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

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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

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

1940: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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From the Back Cover:

At once naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the most American of American classics. Although it follows the movement of thousands of men and women and the transformation of an entire nation during the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath is also the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, who are driven off their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. From their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of this new America, Steinbeck creates a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, tragic but ultimately stirring in its insistence on human dignity.

My Thoughts:

It’s difficult to know exactly where to begin with a book like The Grapes of Wrath. I remember first reading it for pleasure in the 7th grade, a time in which I was probably just old enough to begin to understand the more subtle, complex ramifications of the book, but not quite old enough to maintain a decent grasp on them. I borrowed the book from my grandmother’s bookshelf at her recommendation, after she had told me a few stories of her own life growing up in West Texas through the Great Depression and World War 2. Many of those stories are just bits and pieces now, and if anything, rereading The Grapes of Wrath now makes me want to hear them again, and ask better questions this time around. Continue reading

1939: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

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From the Dust Jacket:

The scene of Mrs. Rawling’s new novel is inland Florida, the wild and beautiful “hammock” country which she first made known to American readers in South Moon Under. In the hammock country live a breed of Americans that it is hard to surpass. Proud, self-reliant, industrious, forever struggling against the encroachments of the tropical forest and the raids of wild beasts, their lives are hard, but full of the experiences that make living worth while.

It is with the Baxters, one of these hammock-country families, that The Yearling is concerned. One year of their lives is spanned in the book­ – a year brim full of event and incident, of drama, conflict, tragedy, humor and beauty. The Baxters are three – Penny Baxter, the father, a little man, but a mighty hunter; his stout, hard-working wife; and twelve-year-old Jody, “the yearling,” around whom the story centers. But there is a fourth – another yearling – who plays quite as poignant a part in the story as the humans – “Flag,” Jody’s pet fawn, taken from the side of its dead mother in one of the many unforgettable scenes in the book. Continue reading

1938: The Late George Apley by John P. Marquand

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From the Dust Jacket:

In telling the story of the late George Apley of Boston (1866-1933) Mr. Marquand has drawn through Bostonian eyes the portrait of a gentleman of the era and a picture as well of that preposterous facade of manners which a still powerful Puritan influence erected to protect itself from the insidious dangers of inherited wealth; a facade which placed family against humanity, companionship against passion and conventions against reality.

The novel takes the form of a memoir prepared “at the request of the family” by an old and sympathetic friend. At his disposal were placed all of Mr. Apley’s letters and papers. The letter from George Apley’s son making the request was not unusual. It ended, “My main preoccupation is that this thing should be real. You know, and I know, that father he guts.”

“The Late George Apley” is much more than just another move about Boston. Mr. Marquand has created a great character in Apley, and has painted an understanding picture of the short golden age of American security. And yet, by this tender method, Mr. Marquand has also achieved a powerful indictment of a misguided mind, and a bitter satire of a mentally decadent society-a fascinating, effective, and provocative book.

My Thoughts:

I made it about two thirds of the way through this book before things got busy and I’ll admit, it was a very easy book to put down and not pick back up again. Which is exactly what happened for 6 months. And much of the ease I found in putting this book aside can be attributed to the subtlety of the social critique in the book. In fact, it is not until the last third of the book (which I only arrived at after starting over again from the beginning recently), that this critique and satire becomes apparent to someone almost 80 years removed from the novel. And in hindsight, it is a much better book than I initially gave it credit for when I first put it down so many months ago. Continue reading

1937: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

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Plot Summary:

Widely considered The Great American Novel, and often remembered for its epic film version, Gone With the Wind explores the depth of human passions with an intensity as bold as its setting in the red hills of Georgia. A superb piece of storytelling, it vividly depicts the drama of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
This is the tale of Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled, manipulative daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, who arrives at young womanhood just in time to see the Civil War forever change her way of life. A sweeping story of tangled passion and courage, in the pages of Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell brings to life the unforgettable characters that have captured readers for over seventy years.

My Thoughts:

I’ll just start right off the bat by saying that I don’t like Scarlett O’Hara. Not really at all. I get that she’s a strong, independent, progressive woman who was pushing the boundaries of the societal norms within the time period of the novel, but she’s also just a terrible person. And though I enjoyed the book, and the history behind it, I had a hard time really getting into it because of my vehement dislike of the protagonist. She is insensitive and uncaring, and has the emotional maturity of a child long after she should have grown out of it. And she doesn’t ever grow past it. But I’ll come back to that. Continue reading

1936: Honey in the Horn by H. L. Davis

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Plot Summary:

Set in Oregon in the early years of the twentieth century, H. L. Davis’s Honey in the Horn chronicles the struggles faced by homesteaders as they attempted to settle down and eke out subsistence from a still-wild land. With sly humor and keenly observed detail, Davis pays homage to the indomitable character of Oregon’s restless people and dramatic landscapes without romanticizing or burnishing the myths.
Originally published in 1935, Honey in the Horn reveals as much about the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of H. L. Davis’ lifetime as it does about the earlier era in which it is set. It transcends the limitations of its time through the sheer power and beauty of Davis’ prose. Full of humor and humanity, Davis’s first novel displays a vast knowledge of Pacific Northwest history, lore, and landscape.

My Thoughts:

In a note at the start of the novel, H. L. Davis writes, “I had originally hoped to include in the book a representative of every calling that existed in the State of Oregon during the homesteading period–1906-1908. I had to give up that idea owing to lack of space, lack of time, and a consideration for readers. Within the limits set me, I have done my best.” This note, a sort of thesis to the novel, works well to prepare the reader. You should not expect to find a story driven by the plot, but by the characters. So much so that they plot often becomes secondary to the characters, going out of its way to create situations for the protagonist to meet new and different types of people around Oregon. It is a sort of role call of the Oregonian people at the start of the Twentieth Century, with a vaguely disguised plot attached.

The story ostensibly follows Clay Calvert, a shepherd at the start of the story, as he accidentally helps his uncle escape jail and must go on the run, moving across Oregon with various migrant workers and homesteaders, in the meanwhile running into just about every other sort of person imaginable who has set down roots in the state. He meets farmers, killers, mechanics, steamboat captains, and people hoping to get rich in any way imaginable. As soon as the reader starts to become familiar with one group of people Clay is interacting with, he up and joins another. And at several points within the novel, Davis goes out of his way to list the cast of characters (each with a small paragraph of backstory and description) that Clay will be interacting with over the next few chapters. As soon as you’ve just about forgotten a character from earlier in the book, however, Clay manages to run into them again hundreds of miles and in a different direction than they left each other. However, many of these characters, whose stories are only told in a few sentences here and there, provide more interesting stories than Clay Calvert’s story. Clay’s story is more of a vehicle to tell everyone else’s story. Continue reading

1935: Now in November by Josephine Johnson

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From the Back Cover:

Originally published in 1934, Josephine Johnson’s first novel, about a middle-class family driven into poverty by the Great Depression, won the Pulitzer Prize and drew clamorous praise. Certainly, more than 50 years later, its characterizations ring remarkably true: a family of three daughters, struggling to exist as dirt-poor farmers, the father unable to respond to the fiercely devoted eldest girl who longs to be his “son.” The brief and intense narrative movingly evokes the torment of people isolated, and driven by strong–yet often unexpressed–feelings of love and hatred, and paints and indelible portrait of the Depression and Dust Bowl years.

My Thoughts:

I read Now in November around the same time as I saw Christopher Nolen’s film, Interstellar. I won’t comment on the rest of the movie, but the opening scenes are filled with actual interviews, conducted by Ken Burns, of Dust Bowl survivors. I did not know they were real interviews when I went into the movie, but recognized immediately that it was not scripted, that those people were speaking from a raw and intimate knowledge of something apocalyptic. The land itself rose up against them and was terrible in its destruction. Josephine Johnson captures those feelings and emotions in the pages of Now in November. Johnson also captures the brokenness of humans, the struggles of despair and depression and mania, and the melancholy resignation that comes on as disaster leaves no choice but to be accepted, even as you’re attempting to fight against it.

The novel is narrated by Marget, and focuses mainly on her tenant farming family as they struggle through the drought leading up to the Dust Bowl. Marget’s sister Kerrin has psychological issues–possibly some sort of manic depression–that slowly becomes more evident as the drought continues and the farm totters on the brink of disaster. Marget’s mother has an unwavering faith that carries her through the drought, but it’s a faith that her daughters question and do not understand. Her father is stoic, but has the incessant need to always be right and in control of the situation, which leaves him adrift when he faces something that he can do nothing at all to control. And Marget sees herself as homely and unloved, a constant victim of her circumstances, who so often wishes for more, but cannot build up the courage to do anything because of a fear of rejection and failure. In fact, the drought is little more than the impetus to discover how different people fall apart and persevere in the face of adversity. It is a tool for Johnson to use to explore humanity, and so the novel is at its heart about the struggle to survive and reconcile personal convictions in the face of an impersonal, impartial cataclysm. It explores the different ways that people break when they are strained past their limit, and whether or not they are able to pick the pieces up and put any of them back together again after the fact. Continue reading