It’s time for another clearing-out of things I’ve read recently, so I can write at greater length about one or two in particular.
The Phantom Treasure, by Harriet Pyne Grove
This story of an orphan discovering her long-lost family and moving into their home, which is historical and filled with secret passages and things, ought to be great. I just wish it had been written by Margaret Sutton or Augusta Huiell Seaman or someone. Jannet, the main character, gets fried chicken mailed to her at boarding school. She and a friend try on historical costumes in the attic. She finds a stash of notes written by her ancestors when they were being forced to host British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. I just wish the author had felt some kind of enthusiasm about any of those things. But since she didn’t, I couldn’t either.
Carolyn of the Corners, by Ruth Belmore Endicott
Run of the mill story about an orphan softening the heart of a cranky relative, by an author who has definitely read Pollyanna and Little Lord Fauntleroy. Probably other versions of the same trope, too, but those are the ones I’m sure about.
A Poor Wise Man, by Mary Roberts Rinehart
I’ve read this one before, but only once, probably because I’d already sort of read it as V.V.’s Eyes and The Clarion. Still, it’s Rinehart, and if you want to read a book about a rich girl in a growing city falling in love with an idealistic young social reformer, this one’s pretty good. Few authors understand better than Rinehart how attractive it is when a character combines strong emotion with massive amounts of restraint.
This is fun, this catching up thing. It’s better to write a bit about a bunch of books than to sit around feeling guilty about not writing about them, or to write about them at length and then never bother to type up the review, both of which are things I’ve been doing lately.
Four and Twenty Beds, by Nancy Casteel Vogel.
I kind of wanted someone to read this for me so that I didn’t have to, but eventually I decided I didn’t care that much. It’s from the fifties and it’s about a Californian couple who, with their two children, move to a small town to run a motel. I stopped reading just after they took possession of the motel, figuring that at worst there was going to be an endless series of uncomfortable disasters and at best I was going to continue not finding the book particularly funny.
Good References, by E.J. Rath.
So, like. 1921. Stenographer can’t get a job because she has no references. Ends up taking a job under another girl’s name, as social secretary to a young man who has no interest in society. What could be more fun than that? Well, almost anything, as it turns out. The young man is profoundly unsympathetic, and the friend posing as his valet is worse. Everyone is lying to his aunt, and she ended up being the only person I had any sympathy for. I have very little patience for books about people getting themselves in increasingly worse scrapes by lying, and I got through exactly four chapters before getting fed up.
Oh, man. I love books about people doing things. I love them so much.
At the beginning of The Hallowell Partnership, Marian Hallowell is taking a leave of absence from college, recovering from an illness, when her brother Rod is offered an exciting new job. Supervising a shift on this drainage contract thing in Western Illinois is a huge chance for him–an opportunity to leave his desktop and prove himself as an engineer–but he’s hesitant. He and Marian are a lone in the world, and there isn’t anyone she can stay with if he goes out west. Plus, neither of them wants to be separated from the other.
Marian doesn’t like the idea of going to Illinois with Rod–she has a fretful disposition and likes her creature comforts, as well as genuinely being in ill health–but he talks her into it. Rod will live on a houseboat with the other engineers on the job, and Marian will board at a farm two miles away.
Marian soon finds a friend in Sally Lou Burford, the wife of one of the other engineers and the only other woman connected with the drainage district project. But she also hates her surroundings and has no interest in the work itself–in contrast to Sally Lou, who pitches in wherever she can. Then things start going wrong: the chief engineer gets seriously ill and has to leave, and then the surly fourth engineer quits altogether, leaving Rod and Burford responsible for the entire project.
Marian doesn’t have a Hildegarde-style moment of transformation–there’s no morning where she wakes up and resolves to be a good sport. She just slowly gets better. She adjust to some things and not others, and it takes her a while to get invested in the success of the contract. But she does, and starts taking on a share of the work. And the boys need Marian and Sally Lou’s help, because they’re hit by a series of weather and machinery disasters, and the outcome of their project is seriously in doubt.
I had no idea what a drainage district was before starting this book, but it’s a thing where a bunch of landowners band together to get their area drained. If enough of them agree to do it, even the dissenters have to contribute. So Rod and Burford are responsible to their employers, but also to all the farmers around them, which makes for a few interesting situations. Katharine Holland Brown does a good job of explaining it and of gauging how much detail the reader needs. She doesn’t get super technical, but she gives you enough to understand the impact of the various disasters that befall the project. And I love that.
I mean, look, The Hallowell Partnership isn’t a great book. But I don’t care, because I’m so grateful for what it is–a book about people doing interesting stuff, with drama that doesn’t feel manufactured, and no romance shoehorned in unnecessarily. Actually, Brown’s restraint in that department might be my favorite thing about the book.
My least favorite thing, by the way, was a scene involving a muddy dog and some clean laundry. It’s meant to be funny, and probably a lot of people would enjoy it, but I cringed all the way through. But that was just one (not very) low point in a book that mostly had me thinking, “I like this book. I like it a lot,” all the way through.
So, here’s a fun book.
Cracker Barrel Troubleshooter, by Jim Kjelgaard, is about Bill Rawls, a college student whose guardian — his uncle — dies after having frittered away Bill’s fortune. All that’s left is a country store in a tiny former lumber town called Elk Shanty. Bill could probably work his way through the rest of his college course, but this is, as I said, a Fun Book, so he decides to check out Elk Shanty instead. He finds:
- a pretty girl.
- a funny dog.
- a population not capable of supporting a store.
- a burly local youth who inexplicably hates him.
- lots of food. Like, so much.
- good fishing.
He decides, for whatever reason — the girl and repeated blows to the head are factors, I think — to stay and attempt to make a go of the store, which is, after all, all he’s got. This, for me, is the really fun part. I mean, sure, the fishing is made to sound reasonably exciting, and so is the eventual big fist fight, but for me the bit where Bill has to convince a local wholesaler to extend his credit is better.
And, I mean, this is a book for teenage boys, so everything is simplified, but Kjelgaard lets Bill make mistakes and give you enough material to understand them. Making the store a success usually looks achievable, but never easy. Also the food sounds very appealing, although I’ve always found it difficult to imagine people consuming pie in the quantities they do in old books.
Anyway, I enjoyed this a lot. I can’t imagine any of Kjelgaard’s other books will feel quite as specifically geared towards me — I’d happily subsist on a diet of books about people doing good things with unexpected inheritances — but I think I’m going to have to check a few out anyway.
I’m obviously falling down on the Christmas story job this year. Here, have another Grace Livingston Hill instead.
I’m not sure if Marcia Schuyler is considered typical of GLH’s output. It’s not typical of the books of hers that I’ve read, but it works really well for me. I mean, the religious stuff is a lot more palatable in a historical fiction context. (Sure, I kept giggling about David’s temperance newspaper, but I can’t fully explain that.) But also this is a he/she fell in love with his/her wife/husband book, and the protagonist overnight finds herself in possession of a dream house and a fabulous trousseau, and there’s an awful older sister, which I enjoy for probably the same reasons that I find inexplicably evil younger brothers difficult. The chances that I wasn’t going to like this book were very low.
I mean, I don’t love it, but I do like it a lot. It’s got more in common with things like Janice Meredith and To Have and to Hold than it does with GLH’s other books, but it’s also got her patented lack of self-awareness. Very few things are less charitable than her attitude towards characters she doesn’t like, and, much as I enjoy that, it’s so at odds with her professed philosophy that it kind of bugs me, too.
Anyway, Marcia Schuyler. She’s a teenage girl from an old and respected family in upstate New York, circa 1830. She’s smart and pretty and totally overshadowed by her beautiful older sister, Kate, who is an asshole. She also has a crush on Kate’s fiancé, David, but she’s not aware of it. It turns out to be sort of helpful, though, when Kate elopes with another man and her father basically offers Marcia to David as compensation. I’m pretty sure that even in 1830 this is a weird thing to do, but Marcia goes along with it and everyone stresses a lot about how they’ve deprived her of her womanhood, or something.
There are some things you want to happen here: you want Marcia and David to fall in love. You want Marcia to do well in her new environment. You want Kate to get her comeuppance and, very specifically, to be humiliated by David. All these things happen, against a backdrop of the launch of the first steam locomotive in New York State. It’s not a great book, but it’s very satisfying.