who fought, are sifted through Lee’s mind and given a new quality by it, and are set down as they come, without chronology. They are chiefly about the heroic Romulus Hanks, Captain in the 117th, cheated of advancement by the politician, Clint Belton, who, though he groveled under the bluff at Pittsburg Landing while the Battle of Shiloh raged, became Colonel and ended a Brigadier.

Another main source of Lee’s information was the old North Carolinian, his great-uncle Pinkney Harrington, “Uncle Pink,” who began his account of that blazing walk across the field of Gettysburg with the words, “We ate roast pig the morning before Pickett’s Charge.” And another was his grandfather, Tom Beckham, of the Zouaves, who fought in the Seven Days and was photographed by Brady as he lay among the wounded outside a field hospital. But no less impressive than the Civil War years are the pictures and episodes of Midwestern America, especially Kansas, up to 1900 or so. Continue reading

1945 Near Miss: Colcorton by Edith Pope

From the Dust Jacket:

In “Colcorton” Edith Pope introduces one of the really great characters of fiction-Abby Clanghearne. Growing up with a dreadful secret locked in her heart, striving always, through her brother Jared, to overcome the poverty and decay that have been her environment, Abby remains undaunted. Courageously, as she becomes adjusted to the situation, she accepts the ruin of her plans for Jared and, after his death, she takes on the responsibility of his widow and unborn child, and, at last, overcomes the horror of her secret by tremendous sacrifice, gaining an almost proportionate release from that horror.

The beauty of the Florida coast line comes alive in “Colcorton.” Whether it is the clean etched line of the great pine trees, the vast sparkling entity of the Atlantic, or the muted mysterious world of the swamp, Edith Pope makes you really see, hear, smell and feel the grandeur, the heartbreaking loveliness of this region. She transmits, without sentimentality, Abby’s love for this land that has been her whole life as well as her livelihood.

There are other unforgettable characters in this warm, deeply-moving book of people and the land they live on. Danny Strikeleather is one-wise and kind with eyes that make it impossible for anyone to lie to him. Beth Clanghearne is another-Beth, whose fragile appearance and quiet manner make people think of her as weak and stupid, but who becomes aware of a deep, almost animal, wisdom and strength within herself. And there is Clement Johnson, perpetually running from himself, weary, disillusioned, selfish, who finds a peace of short duration with the selfless, instinctively understanding Abby.

With its beauty of setting, its inevitability of outcome, and above all its brilliantly conceived and completely realized characters, “Colcorton” is a deeply satisfying book.

My Thoughts:

We return back to Florida in Edith Pope’s Colcorton, and while it shares some of the character and feel of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, Pope’s novel is one with much larger themes and much more complex characters. Instead of focusing on a young boy coming of age in the wilds of Florida, Colcorton follows the third generation of Floridians, Abby and Jared Clanghearne, whose grandfather was a slave and plantation owner on the Florida coast, and whose past wealth and land holdings are now but the faintest shadow of what they once were, due not only to the end of slavery, but also because of a dark secret that has kept Abby mostly isolated on the ruins of the old plantation house: her grandmother was black, and thus her family’s bloodline, according to the general white public, is “tainted,” and Abby and her brother Jared are at risk to be treated as black themselves, losing their friends, their livelihoods, and potentially even what little is left of their family’s property and money. Continue reading

1944: Journey in the Dark by Martin Flavin

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Plot Summary:

In a sensitive and full-dimensioned portrayal of American life, Martin Flavin has created a memorable character. By turns admirable, pitiable, tough, noble, weak, futile, and brilliantly effective, a lonely man going nowhere in the dark, Sam Braden mirrors thousands like him who have put their familiar stamp upon the American way of life.
He wanted wealth, and he got it. He wanted to belong to the social world in which the Wyatts moved so easily, and in time he did. Most of all he wanted Eileen Wyatt, and this too he achieved, but only after a fashion. To explain this average man who had wanted success above everything, and who achieved an enviable degree of it and yet who never escaped from the prison of his loneliness, Martin Flavin takes the reader back to the friendly, democratic world that existed along the Mississippi in the Eighties, to the influences which shaped the boy and fixed the pattern of the man.

My Thoughts:

Journey in the Dark is the story of Sam Braden, a self-made man from the American Midwest, who rises from a life of poverty to become a millionaire, and as might be suspected if you were assuming the novel would follow traditional storytelling clichés, Sam Braden then learns that having money isn’t everything. While there is a little more complexity to the story than that, the basic plotline seems an uninteresting and overused trope. However, the novel does have a few redeeming qualities.

First of all is the storytelling style itself. Many of the chapters are framed by Sam Braden taking a walk, a car ride, or making a commute, and as the places he passes trigger memories, we are given the bits and pieces of his past that add up to tell his story, little by little, memory by memory. There is a type of nostalgia channeled in the prose and framing of the story so the reader is given a linear story, but with the occasional hints and commentary of hindsight. We are given clues as to the successes and failures that Braden will experience in the future, and then shown all the bits of his story that lead up to those events. It’s a more subtle way of telling the story, layering and adding on parts of the story through subsequent nostalgic discourses. Continue reading

1943: Dragon’s Teeth by Upton Sinclair

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Plot Summary:

In another great story of Lanny Budd and his fascinating family, Sinclair has made the world-shaking events and brilliant characters share a memorable reality.

He writes of the era between the Wall Street crash of 1929 and Nazi blood purge of 1934, as seen through the eyes of an American privileged to live behind the scenes.

Dragon’s Teeth is more dramatic than any of his other novels. In it we see characters born to a life of wealth and ease venturing into the Nazi fortress of Munich, Berlin, and-even-Dachau. We see Lanny matching wits with Magda Goebbels, winning the dubious confidence of Göring, searching the fevered eyes of the Fuhrer himself.

Once again Sinclair leads us into scenes of luxury and glamour, lays bare the inner workings of international society and world intrigue, makes real to us people and events which heretofore we have only known in headlines. Dragon’s Teeth is a rare and unforgettable reading experience.

My Thoughts:

In Dragon’s Teeth, Upton Sinclair finally hits the balance that he has been moving and striving toward through his Lanny Budd novels thus far, and the result is a thrilling and engrossing read. While the first novel in the series, World’s End, was very much a novel about world events that just happened to have characters in it to push the story forward, and Between Two Worlds felt like a transition into something else, not quite deciding whether the fictional characters should have their own stories amid the background of world events, Dragon’s Teeth delivers a compelling character-driven story that occurs within the framework of important historical events (although at the time it was published, they were very recent history). Continue reading

Prelude to Pulitzer: Between Two Worlds by Upton Sinclair

Plot Summary:

In 1940 Upton Sinclair returned to the literary scene with World’s End, a novel which delighted thousands of readers and caused H. G. Wells to remark of it:

“A great and well-balanced design…I think it the most competent and most faithful picture of that period that has been done, or is likely to be done.”

In his new novel, Between Two Worlds, he presents another thrilling narrative of Lanny Budd’s human journey, carrying his young hero through that turbulent, brutal, wealthy era that began with the Treaty of Versailles and ended with the 1929 crash.

The book is so rich in action and varied scent that a mere catalogue of its contents reads like a novelist’s lifetime repertoire. It includes six full-length love stories; four weddings and two separations; two murders and one near-hanging. The scenes include a Riviera village, a German Schloss, three French chateaux and an imitation one on Long Island; three yacht cruises, and many visits to Paris, London, Berlin, Munich, Geneva, Genoa, Rome, and Leningrad. Historic characters include Hitler, Mussolini, John Sargent, Anatole France, Lincoln Steffens, Isadora Duncan, and Sir Basil Zaharoff. Historic events include six great international conferences; the early days of Italian Fascism and of German Nazism; the Great Bull Market in New York and the panic of 1929 which broke it.

Around Lanny are all the characters that have won the affection and respect of thousands of readers in the months just past–Beauty and Robbie, Kurt and Rick, Jesse Blackless and Rosemary Codwilliger–and with them a rich new cast. But though readers of World’s End will renew their acquaintances with pleasure, it is not necessary to have read the first book to appreciate the second. Upton Sinclair’s theme is the world of the twentieth century, and it is enough to have lived in that time to understand and enjoy his story wherever he picks up its thread.

My Thoughts:

Picking up shortly after the end of World’s End, Between Two Worlds continues the story of Lanny Budd as he manages to find himself in the middle of every important world event in Europe and the United States over between 1919 and 1929. Lanny attends a number of conferences in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles as the nations involved attempted to clarify, adjust, and amend the treaty.  Lanny finds himself interacting with Mussolini, Hitler, and others as he attempts to navigate his own political and economic beliefs while faced with Russian communism, Italian fascism, German Nazism, American capitalism, and any number of other beliefs and systems and protests. Continue reading

Prelude to Pulitzer: World’s End by Upton Sinclair

Plot Summary:

The son of an American arms dealer and his mistress, Lanning “Lanny” Budd spends his first thirteen years in Europe, living at the center of his mother’s glamorous circle of friends on the French Riviera. In 1913, he enters a prestigious Swiss boarding school and befriends Rick, an English boy, and Kurt, a German. The three schoolmates are privileged, happy, and precocious—but their world is about to come to an abrupt and violent end.
When the gathering storm clouds of war finally burst, raining chaos and death over the continent, Lanny must put the innocence of youth behind him; his language skills and talent for decoding messages are in high demand. At his father’s side, he meets many important political and military figures, learns about the myriad causes of the conflict, and closely follows the First World War’s progress. When the bloody hostilities eventually conclude, Lanny joins the Paris Peace Conference as the assistant to a geographer asked by President Woodrow Wilson to redraw the map of Europe.
World’s End is the magnificent opening chapter of a monumental series that brings the first half of the twentieth century to vivid life. A thrilling mix of history, adventure, and romance, the Lanny Budd Novels are a testament to the breathtaking scope of Upton Sinclair’s vision and his singular talents as a storyteller.

My Thoughts:

My first thought on reading World’s End was that Lanny Budd was some sort of early 20th Century Forrest Gump. He just happened to be in all the important places and run into all the important people as he gallivanted across Europe in the years before and during World War 1. He is, of course, a literary device more than he is a character, and is most often a vehicle for perspective and commentary on world events. His father is a capitalist arms manufacturer, giving Lanny a view into the economy of war. His uncle is a communist sympathizer, organizing labor unions and protests, introducing Lanny to a variety of other political characters. His two best friends before the war are an Englishman and a German. His mother’s connections across France keep him tied to the wealthy elite of Europe throughout the book, and yet his penchant for playing with the village children growing up in France allows him to be at ease with the common folk across the world. Continue reading

1942: In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow

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Plot Summary:

In This Our Life must at once be called the impressive culmination of the creative life work of one of the few major American novelists. Ellen Glasgow’s philosophy of life is implicit in all her books-that character is destiny. Never before has it been revealed so inevitably, so passionately, as it is in In This Our Life.

Here is a model of modern times, ending a few days before the outbreak of the war in Europe. The scene is a Virginia Tidewater city. The members of the Timberlake family-mother, father, and the two young women who are their daughters-are the central characters of an intensely dramatic story, dramatic not simply for its happenings, but for the people who cause them. They are true, vital creations, these characters, and they make the action precipitate toward the concluding events of In This Our Life. Then, too (as an eminent American critic has said of Miss Glasgow, ‘She has not been merely a transcriber of life but an interpreter as well’), the book gathers in special intensity as the chief theme grows through the story. The fascinated reader sees unfolding before him an analysis of the modern mind and temper as exhibited in this family and their community. Realism informed with understanding, wit tempered with compassion, these are the qualities which have always distinguished Ellen Glasgow’s work; never have they been displayed more powerfully. And, as always, the story marches to the rhythm of that closewoven, epigrammatic, polished prose, one of the great styles of our time.

My Thoughts:

In This Our Life is a novel that looks at the differences in values between generations, and whether or not people are better or worse off with those values. The chief character in the novel is Asa Timberlake, a father of three, whose own father committed suicide after he lost everything, and who was forced, at a young age, to work long hours in his father’s old factory, under its new owner, to provide first for his mother, then his wife and children. His traditional values throughout the novel leave him tied to a wife he’s not sure he has ever loved, and who doesn’t love him back, working to provide what he can for a family that is often ungrateful. Continue reading