Posts Tagged ‘1952 novel’

Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle ~ 1952. This edition: Fontana, 1968. Translated from the French by Xan Fielding. Paperback. 189 pages.

This is a spare, terse war novel, based on the French author’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war, concerning the fictionalized building of a key bridge on the infamous 250-mile-long “Death Railway” (over 100,000 POWs and local conscripts died in its construction) between Siam and Burma during World War II.

British Colonel Nicholson, a stickler of a stiff upper lipper if ever there was one, insists his men abide by the rules when they are forced to surrender to the Japanese after the fall of Malaya. No one must attempt to escape, and the formal surrender must be done just so, rather to the bemusement of the Japanese invaders, headed by Colonel Saito, himself a strong believer in saving face.

When the “savage” Japs set the Brits to building a rail bridge across the River Kwai, Nicholson’s contempt for their incompetence gets the better of him. To prove British superiority, he convinces Saito to let the prisoners redesign the edifice, and it goes ahead with astonishing speed.

Colonel Nicholson seems to have forgotten that his country is at war, and he unwittingly turns collaborator, which will have tragic consequences when a small, secret team of British saboteurs arrive to knock the bridge out of action on its gala opening day.

This short novel was made into a very successful 1957 movie starring Alec Guinness; it won Best Picture for its year at the Academy Awards, and a whole slew of other prizes.

The tale itself is fictional, though it is based on a number of real scenarios. There was a wartime-built bridge over the River Kwai; it’s still there and very much in use, and apparently quite a tourist attraction. The British Colonel Nicholson was modelled by Boulle upon several of his French superiors during his own time in a Japanese POW camp; the composite portrait is not particularly flattering and led to some rather touchy Anglo-French relations when the book and then the movie achieved their astonishing success.

I found this novel to be a slightly uneven read. Due perhaps to its translation from the original French it was rather stilted at times, but the story was compelling and it was no hardship to follow it through to its rather shocking ending. (Having never seen the movie, I was unprepared for the violent dénouement.)

Heads up to modern readers: this tale is chock full of racial slurs directed mostly at the Japanese. (Not particularly unexpected in a book of this era and of its wartime subject.)

I was also interested to discover that this was not Pierre Boulle’s only bestseller. He also wrote a 1963 sci-fi novel titled La Planète des singes, or, in English, The Planet of the Apes. Anyone heard of that one?!

My rating: 6.5/10

An interesting read.


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you the jury mary bordenYou, the Jury by Mary Borden, 1952. Alternate title: Martin Merriedew. This edition: Longmans, Green and Co., 1952. Hardcover. 346 pages.

My rating: 8/10

An unreliable narrator, a damning society, a haunting question.

We grew up together. I didn’t get on with him too well once the first excitement wore off (it was wonderful making a friend of our very own), but my brother Francis adored him, they were like David and Jonathan, so I had to go on being friends if I wasn’t to be left out of everything. And I wanted him to think well of me, he was a glorious boy, but he wasn’t the sort of person you could be comfortably fond of, he was too independent and expected too much. Eventually you either gave in to him and loved him blindly, or came to hate him; it was the same with almost everyone who knew him.

So speaks narrator Barbara Patche, looking back from 1951 to the childhood day in 1914 when she and her brother met seven-year-old Martin Merriedew, whose influence on them was to mark and change the expected pattern of their future lives.

Barbara and Francis are the blue-blooded children of an English earl and reside in a typically stately country home; Martin is the child of the newly arrived village doctor whose calm good sense proves a godsend to the Patche family, aiding as it does to the successful treatment of Francis’ crippled legs.

The boys grow up together, and swear an unbreakable oath to go out into the world and do some unspecified action of heroic good together; Barbara jealously looks on, never quite buying (she says, protesting perhaps too strenuously) into Martin’s charismatic appeal, but staying silent because of her beloved brother’s friendship which grows into something more complex and troubling as the boys grown to manhood. (It’s not the sort of male-to-male relationship you might think, either, but something much more complicated.)

Martin takes his medical degree, Francis steps into his father’s place as the new lord of the manor, and both set the countryside all agog with their eventual establishment of a medical clinic funded by Francis’ inheritance, and run along the lines of medical common sense mixed with a dash of faith healing.

For Martin is steadfast in his belief that he knows the will of God – at least as it applies to himself – and when the Second World War breaks over England, he steps forward boldly to proclaim his conscientious objection to taking life, and is posted as a medical orderly (he has since stopped practicing as a doctor for reasons I will leave up to the author to explain) to a front-line surgical station. He and Francis have become estranged some years previously; Francis has followed the way of his more mainstream peers and has joined the air force and is engaged in active combat.

Something happens at the front; Martin is charged with treason and sent back to England to stand trial as the war winds its way into its final days. The penalty, if a conviction is attained, is automatically death.

In a strange twist of fate, the judge who presides over Martin’s trial is Barbara’s husband. Barbara and Francis are shocked and silent spectators as Martin is tried for his life.

As you might suppose, this is not a cheerful sort of story, but instead a deeply thought-provoking examination of what it means to be a true pacifist. Though it can’t avoid a certain amount of sensationalism, the atmosphere throughout is tense with foreboding, and the importance of what isn’t being discussed looms larger than the charges of the village gossips and the headline writers.

I never felt that I got to really know any of the characters in a truly intimate way; too much is unsaid, and Barbara’s point of view is always just slightly open for interpretation. By the end of the story we know the most about her, and only what she allows us to know about the others in that forged-in-childhood triumvirate which has parted and which comes together so irrevocably those decades later.

I won’t detail the ending, but I will say that it was more than slightly ambiguous. Neat solutions and tidy wrap-ups not to be found here.

An interesting book, beautifully written in a tense, controlled, dispassionately stoic tone. It works, in this case, quite well. An author I will be reading more of, if I can.

This was a random acquisition at a book sale a year or so ago, added to the stack after a quick glance inside and the reading of a few paragraphs hinted at something promising. It has taken me some time to get around to reading it, and the paradoxical reward for my procrastination has been the discovery of yet another author-of-note to add to my list of look-for names while out upon the old-book hunt.

A modest amount of research reveals that Mary Borden was a woman of some accomplishment. Daughter of an American millionaire, against all expectations and with no medical training, she spent the Great War voluntarily and by all reports quite brilliantly and efficiently running a field evacuation hospital in one of the most active war zones in France. She wrote a damning (and suppressed – it was not published until some years after the war) memoir of the carnage she witnessed, the recently republished The Forbidden Zone, reviewed in detail here, at Open Letters Monthly.

Taking up writing after the war, Mary Borden produced a number of well-regarded novels, most with serious or suspenseful themes. (You, the Jury, was her last published work. Mary Borden died in 1968, at the age of 82.) She served again in Great Britain during the Second World War, financing and operating an ambulance unit. As well as her novels she apparently wrote at least one further volume of memoirs.

Why have I never come across this writer before? I am sure she must be – or was once – fairly well known; her books are in good supply in the used book trade, in multiple editions.

Is anyone else familiar with this writer? And if you’ve read this or any other of her books, what did you think?

I myself am quite impressed, though I hesitate to recommend this particular book without a caution that it’s not a very typically appealing sort of thing. Hard to classify, really. A product-of-its-time psychological drama?

Edited to add that someone else certainly knows about Mary Borden – Roger who has kindly commented below points us in the direction of an online appreciation and a link to a recent biography of Mary Borden here, as well as a fascinatingly pertinent blog which I spent a satisfying amount of time browsing this morning, Great War Fiction.

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Lasso Your Heart by Betty Cavanna ~ 1952. This edition: The Westminster Press, 1952. 184 pages.lasso your heart betty cavanna

My rating: 5/10.

This one just squeaks onto the keeper shelf and therefore gets a “pass”, and I’ve made generous allowances for the genre and time of writing. The Kirkus review says it, too. Merely “adequate.”


Kirkus Review, October 1952

A wholesome young love and how-to-be-natural-with-people-instead-of-just-horses-and-dogs novel, by a popular teen-age fiction author – about a young Texas girl and her adjustment problems with rich Philadelphia relatives. Sixteen year old Prue Foster and her family have moved to rural Pennsylvania where her father is managing a cattle fattening ranch. In Bryn Mawr live the Rowntrees, Mrs. Foster’s socialite family, and Prue is invited to her cousin Cissy’s debut. Her misgivings intelligently reasoned away, Prue enjoys herself with a young journalism aspirant Colin, until news is received of Cissy’s brother-in-law’s death in Europe. Mr. and Mrs. Rowntree fly to their elder daughter’s aid and Cissy goes out to the ranch with Prue where she falls in love with Mac, a Texas A. & M. student summering with the Fosters as a ranch hand. Prue averts a would be tragic elopement by enlightening Mac as to the evils of running away from temporary disapproval. So Cissy wins Mac the honorable way and Prue looks forward to a nice winter with Colin who will study at Penn. Adequate.

This is one of prolific “teen fiction” writer Betty Cavanna’s earlier books, and it is an exceedingly stereotypical “young romance” novel, though it is not at all a bad book – no groans of despair were emitted by this reader during the reading, which says something.

An interesting scenario in some ways, with the main character, Prudence – Prue – coming from a ranching family who has recently relocated from Texas to Pennsylvania. I appreciated that Prue’s father was not a ranch owner himself, but merely an employee of a large Texas holding. There is a complete acceptance by the author that agriculture was a more than respectable occupation for both Mr. Foster and the young “cowboy” love interest, Mac – much is made of the fact that they are well-educated professionals much respected in their fields – Mr. Foster is writing scientific articles for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Yearbook, and Mac is in his final years of study at Ag school (Texas A. & M. University), which is treated with as much respect as Harvard might be. I really liked those touches, and awarded an extra star for them. (Being an old aggie of sorts myself, from one of the venerable Albertan “cow schools.”)

Otherwise this is mostly just a typical 1950s’ teen romance, with the sweet, naïve, wholesome country girl falling in love with the cute city guy with the convertible, and wondering if he could ever be interested in her, and being oh-so-flushed-and-confused when it becomes apparent that yes, young love is in full delicious bloom. But though Prue and Colin are involved in a gentle teenage courtship (does he really read poetry to her under the trees by the brook? – I’m so jealous!) the situation between Prue’s cousin Cissy and the older Mac hints at something much more emotionally mature and physically passionate.

There is also a situation involving Cissy’s older sister Lea, living in Amsterdam with her pilot husband, Stewart. Stewart’s death in a flying accident on the evening of Cissy’s debutante ball injects a sombre overtone into what is otherwise a light and airy story, and the grief this brings to the families involved is handled well by the author, though she takes care to keep most of that aspect well off stage; Cissy is staying with Prue so Lea can go through the first months of her widowhood in private seclusion back at her childhood home without the fuss of Cissy’s busy social life trespassing on her mourning period. I thought this was an atypical scenario to include in a teen book of this period, and it definitely added another dimension to the story, beyond stereotypical “fluff.”

Betty Cavanna knows her horses, too, and includes a sweet interlude with Prue’s mare giving birth to an adorable foal; there is also the de rigueur “caught in wire” scenario with the young heroine single-handedly rescuing the entangled horse and being praised for her good sense and bravery etcetera etcetera etcetera.

The readers of the period liked this stuff just fine; the old library copy of Lasso Your Heart I’ve acquired (no idea where – it’s been around for years and I cannot remember where I got it, though I’m guessing it was cheap or even free, due to its decrepit condition) is literally falling to pieces, and has been repaired by conscientious librarian a few times – tape overlapping on tape!

I’m getting rather interested in this author in a low-key way, and will be on the lookout for more by her. She has surprised me a bit, in a good way, in each of her three books I’ve read over the past few weeks. I spent some time browsing her titles on ABE, and was quite surprised to see that some are in short supply and are indeed very high-priced; she’s been deemed as “collectible”, apparently, so my interest is not exclusive.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Betty Cavanna in the future.

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