1918 Bestsellers: A Conversation with Linda Aragoni

For the past three years, we have checked in with consumate reader Linda Aragoni of the Great Penformances blog for her appraisal of the bestseller list from a century ago. (See 20172016, and 2015 respectively). This year we continue the tradition, finding out about the books that topped the list in 1918.  Here are the 1918 bestsellers according to Publishers Weekly:  

  1. The U.P. Trail by Zane Grey
  2. The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair
  3. The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart
  4. Dere Mable by Edward Streeter
  5. Oh, Money! Money! by Eleanor H. Porter
  6. Greatheart by Ethel M. Dell
  7. The Major by Ralph Connor
  8. The Pawns Count by E. Phillips Oppenheim
  9. A Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton Porter
  10. Sonia by Stephen McKenna

What was your favorite book of 1918?

I have two books nearly tied for my top spot, each by a famous woman writer of many bestsellers, each usual for the author, and both really rather unusual for their time.

The first is Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter, known for light romances, the other is The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart, best known for her mysteries. In Daughter of the Land, Stratton-Porter avoids her usual too-good leading characters and too-pat solutions and tells a story that feels true. Kate Bates wants the same opportunities as her brothers. Each of them got a house, stock, and 200 acres when they turned 21.  The best Kate can hope for was what her nine sisters got on their marriages: "a bolt of muslin and a fairly decent dress." The teenage Kate leaves home to seek her fortune. Kate makes a lot of mistakes, many of which are thoughtless choices made under the physical and emotional stress of being a single woman in a male-dominated world. Some of her other mistakes can't be so easily excused. But Kate always learns from her mistakes, she works hard, she's kind to people, and she's trustworthy. Kate gets a happy ending, but she has to work for it.

The Amazing Interlude is also about a quite ordinary young woman who defies the norms in a low key, non-militant way.

Sara Lee Kennedy is engaged to a dull, boring guy who is all that's on offer in her small town. When news reaches the town about conditions at the Front, Sara goes off to France to run a soup kitchen for soldiers. While Sara scrubs floors and scrounges for food as shells explode around her, Harvey fumes because she should be at home tending to his wants. Harvey gets the church women, already suffering from compassion fatigue, to stop funding Sara's work, forcing her to come home. When she arrives home, Sara isn't the person Harvey knew. She has a totally different perspective on herself and on America's role in the world.

How about your least favorite novel from 1918?

The Major by Ralph Connor. The subject matter made it a best seller: It was the first real, from-the-battlefield novel, and it was written by a Canadian who enlisted and served on the Western Front as an army chaplain. The Major reminds me of the worst of Stratton-Porter: superficial characters and a too-pat ending.  

Do you think modern audience would enjoy in particular any of the 1918 bestsellers?

When I review older fiction, my goal actually is to find what contemporary readers would like and/or profit from reading, so my two top picks would certainly appeal to today's audience. Both Daughter of the Land and The Amazing Interlude have enthusiastic reviews at Amazon and Good Reads from contemporary readers.

Neither Daughter nor Interlude is great literature, but both are durable stories with a lot more to teach today's teenage girls and their parents than, for example, Anne of Green Gables. And Sara's understanding of what it means to be an American is, I think, particularly pertinent in this political climate to people of any age.

Both novels are available in reprints, as well as from used book sellers, and can be found on Project Gutenberg.  

Would you add any of the 1918 bestsellers to your permanent library?

My top picks deserve a place there, but something else has to go to make room for them.

Any other comments about the 1918 bestsellers?

Prior to 1918, the only novel about World War I to appear on the bestseller lists was Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells in 1916. Mr. Britling is a semi-autobiographical story about the war as seen by people who didn't fight in it. 

Starting in 1918, novels by people who had actually been on battlefields began to pop up on the bestseller lists. They keep appearing up through the start of the World War II.

Anything to look forward to from the 1919 list?  

Another Rinehart: Dangerous Days. It is a novel about an American family in the steel industry from 1916 through Armistice Day, 1918. It's definitely worth reading.