Archive for the ‘1930s’ Category

Mr. Finchley Discovers His England by Victor Canning ~ 1934. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1954. Paperback. 256 pages.

Crazy busy month. I’m reading at the slowest rate ever right now, and as for posting – ha!

But this too shall pass. (As many of you know, I operate a small perennial plant nursery, so I needn’t get into detail about how overwhelmed my spring is with things-needing-doing and not-enough-hours-in-the-day.)

I did escape a week or so ago for a whirlwind three-day road trip (plant related) to Salt Spring Island and then Vancouver, and on my way home stole an hour to visit one of my favourite used book stores ever, Neil Stad’s Nuggets in downtown Chilliwack.

Neil gently reminds his shoppers that “Good luck will follow those who are tidy.” And an utterly random “found item” – this bookshop’s decor fully expresses its owner’s sense of humour.

Neil doesn’t have a website, but here is a nice article from a few years ago, which gives some background info.

B.C. readers: go see Neil. 45832 Wellington Avenue, a few blocks down from the 5 Corners clock tower. And an hour is just barely enough to hit the high points, for it’s one of those book stores, a maze of rooms packed floor to ceiling with well-labelled shelves of books, books, books, including exploration-worthy sections of vintage literature and a vast and well-organized selection of British serial school novels for those who are into such things – Angela Brazil, Elinor Brent-Dyer, Enid Blyton et al.

And records and cds, too, and Neil plays awesome music, heavy on the blues and vintage rock side of things. And he’s friendly and helpful but also very cool with just letting his shoppers dig and delve at will. Excellent coffee shop next door, too. The whole setup is pretty Nirvana-ish, in fact.

This visit to Nuggets (and the also-stellar The Book Man, just down the street – Chilliwack is blissfully well provided with vintage book shopping) didn’t yield any stupendously amazing “wow!” finds this time round, but I did find some goodies, among them this well-read paperback copy of thriller writer Victor Canning’s first published novel – not a thriller, by the way, but a humorous picaresque-ish journey-book – which I’d been mildly keeping an eye out for, as I have its sequel from my last visit to Nuggets (Mr. Finchley Goes to Paris) and was holding off reading it until I read the first.

Light reading for sure, a perfect sort of book for popping in one’s travelling bag, though I must confess I couldn’t wait until my next trip, but delved into it that very night, once I reached my own home in the wee hours.

Meet Mr. Finchley:

Mr. Finchley was forty-five, short, with a comfortable face such as you might see on the fringe of any crowd, and a tonsure that surprised you when he raised his hat. He was panting slightly as he came to the top of the hill. He had lived in London all his life and, since Mr. Bardwell had made him chief clerk ten years ago, he had never had a week’s holiday. Mr. Bardwell himself never took a holiday and he fostered the practice among his clerks. Mr. Finchley had succumbed meekly to the conviction that he was indispensable to the office, a conviction which Mr. Bardwell had encouraged. When Mr. Bardwell had died it was generally considered that Mr. Sprake would continue his tradition. But Sprake (he was only referred to as Mr. Sprake in the presence of clients) had developed surprising attributes. Mr. Finchley took out his yellow silk handkerchief and wiped his forehead as he mused over the astonishing change which had come over Sprake. He came to the office in tweeds. He smoked all day, scattered his ash in deed boxes, and looked more like a bookmaker than a lawyer. Mr. Finchley had witnessed in silence the desecration and waited anxiously for the practice to decline. The practice did not decline. Business increased. Sprake grew jollier and the checks on his golfing suits larger. And then – it was hot even in the shade now and Mr. Finchley decided to rest on the seat at the end of the avenue – there came the day when Sprake had called him into his room.

“Ah, Finchley, I wanted to have a chat with you,” he said.”Of course, you know that things have changed a bit since poor Bardwell packed up…”

No, it’s not the golden handshake Mr. Finchley is getting, but an official order to get the heck out of the office and take a vacation already, and our hero finds himself facing an unusual situation: three weeks with no structure, no obligation to be anywhere. What to do, what to do? Mr. Finchley plumps for the obvious thing, and books a room in the seaside resort town of Margate.

Mr. Finchley will indeed be having a vacation from his regular life, but as things turn out he never does get to Margate. The very first day of his holiday, as he’s resting on a bench in the sun, whiling away the hours until his train leaves, a stranger pulls up in a brand new Bentley. Seeing Mr. Finchley’s glance of pure admiration, and being impressed by his appearance of deep respectability, the stranger asks if Mr. Finchley could just keep an eye on his car for the next half hour or so. Mr. Finchley cheerfully agrees, but as the half hour stretches into something longer, Mr. Finchley tires of his bench, and decides to sit in the car. He stretches out on the back seat…the sun is so warm…he’s tired…

Waking up with a start, Mr. Finchley discovers himself an unwitting passenger as the Bentley races along a country road, police in hot pursuit. Yes, it’s been stolen! And we’re (quite literally) off.

Stolen cars, thieves’ dens, a mysterious woman asking for help and aiding escape from the previous, encounters with (deeply stereotyped) gypsies, and tramps, and wealthy eccentrics posing as tramps, a stint as a carnival sideshow assistant, the acquisition of a bicycle, and the almost immediate losing of it, skinny dipping whever the opportunity arises, mistaken identity, an almost-incarceration in a lunatic asylum, a romantic dalliance (of sorts), a journey in a smuggler’s yacht, and more – oh, yes, our Mr. Finchley does manage to fill his three weeks to the brim!

An enjoyable book in its way, which I found initially intriguing, but slightly less so as episode followed increasingly predictable episode – Mr. Finchley meets a (generally) roguish character, is dragged into a questionable situation, backpeddles, is accused of cowardice, and steps up to defend his manhood, while always maintaining his Respectable British Integrity – with not much in the way of carryover from adventure to adventure. Mr. Finchley remains a caricature, albeit a likeable one, and the book as a whole a bit of a curiosity piece versus a stellar piece of inter-war literature. There are sober moments here and there, but it’s mostly lighthearted romping.

Mr. Finchley Discovers His England met with significant success, selling well enough to allow Victor Canning to quit his day job clerking and go into writing full-time, which he did with great energy, producing over sixty books in a variety of genres during a career that spanned the years from the 1930s until his death in 1986, at the age of 75.

An excellent website chock full of background information on Canning’s life and many works is maintained by John Higgins and can be found here, and I highly recommend a visit by those either already Victor Canning fans, or soon to become such.

Oh, yes, the rating. What shall I give Mr. Finchley? Well, it fully met my expectations as a relaxing light read, though it wasn’t quite as complex as I could have wished. Not bad, though. Pretty good, in fact. Here’s a 7/10.

 

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Dustjacket image from 1939 first edition – not my personal copy.

The Runaway by Kathleen Norris ~ 1939. This edition: Collier, 1939. Hardcover. 344 pages.

During the Very Tumultuous Month just past, there were moments of serendipitous small thrills, such as stumbling upon a collection of six Kathleen Norris novels on a local buy-and-sell Facebook group while I was supposed to be scouting for a vehicle to replace the one I destroyed in my dramatic crash.

Well, no luck on another car so far (we’re not looking very hard, as ride-sharing with the other family vehicles is working out satisfactorily at present) but I did buy the books.

Good thing my expectations were realistic, for despite the seller’s enthusiastic “Aren’t these marvelous reads!” endorsement, I am finding that they are pretty well up to par with the author’s other utterly contrived dramatic romances I’ve read to date. Meaning, formula plot, gorgeous background setting.

These are as much “California novels” as anything John Steinbeck wrote, and I love that about them, having a family California connection and many fond childhood memories of orange groves and eucalyptus trees, trips into the Sierra foothills to marvel at the giant Sequoia trees, and then back to the suburbs, with immense rose bushes in every yard and quail scurrying down quiet streets lined with modest middleclass bungalows.

A golden place still in many ways – such an astonishingly distinct natural setting! – and to me much more “California” than the smoggy metropolis of L.A. and the artificial wonders of Hollywood and such.

So, as I said, Norris does the settings well, but her plots, not so much.

This one is fairly dire, as Norris novels go. Definitely B-list. Here’s the rundown, spoilers and all.

Bee-yoo-ti-ful young woman, only (and adopted) daughter of staunchly respectable working class parents in a small rural California community, yearns for more fulfillment than her current occupation as a kindergarten teacher provides. She falls into an engagement with a clean-living, very devoted Italian-American boy, which is viewed by all concerned as a mostly good thing, seeing that he is from a well-off family, though the fact that he is absolutely Catholic and she isn’t particularly religious-minded is rather a sticking point, especially with his Mamma.

Not to worry, Italian Mamma! Here comes an entrancingly romantic ne’er-do-well, who sweeps our heroine off her feet with his tales of derring-do and fervent protestations of love. Before she knows it, she’s off in the big city and married to her impulsive swain, who turns out to be a class-A jerk.

Abandoned and pregnant, our heroine returns home to Mom and Dad, who comfort and shelter her, and also welcome with open arms the wayward son-in-law when he shows up on the doorstep some five moths later.

Emotionally fraught interlude.

Heroine, child in arms, decides that she must leave her current embarrassing situation (spouse is gambling and carousing and borrowing money from all and sundry) so she hies herself all the way off to New York City, leaving her parents hosting her husband, which they do with astonishly good grace, because they’re Really Good People, and they don’t believe in divorce, and well, you never know, the couple might just sort things out down the road…

So. New York. Heroine finds herself living in poverty, working as a lowly saleswoman in a cheap clothing store. Wee child gets deathly ill. Crisis! Off to the charity ward he goes, but oh! what luck. The talented doctor who saves the wee lad’s life turns out to be none other than the husband of the now-deceased birth mother of our heroine – though he’s not her actual father.

He (the doctor) is a sedate widower, exceedingly wealthy, kind, noble, etcetera etcetera etcetera, and he takes our heroine and child under his wing, without revealing his true interest in her as the child of the woman he was married to and loved beyond all reasonable degree, what with her abandoning him for another man and then showing up pregnant begging for an abortion which of course he refuses being sternly moral and highly religious (those are some of the etceteras  previously mentioned) but he did his best to comfort her and gave her access to his fortune which she used to ensure that her baby would have a good adoptive home after she expired when the tiny babe (our heroine) was a mere few weeks old.

Still with me?

Okay, somewhere in here the heroine finds God, and starts to pray incessantly whenever she is faced with a fresh self-created dilemma, of which she has oodles.

After a passionate interlude with yet another questionably motivated swain (the heroine does have a knack for attracting rotten men!) she decides that she must return to her abandoned husband – still sponging off her parents back in California, still squandering his sporadically earned cash on loose living – because she did take those marriage vows way back when, and well, I honestly have no idea at this point why this gal does any of the things she does.

There’s a reconciliation, rocky as all get out – yeah, spouse is still a jerk to her, though all the locals, including Mom and Dad, profess a fondness for him, can’t quite get my head around that but Kathleen Norris says it’s so there there we are – and some years go by.

Then who should turn up but our heroine’s doctor hero – her not-really-her-father legal father – and quelle surprise! – heroine finds she is actually in romantic love with him, which her jealous husband picks up on immediately. Drama ensues, ending with husband dead due to a noble act, and heroine now free to blushingly profess her love to the doctor, who is only in his early fifties, after all, to her twenty-something.

Yeah, I know. Strong ick factor going on here.

Why do I read this stuff? Too strangely, entrancingly bad to look away? That has to be it…

Happy April, fellow readers! It’s got to be uphill from here! 😉 🙂

(Who am I kidding? These sorts of books are grand fun! Though maybe not quite in the sense that the authors originally intended.)

 

 

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The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen ~ 1935. This edition: Knopf, 1936. Hardcover. 270 pages.

This novel is stiff with secrets. Everyone is hiding something, and the frequent silences are screaming with unspoken words.

What a tense novel, and what a compelling one, too. Such beautiful writing by Elizabeth Bowen. Though I found I was always being kept an arm’s-length away; the reader is very much the spectator here, privy to all of the secrets, but never sure quite what the next moment will bring.

A commenter on my recent post on Bowen’s The Little Girls mentioned the Henry James-like qualities of The House in Paris. Bang on, that comparison is. And, though I am a dedicated Jamesian at heart, I do find he can be a challenge to really get one’s head around. As is this novel. I had to pay attention, no room at all for straying thoughts.

The novel is set in three acts, as it were. Present-Past-Present. We are thrown into the middle of a certain situation, given a long flashback episode to explain how we got there, and then returned to the situation in time to see it come to its climax and continue on its way.

In brief:

Two British children meet in a small house in Paris. One, 11-year-old Henrietta, is breaking her journey from England to her grandmother’s home in Mentone. She is there for a few hours only, in between train connections. The other child is 9-year-old Leopold. He has travelled from Italy where he lives with his adoptive American family to meet with his real mother – whom he has never known since his birth – at her request.

There is a vast mystery surrounding Leopold and his origins; Henrietta is provided with the barest of explanations as to who he is and what he is there for, but she is warned not to speak of such things to him, or to anyone else.

The rest of the novel is involved with Leopold’s back story, and that of his mother, culminating with a sudden change in Leopold’s circumstances, which may or may not go well for him. Henrietta fades in to the distance, mute witness to what has gone on.

That’s all I am going to say, because otherwise I’d be here all the night! There’s a lot going on in here; Bowen puts her characters through the works.

One could open this book to any page and find a passage worthy of reading over and over and turning about in your mind like a sharply faceted gem, all a-glint with captured light. I will treat you to several which stood out for me, to give you a sense of the quality of the writing here.

It is a wary business, walking about a strange house you know you are to know well. Only cats and dogs with their more expressive bodies enact the tension we share with them at such times. The you inside you gathers up defensively; something is stealing upon you every moment; you will never be quite the same again. These new unsmiling lights, reflections and objects are to become your memories, riveted to you closer than friends or lovers, going with you, even, into the grave: worse, they may become dear and fasten like so many leeches on your heart. By having come, you already begin to store up the pains of going away.

and

She thought, young girls like the excess of any quality. Without knowing, they want to suffer, to suffer they must exaggerate; they like to have loud chords struck upon them. Loving art better than life they need men to be actors; only an actor moves them, with his telling smile, undomestic, out of touch with the everyday which they dread. They love to enjoy love as a system of doubts and shocks. They are right: not seeking husbands yet, they have no reason to see love socially. This natural fleshly protest against good taste is broken down soon enough; their natural love of the cad is outwitted by their mothers. Vulgarity, inborn like original sin, unfolds with the woman nature, unfolds with it quickly and has a flamboyant flowering in the young girl. Wise mothers do not nip it immediately; that makes for trouble later, they watch it out.

and

On the platform before their long journey, to speak of a next meeting would have been out of place… Good-byes breed a sort of distaste for whomever you say good-bye to; this hurts, you feel, this must not happen again. Any other meeting will only lead back to this. If to-day good-bye is not final, some day it will be; doorsteps, docks and platforms make you clairvoyant…

So there we have it.

Elizabeth Bowen.

Each word carefully, deliberately, elegantly placed where it will have the most impact.

I feel the tiniest bit out of my own humble place in boldly assigning a numerical rating to my reading of the book, but here it is: 9/10.

And then there’s this, from the back jacket of my edition. I remember comparing Bowen’s work to that of Rose Macaulay, before I knew of their connection. Called that one right, didn’t I?! I am beyond pleased with myself, as I’d already shelved these two together. Score one for the reader. Now, do I move Henry James, too? 😉

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Shabby Tiger by Howard Spring ~ 1934. This edition: Sun Dial Press, 1935. Hardcover. 316 pages.

Sound a fanfare – here’s a first novel that hits all of its vigorous notes without jarring.

Okay, let me back up a bit. There was considerable jarring, because a huge component of the novel is “Jewishness”, mostly as viewed from the gentile perspective in 1930s’ Great Britain. Abundant era-expected slanging and racial slurs, some of which drove the plot.

Viewed as a product of its time and read with the 2017 political correctness filter turned off, it works. Caveat emptor: your experience may differ.

Enter one of our protagonists:

The woman flamed along the road like a macaw. A thin mackintosh, washed out by weather into pastel shades of green, was belted tight above the swaying rhythm of her hips. It was slashed open to show a skirt of yellow wool, and you could see that the rent was an old one, that this lazy slut had no use for needle and thread. Thrown round her neck with as much consideration as a dish-clout is thrown on the string stretched before the kitchen fire was a scarf of silk, scarlet, stained and mottled like all she wore, yet achieving a gay defiant beauty. The wind made it a pennon. A great lolloping black sombrero that had belonged to a man and was now trimmed with a broken green feather, hid the flash of the woman’s black secret eyes. She lugged a suitcase of scarlet leather, but because, like all about her, it was tattered and outmoded and insecure, a length of clothes line kept its jaws snapped shut on whatever was within, permitting no more than a glimpse of white, frilled protrusion.

Anna Fitzgerald, recently orphaned daughter of an Irish horse trainer, has precipitately left her employment as a maid, suitcase stuffed with items liberated from their proper owner, the white frills referred to being those of a stolen nightgown. Anna is a fiery sort of creature, much given to blurting out whatever’s on her mind; not a comfortable sort of serving girl, as all involved have discovered. Passionate and penniless, she has no plan for what comes next.

What comes next is a serendipitous meeting with lean and hungry Nick Faunt, starving artist in the best traditional sense. Estranged from his wealthy father, Nick is making his own way through the world. He cares not for what anyone thinks of him, being certain of his artistic genius; he may well be correct.

Anna and Nick become a team, uniting their varied resources in order to scratch out an existence of sorts in the more sordid echelons of Manchester, which is where they fetch up, Anna to reclaim her illegitimate child Brian, born to her five years ago when she was herself a mere child of fourteen, Nick to further his single-minded purpose of capturing movement in charcoal and paint.

The relationship is strictly platonic, though Anna quite openly wishes it were otherwise. Nick has no time for tedious romantic dalliances, though he isn’t above a roll in the rural heather with beautiful, ambitious Jewess Rachel Rosing, social climber extraordinaire, who has misunderstood the antagonism between Nick and Sir George; she assumes the son is merely off sowing wild oats, with the father standing by to welcome the prodigal back at some point. (She’s wrong.)

Here’s a snippet with Rachel in it:

Nick and Rachel lunched at Lyons’s Popular State Café, which is popular because it is stately. Contraltos are apt to break into a deep stately baying there at any moment, and a band plays stately music, and a little boy, dressed like a chef, trundles a wagon of hors d’œuvres among the tables in the most stately manner you could imagine. There are lions on all the crockery – Joseph and his brethren. Upstairs you dance. Rachel knew it all inside out. She liked the place. It symbolised what she was trying to escape to.

What a gloriously varied cast of characters this slight but highly seasoned novel contains!

Here some of, them are, artistically rendered as is appropriate for the bohemian-themed novel: an unknown female (who the heck is she supposed to be? – drawing an utter blank – hang on, maybe it’s Communist rabble rouser Olga?), Nick-the-artist, Rachel-on-skates, monocled lecher Sir George, wee Brian, Anna herself, bookie Piggy White, and down in the lower right corner, another artist, Nick’s friend and punching bag Anton Brune. I’m assuming one of the lesser male characters in the background is meant to depict Jacob Rosing – “Holy Moses”, or “Homo” (possibly short for Homo sapiens, don’t think too hard about it, Anna will fill you in) – Rachel’s socially embarrassing brother, who is employed as Piggy’s clerk. He’s in desperate, unrequited love with Anna, and has been selflessly caring for her child these past five years, and he dejectedly moves through the story like a ghost at the feast, an intimation of tragedy which plays itself out before we leave the story.

So much is packed in here, and so highly coloured is the tale, that Granada Television turned it into a well-received mini-series in 1973, starring a young Prunella Gee as Anna, and, incidentally, causing a bit of stir in its depiction of full frontal female nudity on television (a first), presumably in one of the studio scenes where Anna is posing for Nick. I haven’t seen the filmed version; liberties have obviously been taken with Spring’s novel, but the nudity is in the written version too, as well as a rather explicit sex scene which raised my eyebrows – it stops at the nipples, as it were, but very much goes on in vivid inference.

Getting a bit warm in here. Where was I?

Oh, yes. The novel. Did I like it.

Yes, I did. A whole lot. So much so that I’m delving into the piggy bank and ordering a pricey hardcover copy of Rachel Rosing, the sequel, which extends the story by following Anna’s social-climbing nemesis as she recovers from her Shabby Tiger setbacks and goes out into the wider world.

My rating: 9/10. As period pieces go, this one is a bit of a gem. (Remember what I said about political incorrectness, though. Seething with it!)

Howard Spring. Interesting writer, he’s looking to be. I came to this novel prepared to like it, as I’d been most taken with my introduction to him with The Houses in Between. But he’s not at all an even writer; I’ve also just read A Sunset Touch, and it was fairly dire. Review very much pending, but I had to get my Shabby Tiger rave out of the way first.

One last excerpt, with a nod to my Mancunian readers, who will no doubt find much of interest in this novel for its many depictions of their city of almost a century ago:

The trams that hammer their way out of Albert Square run level if they are going south or east or west. But if they are going north they soon begin to climb. They go east as far as Victoria Station, turn left over the railway bridge, and climb the hill to what the posters call the breezy northern suburbs.

You are no sooner over the bridge than Jerusalem lifts up her gates. The eyes that you encounter are the eyes of Leah and Jael and Ruth; the writing on the shop windows is Hebrew. Synagogues and Talmud Torah schools; kosher meat shops; wizened little bearded men with grey goat’s eyes and slim olive children with heifer’s eyes; these are what you see as the tram storms the oppressive breast of Cheetham Hill.

You have not gone far before he facetious trolley-boy shouts: “Switzerland!” and down the grim street that faces you is the Ice Palace, beyond the monumental mason’s yard where Hebrew hopes and lamentations are cut into the white mortuary slabs. The street is called Derby Street, and all the other street names hereabouts are undeniably Gentile. The Jew has settled upon the land, but he has not made it his own. It is a place of exile…

 

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The Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter ~ 1936. This edition: Knopf, 1973. Hardcover. 149 pages.

Writer Conrad Richter, 1890-1968, occupies a place in the pantheon of lesser American literary gods just a little below Willa Cather, so any critique flavoured with negativity feels slightly blasphemous; we feel we’re supposed to kneel down and enthusiastically worship, not surreptitiously peer at the idol for a glimpse of feet of clay.

But autre temps, autre moeurs, as the saying goes, and times are different now, and some writing hasn’t aged well. The vaguely embarrasing lush prose and predictable plot line of this short novel being a case in point.

A hint is given in the dust jacket teaser:

Narrated by a nephew of the leading male character, this novel – novella? – is passionately presented, though sketchy on background details. It reads like the screenplay for a old-style Western movie, and by golly! – lookie there – it was indeed filmed, in 1947, with Katharine Hepburn playing erring wife Lutie, and Spencer Tracy the stoic cattle baron James Brewton.

The film seems to have received mixed reviews. Though successful from a box office perspective, director Elia Kazan, thwarted in his creative desires throughout the filming, was disappointed in the final version and reportedly advised his friends against watching it. This contemporary film review from March of 1947 is an interesting read.

The novel’s plot is simplistic enough. New Mexico cattle baron James Brewton runs an immense operation, mostly consisting of government-owned rangeland, which he oversees as if it were his very own. Prospective homesteaders crowding across the state line and their political sponsors have their eye on Brewton’s private domain, and a certain Judge Brice Chamberlain has set his sights on knocking the region’s wealthy ranchers down a notch or two.

Enter Lutie Cameron, James Brewton’s ladylike citygirl bride, who disembarks from a train to be met by Brewton’s callow and resentful nephew. Tripping daintily up the dusty cowtown street in her high-heeled shoes, utterly ignoring the stares of the local layabouts, ducking under the feet of the hanged man gracing the water tower, Lutie brings a breath of perfumed air to enhance the local scene, and soon-to-be-nephew Hal is utterly smitten.

James and Lutie wed, and for a while it looks like all will be well. They’re apparently in love, though neither say so much aloud, James because of his leathery stoicism, Lutie because of her reticent ladylikeness, but children start to appear, so something’s going on. A girl, a boy, and another boy, this last child bearing a strong resemblance to – oh my! can it be?! – James Brewton’s arch-nemesis Brice Chamberlain.

For Lutie has apparently slipped quietly off the marital rails. So much so that next thing we know she is boarding that same train that brought her into town, to return to the bright lights of the city. It’s an open secret that Brice Chamberlain will be accompanying her, so when he stands Lutie up at the station, and she departs with head held high and eyes bright with unshed tears, the gossip swells to epic proportions.

Not to worry, she’ll be back, wafting in some years later once her estranged husband is on the verge of losing his ranch, while her child-of-(presumed)adultery is succumbing to gunshot wounds sustained during a brush with the law, for he has gone very much to the bad.

A marital reconciliation takes place over the dead body of the young man, then the scene fades to grey, and we are left with the image of the once-vibrant ranch house falling into decay, James and Lutie vanished to who-knows-where, and only Hal left to cherish the memories of what-once-was.

As a period piece this slender book both satisfies and disappoints. Occasional detailed and evocative descriptive passages bring the physical scene vividly to life, but the over-the-topness of much of Richter’s prose makes me grit my teeth.

Example, as Lutie prepares to board the outbound train:

And now I was sure that all those happy friends were frantically playing a part and that they really had no more belief that Lutie Brewton was going to St. Louis than I had. And when I stumbled by as if I noticed nothing, I saw that for all her gay animation, her high lace collar was a pale branch whipsawing in the pounding stream of blood at her throat and that the veins on one of my uncle’s hands stood out like long-suppressed whipcords of blue lightning.

I couldn’t have gone now if I had wished. I could see the grim bulge in my uncle’s coat of gray broadcloth and an untamed violence, like a prairie fire rimmed with black smoke, flaring in his dark eyes. Several loafers had risen to their feet licking their lips. Following their eyes, I glimpsed up the street the unmistakable tall figure of Brice Chamberlain in a new brown suit coming out of the Exchange House and pausing for a moment on the high stone steps, a Mexican behind him with a pair of gripsacks. Then both approaching figures were blotted out by the gray clot of rounded emigrant canvas.

“Whipcoards of blue lightning”! “Grim bulge”! “Untamed violence, like a prairie fire rimmed with black smoke”! Oh, my. Fanning myself wildly – those are stirring words. Is it just me or is it getting hot in here?!

Richter’s characterizations in this novel are stock, clichéd, so that one can’t believe in them as real people, who might have lived. They do everything so much to pattern, stepping through their choreographies of behaviour so rigidly, so predictably, so reminiscently of so many off-the-shelf novel and movie characters that one can’t get past that deadly over-familiarity.

Now I’m going to change gears, and say that though I am dreadfully cruel in my assessment of this extremely dated novel, it wasn’t all that bad. Conrad Richter’s sincerity shines through the deficiencies of his prose and plotting. He had a story to tell, and he told it. A point to make, and he hammered it home.

That point being, once all the romantic brouhaha is cleared out of the way, that the great American grasslands were never suited to the plow, that homesteading brought a fatal destruction of the eons-old sod, and that the epic tragedy of the 1930s’ “dust bowl” of the North American prairies was brought about by human ineptitude.

Probably worth a read, this novel, for cultural literacy reasons, if nothing else.

The characters – well – I got a lot of perverse enjoyment out of mildly despising each and every one of them, for being such cardboard cutouts, and for bringing on their own various downfalls. Lutie in particular. Oh, she annoyed the heck out of me!

And where did she go after abandoning her silent but infatuated husband and her sweet children, and being abandoned by her callous lover? She reappears a good ten years later, still beautiful and well-dressed, still exuding that “fragrance of violets” so beloved of Victorian-and-later writers, still capable of winning hearts with the merest glance of her “liquid eyes”. She’d turned down James Brewton’s financial support, she’d set herself outside of society’s pale, so where was she? How did she feed and clothe herself? Who financed her costly wardrobe, her daintily feminine personal needs? Radio silence!

Okay, rating. How about a 6/10. The Sea of Grass had its moments, and it was fun to growl at as I read it through. Nice and short, too, so it wasn’t like I wasted that much time on its reading. Appreciated the eco-message, good for Conrad Richter on putting that out there.

 

 

 

 

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Tryst by Elswyth Thane  ~ 1939. This edition: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1939. Hardcover (re-bound). 256 pages.

March is not behaving very spring-like at present – it’s a briskish minus 11 Celsius out there right now, and snow has been drifting down all night – so what better time than to read a nice, cosy, ghostly love story?

 It’s hard to know how to say it – but – oh, God, if I’ve earned heaven when I die, let me have England first, let me have England instead

Hilary Shenstone, British secret agent on the troubled Northwest Indian frontier, catches a fatal bullet, but before he pegs out eternally, at the end of a long, beautifully manly, and oh-so-stereotypically-English death scene, he makes the plea quoted above.

God, being sympathetic to Englishmen (as we are so often told), grants his wish, and Hilary’s shade finds itself back in England, sitting on a London embankment, watching a potential suicide being dissuaded from a plunge into the Thames by a compassionate passer-by.

Hilary, being new to the whole business of ghosting, takes some time to learn the ropes, but he quite quickly manages to relocate himself back to his beloved family home, Nun’s Farthing, which has been leased to a scholarly professor for a year, since none of the family (except Hilary, who is often called away on his hush-hush missions) particularly cares to reside there.

The professor-now-in-residence, long-widowed, is accompanied by his dithery spinster sister and his lonely, bookish, social-misfit seventeen-year-old daughter, Sabrina.

(Do you see where we’re going yet?)

Sabrina finds herself fascinated by the locked room which belongs to the absent Hilary; she goes so far as to pick the lock to gain entry, and the room becomes her almost-secret retreat. “Almost”, because tight-lipped, apparently unemotional Mrs. Pilton, the longtime housekeeper of Nun’s Farthing who stays on to oversee the renters, secretly hands over the room’s key to Sabrina, giving her the nod to go in and while away her long days curled up in the sunny window seat, reading her way through Hilary’s large collection of books.

My ex-library copy has seen some hard use. But, though stained and worn throughout, I did not notice any dog-eared pages, so the forbidding stamp which an enthusiastic long-ago librarian dabbed on chapter headings throughout has obviously had its desired effect.

Hilary (in shade form) returns; he becomes immediately infatuated with the sensitively imaginative Sabrina, while she, in her turn, finds herself unable to think of anything else but the man whom she is becoming to know through his possessions and his taste in books.

The news eventually comes that Hilary is dead. Sabrina takes it inexplicably hard; her occupation of Hilary’s old room becomes common knowledge; her appalled and worried father and aunt decide that a move might well be in order, though Sabrina begs to stay…

Stopping right there, I am.

This is a book I would have loved dearly to read as a teenager, and even at this far from teenager-ish age I found it deeply appealing.

Tryst is not particularly well-written, for there are all sorts of gaps in logic and the whole ghost thing is uneven at best. The author is most inconsistent in what her creation is able to do: he can’t be seen (except by dogs, who fearfully growl at him, and cats, who twine about his unseen ankles in feline ecstasy), his writing (as a ghost) can’t be read, he needs to wait for some doors to be opened yet he can pass through walls at will, move items about, and he leaves physical signs of his presence all over the place – a squashed cushion here, a rumpled bedcover there. At one point he even takes a bath!

But I loved it. It’s somehow deeply appealing, despite its inconsistencies, and I happily entered into the tale, squashing my cynical thoughts firmly underfoot.

Marketed (apparently?) to the adult audience of its time, it’s more of what one would consider a teen girls’ novel today. Fine literature Tryst isn’t, but it’s an engagingly effortless read, which is now going onto the guaranteed re-reads section of the keeper shelf, alongside its sisters-in-theme The Sherwood Ring and The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope.

A full extra point awarded for the Kipling references, in particular the connections to Kim, and to Puck of Pook’s Hill, two books which I hold in the very highest personal regard.

My rating: 9.5/10

 

 

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Swiss Sonata by Gwethalyn Graham ~ 1938. This edition: Cormorant Books, 2005. Introduction by Elspeth Cameron. Softcover. ISBN: 1-896951-62-7. 326 pages.

What an interesting book this turned out to be, and, after a somewhat uneven start, an absorbing story both for its historical value and for the small personal sagas of its invented characters.

I first became aware of author Gwethalyn Graham after reading Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson last year. That novel was all about anti-Semitism in American society in the immediate post-World War II years, and in looking into the background of that particular novel, I came across mention of a Canadian writer – Gwethalyn Graham – who wrote a well-received novel on a similar theme – 1944’s Earth and High Heaven.

“Well received”, you’ll note that I said. This is something of an understatement, as both Earth and High Heaven and Swiss Sonata won the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction – in 1938 and 1944 – a remarkable achievement for a writer’s first two (of only three) published works.

Looking into Gwethalyn Graham – see, this is how these things happen, wandering down each enticing literary rabbit trail! – I found mention of her first novel, published when she was 25 years old. Swiss Sonata was based on Graham’s personal experiences as a student at a Swiss “finishing school” in the 1930s, and it sounded like it might be an amusing read.

Which it turned out to be, in bits here and there, but its overwhelming concentration was on much darker world affairs affecting a group of schoolgirls – some, to be said, not exactly girls but in actuality young women – and their instructors, resident in a small Swiss boarding school in 1935.

Kirkus had this to say in its 1938 review, and I fully concur.

A first novel that is well handled and the story of a finishing school in Switzerland, whose pupils come from many countries. A miniature League of Nations, the problems current in 1935 are reflected in the school, pro-Hitlerite persecutes German-Jew, counter-revolutionary interests are hidden from the public eye. There are emotional, psychological problems, and the head-mistress is forced out of her ivory tower into active participation in the girls’ lives. Vicky, the heroine, is a bit too good to be true, but the story, after a slow start, does carry you along, interested in the outcome. A far-better-than-average girls’ school story.

Time presses, and I will leave you here, with these last few links well worth perusal.

Now interested in Gwethalyn Graham, and want to find out more? Here you go, a grand post on her increasingly tragic back story from the Only Connect blog.

And Brian Busby of The Dusty Bookcase blog, whose opinion on all things bookish I hold in the very highest regard, has this to say.

My personal “reading satisfaction” rating of Swiss Sonata: 7/10.

I liked it, and found its slight unevenness very forgivable. In some parts the emotional tension was exceedingly well sustained, and though I, like the Kirkus reviewer, found the heroine Vicky just a bit too good to be true, I eventually found myself completely won over. Interesting ending, too.

Highly recommended for its historical value, well presented hand-in-hand with its psychodrama fictional theme.

 

 

 

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