Saturday, August 29, 2009

Great bestsellers by 1940s novelists you probably never heard of
(Guest Post by Linda Gorton Aragoni)

I'm sipping tea in a lakeside cabin in New Hampshire. In my absence, Linda Aragoni was kind enough to write a guest post focusing on some great books from another era. Linda is an educational communicator whose work includes the website For fun, she reviews bestsellers of 50 or more years ago on their anniversary years at

The 1940s produced some wonderful novels, including some by novelists whose bestsellers have been all but forgotten. Here are are 10 novels from that decade’s bestseller list that are worth digging out today.

The Family (1940 #10). Russian ex-pats in Tientsin, China run a boarding house for a rag-tag assortment of people of various nationalities. Nina Fedorova writes with wit and sensitivity about the struggles of people whose lives consist mainly of looking for work and doing without.

Many novels tell about how slavery degraded slaves. The Sun Is My Undoing by Marguerite Steen (1941 #4) tells about how slavery degraded the slave traders. A mediocre novelist couldn’t have envisioned a story whose lead character is a slave trader, let alone written it.

In 1900, Kings Row was a good place to raise raise children. Author Henry Bellamann takes us behind the lace curtains of the little Midwestern town for a different view. When you read Kings Row (1942 #9), you don't just imagine it happening: you stand beside its lead character and experience it.

Mrs. Parkington (1943 #6) celebrates the art of growing old by living every day well. Mrs. Parkington, 84, is the very rich widow of a larger-than-life scoundrel whom she adored. As she puts her affairs in order, events trigger memories through which Louis Bromfield lets readers see how an innocent Nevada lass became an indomitable woman.

Strange Fruit
by Lillian Smith (1944 #1) is a simple love story in a setting where nothing is simple. Nonnie is black, Tracy is white, and they live in 1940s Georgia. Lillian Smith shows that the most important factor in race relations in America is human choice.

Thanks to Adria Locke Langley’s decision to let Verity Martin tell the story of her charismatic husband’s political career, A Lion Is in the Streets (1945 #7) is a political novel the a-political can enjoy. Much of the plot has to be grasped from innuendo. You’ll need to read slowly, picturing the scenes, but the novel is worth the effort.

Mary Jane Ward’s The Snake Pit (1946 #10) takes readers inside the mind of mental patient Virginia Cunningham as she tries to cope with ordinary tasks that seem hopelessly beyond her. In a quiet way, The Snake Pit is as terrifying as anything by Stephen King.

House Divided by Ben Ames Williams (1947 #7) follows the Currain family of Virginia as they attempt live down the shame of distant kinship to “the black ape,” Abraham Lincoln. Williams produces believable characters, high drama and superb dialogue, all resting on an extensive base of facts of the War Between the States.

The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw (1948 #10) is a superbly plotted novel about three solders in World War II: a cultured German, an American Jew; and a clumsy, idealistic American playwright. War defines and intensifies each one's essential nature. There are no stereotypes, no heroes or villains from central casting. The men are so distinctive, you feel almost as if you actually knew them.

In The Point of No Return (1949 # 4), John P. Marquand explores the one time in his life when investment banker Charles Gray almost stepped out of character. Marquand is so skilled a writer that he makes an entertaining novel out of experiences that didn’t excite even their participants.


  1. It really is kind of sad that many people gravitate to new books and new authors, and all these treasres will never be read by so many (me included) :(


  2. I love vintage fiction. The Young Lions and Kings Row are both on my TBR shelf now. I think it is fascinating to read what was popular years ago -- a way to really understand what made people tick.

  3. ok, I am bookmarking this post... I have to google all the books you see :)