A House Divided (Pearl S. Buck, 1935)

It’s the start of the Chinese Civil War. Revolution is brewing in the south, but in the north, regions continue to be held by local warlords or else foreign interests. Wang Yuan is the son of Wang the Tiger, a now elderly warlord who expects Yuan to take his place, but Yuan hates war and killing and flees from the war school the Tiger had him enrolled in. When the Tiger arranges a marriage for Yuan, that pushes him quite over the edge and he flees to one of the Tiger’s wives’s homes. She lives in a coastal city controlled by foreigners. I’m assuming it’s Hong Kong, but the book uses no names, ever.

He meets his (half-)sister for the first time since they were very young, when the lady (her mother) moved to the coastal city. He also meets new cousins to him, including Meng, who’s a revolutionist that hates — positively hates — foreigners, who he blames for essentially all of China’s problems. The Tiger writes that, if Yuan doesn’t return, he’ll marry him by proxy. The revolution nears the borders of the coastal city and the police start conducting raids of college-age people, executing anyone suspected of being involved. The lady arranges to ship Yuan out of China, to the safety of foreign lands — which sounds very much like California.

Yuan wants to be a farmer and studies agriculture at the foreign college. He befriends one of his professors, who invites him home. The professor is an intellectual and knows all there is to know about plants. He’s also deeply religious and hopes to win Yuan for Christ. Yuan accompanies him to a church service but comprehends none of it. His only other encounter with a preacher was going to a talk and slide show from a missionary back from China. He’s collecting money for desperately poor street beggars — starving, naked, leprous, blind from disease. Yuan is incensed and calls out there’s nothing of the sort in China. Yuan hated China while there but has idealized it since reaching the US. Sheng, his cousin also hiding out in California, tells him that his thoughts are very deep but incredibly narrow: he focuses on one thing to the exclusion of everything else and sees nothing though he’s surrounded by it.

The government is overthrown and the revolutionists are in power. Yuan takes his degree and ships back home, thoroughly excited now that all of China’s problems are solved. After visiting his father, he learns that he’s deeply in debt after funding Yuan’s escape and keeping him six years in the US. It falls on Yuan to repay his expenses. Meng is a captain in the revolutionary army. He’s building the new capital and has arranged a place for Yuan as a professor in the university. The building is old, the windows broken, the door broken, and the students are too cold to pay attention in class. Meng grows disillusioned — the old parasitic rulers have simply been replaced by new parasitic rulers robbing from the starving, naked, leprous, blind from disease beggars that throng the streets. He plots a new revolution.

This new revolution sweeps the north. The Tiger’s lands are taken, his tenants turned against him. Yuan comes to his aid, but he’s already been captured and essentially crucified. Mei-Ling, the lady’s new adopted daughter who’s studying to become a doctor, also comes, but there’s nothing to be done. Yuan, after building up China in his mind abroad and deciding he wants nothing further to do with the white devils, decided he was going to come home and marry Mei-Ling. He found it completely and utterly incomprehensible that she refused. Who ever heard of a maid refusing a marriage? These new ways are the awful influence of foreigners — China should go back to arranged marriages that the bride and groom have no say or appeal in. But now that Yuan and Mei-Ling are standing over the Tiger waiting for his inevitable death… she just changes her mind and now wants to marry Yuan? There’s no “The End” — it just stops there.

Published in 1935, the civil war was nowhere near its end and the Communist Revolution was still a decade off, to say nothing at all of the Cultural Revolution — although the destruction of the olds is a massive part of Meng’s character and is what ultimately sways Yuan to the revolutionists’ cause. All that’s very interesting, though the ending is abrupt and completely unearned.

No inscriptions.

Cimarron (Edna Ferber, 1929)

The Venables are fiercely proud of their Southern roots, though having lost their plantation in the war, they’ve built a make-believe Old South in Wichita, Kansas. Sabra Venable, rather than picking one of the other Southern gentleman in the area, marries Yancy Cravat. Yancy is a restless soul. These last five years in Wichita are the longest he’s ever stayed in one place. Oklahoma, once reserved for the Indians, is being opened to white settlers. He convinces Sabra to make the “run”.

They arrive in Osage, named for the Osage Reservation adjoining the town, if “town” it can be termed. There are few even semi-permanent structures on the baked red clay plain. Yancy sets up the printing press they dragged with them from Kansas and establishes the Oklahoma Wigwam. In his editorials — which are all Yancy has a mind for, Sabra handles the business of running a newspaper — he takes a controversial stance in favor of Indian rights. They certainly stir controversy at home: the Venables will never consider those filthy savages as human.

When Osage grows a little less wild and the tents are replaced with wood and brick houses, the itch for change gets to Yancy. He wants to throw it all up, go on another run, and make a go at being a rancher in a still untamed country. Sabra, this time, will have none of it. She and her two children, Cimarron and Donna, are staying right where they are. And so Yancy leaves on his own. Under Sabra’s sole management, the newspaper expands and money flows in. Every several years, Yancy will all at once drop in like he had never gone. He had been a rancher, a Rough Rider, and who knows what else.

The children are grown now. Sabra sent Donna east to a New York finishing school. She comes back with a vaguely British accent and her eyes on landing the richest man in town, never mind that he’s already married. One year and one divorce later and she succeeds. Cimarron went in on a geology degree but dropped out when oil was discovered in Oklahoma. Sabra employed an Indian servant, Ruby Big Elk, that she paid as little attention to as she possibly could. She missed it when she and Cim got married.

Time flies by. It’s been about thirty years. Osage is a city now. The Wigwam is still a powerhouse, though Sabra isn’t so hands-on with it anymore. She’s a congresswoman for Oklahoma and a serious contender for governor, working on a platform for Indian rights. Yancy has been gone so long this time that she’s admitted to herself that he’s dead. On a campaign in an oil-field boom town, there’s an accident at one of the wells. A gray-haired old man has averted a disaster but killed himself in the process. Sabra rushes to the scene just in time hear Yancy breathe his last.

Mistress Wilding (Rafael Sabatini, 1910)

An historical fiction set during the Monmouth Rebellion. Anthony Wilding is a conspirator to oust the Catholic King James II for the Protestant Duke of Monmouth. He’s in love with Ruth Westmacott, though she does not care a fig for him. Her brother Richard insults him and he challenges him to a duel. Sir Rowland Blake is deep in debt and covets Ruth’s fortune. Diana, Ruth’s cousin, loves Blake and wants to see Ruth safely out of the way. She pushes her to marry Wilding in exchange for his forgiving Richard, which she does.

Monmouth arrives a year earlier than planned. He relies on the advice of Lord Grey, who is either thoroughly incompetent or secretly a saboteur. Neither Wilding nor the other conspirators have had time to sway the aristocrats with control of the militia to the cause, so they’re reduced to relying on the untrained rabble. Blake schemes to assassinate Monmouth and brags about it to Ruth — who he’s still trying to woo, despite her being married. Wilding would be caught in the same trap. To spare him as he spared Richard, she warns Wilding of the plot and he thwarts it. Enraged, Blake has Ruth arrested. Wilding outs himself to save her life and is, himself, condemned to death, but in the confusion of battle, he escapes. The rebellion is crushed. Wilding uses some documents implicating a high minister to have himself retroactively declared a spy for the King’s army in Monmouth’s camp — lifting the death sentence from his head. He and Ruth are united.

Inscriptions: Signed Bertha E. Shielock on the front flyleaf.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (Baroness Orczy, 1905)

During the Reign of Terror, French aristocrats try to flee across the English Channel to escape the guillotine. They are assisted by a mysterious Englishman known only by the insignia with which he signs his correspondence, a scarlet pimpernel. Sir Percy is married to a Frenchwoman, Marguerite, whose brother Armand has been implicated in counter-revolutionary activity. To save his life, she betrays certain knowledge she has about who the Scarlet Pimpernel is to Chauvelin, the French Republic representative in England. She didn’t know at the time but quickly discovers that the Scarlet Pimpernel is, in fact, her husband. She tries to beat Chauvelin to France to warn Sir Percy of the danger he’s in.

Inscriptions: “Stratton Public Library” is handwritten on both end papers, withdrawn July 14th 1998 (printed in 1910 — 88 years is a good run for a library book). Stamped on the bottom margin of page 99 is “F.E. Timberlake, Investment Securities, No. 78 Exchange Street, Portland, Me.”

The Black Arrow (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1888)

An historical fiction set during the end of the War of the Roses. Young Dick Shelton and Joanna Sedley fall in love, but Joanna is kidnapped by the villainous Sir Daniel. Dick falls in with a gang of bandits out to revenge themselves against Sir Daniel. One thing leads to another and Dick is knighted doing battle for the Duke of Gloucester — the future Richard III — attempting to rescue Joanna, who’s about to be married against her will. The bandits’ black arrow finally finds Sir Daniel and Joanna is saved.

Inscriptions: On the front endpaper, stamped “City of Waterville School Department, No. 7, Date of Purchase 9/6/” and the rest is a smudge. It was published in 1926, but it could well have been in use decades after that.

Notre-Dame (Victor Hugo, 1831)

A band of gypsies appear in Paris in the fifteenth century. Among them is a very beautiful young girl, Esmeralda. Claude Frollo, archdeacon of Notre Dame Cathedral, falls madly in love with her, as does his adopted son Quasimodo, a hideously deformed hunchback abandoned as a child at the cathedral. When Esmeralda falls in love with Captain Phoebus, Frollo attempts to murder him. Esmeralda is captured and tortured into confessing to the crime. On the way to the gibbet, Quasimodo grabs Esmeralda and rushes her into Notre Dame — a place of sanctuary. Frollo attempts to force himself on her. When she rejects him, he condemns her as a witch and petitions Parlement to violate the sanctuary and carry her to the gallows.

The gypsies, numbering some six thousand, array themselves in military formation and attempt to storm the cathedral and rescue Esmeralda. Quasimodo mistakes their intentions and thinks they’re coming to execute her. He prevents their gaining entrance until the King’s army arrives to crush the rebellion. Esmeralda is hanged. Quasimodo, realizing that this is Frollo’s doing, pushes the archdeacon from the tower and to his death. Quasimodo vanishes. He secretly joined Esmeralda’s body in the crypt, where he starved to death holding her.

Inscriptions: “R.C. Penney, 1912” on the front flyleaf.

Joan of the Sword Hand (S.R. Crockett, 1898)

Joan, Duchess of Hohenstein, was arranged from birth to marry the Prince of Courtland. She secretly visits Courtland dressed as a man to inspect her fiance and finds him much to her liking, and Princess Margret thinks about as highly of “Count von Loen”, bitterly angering Muscovite Prince Wasp, who has claimed Margret as his own. On the wedding day, Joan discovers that the man she had taken for the prince was actually his younger brother. The actual Prince of Courtland is a sniveling old man, commonly called about town Louis the Craven for what the townsfolk see as selling out their Germanic freedoms for the autocratic protection of Russia. Joan flees back to Hohenstein and a Russian-backed battle ensues to capture her.

Their supplies running low, a conspiracy is hatched by the high ministers in Hohenstein. Joan is abducted and taken to a place of safety on the Baltic coast. Meanwhile, Maurice von Lynar, a Danish soldier in Joan’s army who bears a remarkable resemblance to her, puts on her dress and feigns capitulating to the invaders so that they’ll withdraw and Hohenstein can be reinforced. The false Joan is taken to Margret, who she takes for Count von Loen. They are married that day by the castle priest. Discovered, Maurice is sentenced to be torn apart by four wild horses.

Joan, trapped on Isle Rugen, finds that her hostess is Theresa von Lynar — Maurice’s mother. She also finds that Maurice is, in fact, her half-brother, her father having secretly married Theresa after his first wife’s death. At the same time, Conrad — the younger Courtland prince Joan thought she was betrothed to — shipwrecks on the island. He and Joan fall in love, though he is a priest and Joan is already married. “In name only”, Theresa says to both.

Word reaches them of what’s happened in Courtland. Joan, Theresa, Conrad, and the handful of guards they have hasten there. The people of Courtland, who find the spectacle playing out before them abhorrent and un-Christian, hail Conrad as a liberator and the true prince. The Courtland military turn and the Russians retreat from them and the well-armed mob. They rally and intend to invade Courtland with the whole of the Czar’s army and annex it into the empire. Courtland holds off the invasion as long as they can, waiting for reinforcement from Plassenburg. Theresa buys them much-needed time by suicide bombing the Russian encampment, killing both Prince Wasp and Louis.

In the end, the Russians are repelled. Conrad, released from his vows as the new reigning prince of Courtland, marries the widowed Joan. On Princess Joan’s abdication as duchess, Maurice and Margret becoming the new duke and duchess of Hohenstein.

No inscriptions.