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Filtering by Tag: cover redesign

The Robe

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Jaci B.: reading late into the night to bring you a review of a bestselling book (from 70+ years ago). This is The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas.

There was no limit to the credulity of unsophisticated people. Indeed, they rather liked to believe in the uncanny.

How I got the book: DC Public Library. As I mentioned before, by rights this should have been the fourth book in the project, but because it was a library book I bumped it up to read it before it needed to be returned. If you want to read it, there are three more copies available here in the city to anyone with a library card.

The writer: Lloyd C. Douglas. Click on his name to read the full Wikipedia article. Douglas was a very popular writer in his time--in fact, this isn't the first of his books I've read. One of my mom's favorite books is Magnificent Obsession (1929), and she gave me a copy several years ago. Douglas was a Lutheran pastor before he became a writer, and that previous calling strongly influences the tone taken in the latter.

The book: Bible fanfic. Seriously, though, if fan fiction is defined in large part by practitioners who take minor characters or pre-existing settings and spin new stories from those materials, the term suits this book really well. Douglas dedicated the book to Hazel McCann, "who wondered what became of The Robe," and the back of the edition I read (a 1975 reprint) elaborates, explaining that McCann was an Ohio department store saleswoman who wrote Douglas to ask if anyone knew the fate of Jesus' robe, famously won by one of his Roman executioners in a game of dice.

Two years later, Douglas had produced the story of Marcellus, a Tribune who is punished by being sent to the Roman fort at Minoa when he offends Prince Gaius, presumptive heir to the throne, and who while in Palestine is charged to crucify a certain Jewish carpenter. Marcellus, drunk and heartsick, wins Jesus' robe, a fateful event that changes the course of his entire life.

In the course of the novel, we meet many Biblical characters--not just Jesus but also Simon Peter and Saul of Tarsus, as well as many of the people who witnessed miracles, and two separate emperors. Given this fact, the other possibility for classifying this novel would be, I suppose, historical fiction. And it runs into one of the main problems I have with historical fiction--that we know how things turn out, so it becomes a bit of a game, making some characters prophetically wise and others tragically short-sighted, based on the audience's foreknowledge of events to come. For example, during the crucifixion Demetrius, Marcellus' Greek slave, thinks regretfully that Jesus "had paid a high price for his brief and fruitless war on wickedness"--but later he will come to see things quite differently. Marcellus, who later returns to Palestine, muses that if the Christian idea spread, "all of the armies could be demobilized," which must have seemed like even more of a dream in 1942. Surprisingly, it is Emperor Tiberius who perhaps sees things most clearly: "It will collapse--after a while. Soon as it gets into a strong position...[t]hen it will squabble over its offices and spoils--and grow heady with power and territory." Marcellus and Demetrius come across as hopeless idealists (and in some ways prod Douglas's readers to imagine what could be were they to take more seriously their Christian burden), while Emperor Tiberius' realisms seem quite damning, coming as they do from the mouth of an infirm lunatic. Douglas writes with a point of view and a teaching, preaching intention that has fallen entirely out of style, at least in literary fiction--but I'd read him over contemporary Christian fiction any day.

A few other notes:

  • The Romans all "drawl," in this book. He drawled, she drawled. Also, things are "vasty." A breathtakingly gorgeous young woman is "adorable," an adjective we now apply to small cute animals. And rather than say "bitch," Douglas charmingly writes "a kennel word."
  • In light of the Holocaust, well underway in Europe at the time this book was published (and at least moderately well publicized in the United States, according to this article from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), there are a few mentions of violence against Jews that stood out as I was reading. According to the captain of the ship that delivers Marcellus and Demetrius to Minoa, "The Emperor could send in all the legions that Rome has under arms, and put on such a campaign of slaughter as the world has never seen; but it wouldn't be a permanent victory. You can't defeat a Syrian. And as for the Jews! -- you can kill a Jew, and bury him, but he'll climb out alive!...Yes, sir -- he will climb right up the spade-handle and sell you the rug he died in!" I actually flinched, reading that. Other parts of the book focused on the Jewish hope for a Messiah. Benjamin, a Jewish weaver in Athens, explains it to Marcellus: "All of our great prophets have foretold the coming of the Messiah...In periods of national calamity there has been much talk of it. In times of great hardship and persecution, the Jews have been alert to discover among themselves some wise and brave man who might give evidence of messianic powers." Those lines seemed especially poignant as I reflected on the time, not to which they refer, but in which they were written.
  • I didn't often quibble with Douglas on details, but I was surprised that in a letter from Demetrius to Marcellus, Demetrius talks about being robbed by Bedouins and finding a general lack of hospitality. The Middle East as a whole has a long-standing reputation for hospitality, reportedly bred of the harsh landscape. It struck me as an off-note.
  • Finally, there is much in the novel about slavery and master-slave relationships. Demetrius outright refuses manumission at least twice, in order to better serve the master he loves. Douglas seems more influenced here by Biblical depictions of slavery than the form that ended in his own country only a few years before he was born.

Next up is the Song of Bernadette, which should be quite interesting given its genesis as the product of a vow undertaken by the writer during his flight from Nazi persecution in 1940. Until then, here's my quick cover redesign sketch.

IMG_5811

Like the New York Times Bestseller Project? Read along, share with your friends, and don't forget to write (in the comments box below)!

And Now Tomorrow

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Last week I finished reading the first book for my New York Times Bestseller Project, And Now Tomorrow by Rachel Field.

Give me any plague but the plague of the heart.

How I got the book: Kindle (affiliate link), $2.89. It was unavailable at the library and given the cost of shipping, an e-book was the most economical option. The formatting was crude but it was perfectly readable.

The writer: Rachel Field. Click on her name to read the full Wikipedia article. Interestingly, she died the year And Now Tomorrow was published, in 1942. She won the Newbery Award in 1930 for the children's book Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, and her novel Time Out of Mind won a National Book Award in 1935. She was awarded a Caldecott Medal posthomously in 1944 for picture book Prayer for a Child. (Bonus fact: And Now Tomorrow was turned into a screenplay written by Raymond Chandler and was released in late 1944!)

The book: Ah, I thought, it's about the death of the protagonist's mother. No, it's about World War I. No, it's about the death of the protagonist's father in World War I. Finally, around a third of the way in, I discovered what the book is really about--love, labor rights, and hearing loss.

First lesson from this project, it seems, is that books moved at a different pace in 1942.

Part medical thriller, part romance, the bulk of the story takes place in 1931, as Emily Blair, the main character, discovers that her absence of a few years' time as she has pursued a cure for a disability brought on by a bout of meningitis has left her estranged from her fiance of several years, also a supervisor at her family's textile mills. Prohibition is as much a character in the tale as the Great Depression. Given that the U.S. was well into World War II when this book took the first-ever top spot on the NYT list, it seems almost as if it's an escape into the problems of the past, which may by then have taken on a bit of a nostalgic sheen.

There's a lot to be said about character's attitudes toward women in this book. Emily and her sister were raised mainly by their unmarried aunt Em. Cousin Eunice, depicted as a flighty women obsessed with society, nags her younger cousin Emily to marry, concerned because, as Emily nears the age of 21, she doesn't have a romantic interest in her life:

That comes of an old main like Em bringing you up. Not that Em isn't a remarkable woman, but then what woman wants to be remarkable?

Once Emily finally ("finally") falls in love just before her birthday, it's hardly surprising that she makes a mess of it. Looking back on her love affair--the entire book is framed as though she's writing it after triggering some memories going through a storage room--she recalls how she made excuses for Harry's moods.

It's different with a man, I would reason; he doesn't have to make his whole world of a single person.

Indeed, except for the first summer of their romance, Harry treats Emily as though she is little better than a child. My impression was of a narrator who finally realized that she had sold herself short through most of her early 20s. She's constantly asking about what's happening at the family textile mill, where the workers are striking for better wages while the management watches business dry up in the face of the national economic collapse. In fact, Emily and her sister are the product of a marriage between their millhand mother and their mill-owner father. From my vantage point, her ability to empathize with both sides could have been a boon, were she brought in and educated to run the mills, but everyone else sees her as just a muddle-headed, soft-hearted woman who shouldn't worry herself about things she'll never understand.

Only Dr. Vance sees the potential in Emily. Only he challenges her and her tendency to behave automatically as is expected of her:

You put me in mind of something I read in a book once when I was a kid. It was about Marie Antoinette going to the guillotine, and how she stepped on the executioner's foot and begged his pardon--

So is And Now Tomorrow a feminist novel? Probably no more than it's a pro-labor novel--but Field definitely bring empathy to her writing, and while it's not a comedy of manners in the Jane Austen sense, she definitely manages to put across a point of view that leaves the reader feeling that Emily could be (and will be) more than she has been.

A few additional observations:

  • Prohibition seems to be the one thing that everyone can agree on: no one, regardless of class, is teetotaling. Early on in their affair, Harry and Emily share a bottle of bootleg Chianti Harry got off one of the millhands, who is making it in his woodshed and selling it in "catsup" bottles. Harry lectures Emily about how women don't really understand drinking as she tries not to let on just how bad the wine is. She asks him how it feels to be drunk. He replies, "Kind of like a god until you pass out."
  • Another character in the novel? Cigarettes, without any moral implications on their smokers. Emily and Dr. Vance smoke together following a tense night of impromptu surgery on the table in a poor family's kitchen. The novel is littered with ashes and lighters. Emily is the opposite of edgy and cool, but she smokes a lot. It's not a marker of any sort of status.
  • There's a lot of excitement about antibiotics in the novel, given the medical focus. Field would have known the difference that antibiotics were beginning to make in the treatment of infection as she was writing, and the lack of antibiotics, which are in development but not commercially available, plays a role in two major plot points in the book.
  • I've written on this site before about how it seems to me that Google has taken the mystery out of life. Reading this book showed me that mine is not a groundbreaking observation. Field has Emily say something similar: "Miracles are out of fashion nowadays. Or perhaps it is only that they have been explained away from us. Radios and newsreels and words have shorn them of their mystery."
  • Another constant in life is, apparently, the influence parents have on their kids. Emily's father charged her as a young girl to always do what's expected of her while admitting he hadn't done what was expected of him, and to be happy for her aunt's sake. Trying to fulfill these imperatives has a lot to do with how Emily tries to live in her early adulthood, and it doesn't work out very well.

I'll return to And Now Tomorrow when I sum up 1942, but first I have to read the other three novels from the list. Up next will likely be The Robe, since it was the only one I was able to get out from the library and, therefore, the only one with a due date. Until then, here's a quick sketch of my cover update--a very rough idea of how I would repackage And Now Tomorrow were it to be reprinted for an audience today. I chose to focus on the car that is so a part of the plot, as it illuminates what is to come. Enjoy!

Rough indeed. Not a real artist and not a lot of time...