The Saint of the Speedway (Ridgwell Cullum, 1924)

Two Alaskan boys set out to Australia chasing a mythical river of gold that turns out to be real. There’s millions of dollars worth for the taking, but it’s far too big a project for them to handle themselves in their little boat. They charter a ship and Jim Cleaver, one of the Alaskans, leaves with its captain and crew and $500,000 in the hold, but on their first voyage, the ship is caught in a storm and sinks.

Back at home, Saint Claire Cleaver and her mother are left to fend for themselves, which Claire decides to do by becoming a professional gambler. She proves to be poker player without equal and regularly breaks the bank at the Speedway Casino in Beacon Glory, Alaska. Beacon Glory was a boom town back in the gold rush, but now it’s a disreputable hive of scum and villainy. Enter the Aurora Clan. The Clan, who are replete with white gowns and conical hoods, make it their mission to clean up the town. None knows the identify of their leader, known only as the Chief Light.

Enter now another mysterious individual, Cy Liskard. Liskard’s struck it rich somewhere up north and is banking his gold in Beacon Glory — a curious, red gold not at all like the sort typically found in Alaska. Hint, hint. He insults Claire at the casino and thus makes an enemy of her boyfriend, Ivor McLagan. Ivor only drops into town occasionally, being preoccupied with his oil work further up the coast. When he returns, he’s met with the singularly remarkable sight of an abandoned ship drifting toward the rocks. When it finally beaches, he examines the wreck. Not unlike the Mary Celeste, it seems to have been abandoned quickly and for no obvious reason. There’s also evidence that it’s name plate has been altered, and recently so.

You’ve in all likelihood solved the puzzle already, so we’ll skip to the end. Chief Light Ivor sees that Captain Julian Casper, alias Cy Liskard, is hanged for the murder of Jim Cleaver. The gold, or what remains of it, is returned to Jim’s partner. A massive oil deposit is discovered that will at once reverse the fortunes of Beacon Glory. Ivor and Claire marry.

(Edit:) Also, ghosts. It would be remiss of me to not mention that there are ghosts.

Inscriptions: On the front endpaper and flyleaf there are three-ish lines of curious asemic writing in navy blue wax crayon. It’s not a childish scribble, it’s quite deliberately done. On the flyleaf there are even some faint pencil markings that appear to be a rough draft.

The Story of a Play (W.D. Howells, 1898)

Maxwell, a newspaper reporter and an aspiring playwright, marries Louise. Louise is a wealthy woman in her own right and her family is fabulously so. Louise’s father so much as offers to buy the newspaper for Maxwell, but of course Maxwell would never accept such a gift. He’s built up a little nest egg and has decided to quit the paper and try his hand in the theatre. Louise is overjoyed — she, at least, is convinced of Maxwell’s genius. Perhaps she’s a bit too enamored. To her, Maxwell’s play is Maxwell’s alone, and she resents the intrusion of actors and directors and producers into the mix. She fails to see the collaborative nature of the theatrical business, and she fails to see that it even is a business —  a play may be a great work of art, but if fails to sell tickets, nobody is going to stage it. Add to that the irrational jealousy Louise develops over the female lead and you begin to imagine that Louise, as tireless and enthusiastic a champion for her husband’s work as she is, isn’t exactly helping.

Inscription: a plate pasted on the inside front cover reads “Limerick Public Library, no. 1254”. Open on Saturdays, 2 to 9 pm. Two cents per week late fee.

Mary-‘Gusta (Joseph C. Lincoln, 1916)

When Marcellus Hall dies, the single question on everyone’s mind is what’s to become of his seven year old stepdaughter, Mary Augusta Lathrop. Whoever takes her, it’s assumed that she’ll be well provided for — Hall was a wealthy man and he had no other heirs. It comes a shock to Shadrach Gould and Zoeth Hamilton that, in his will, Hall asked them to adopt Mary-‘Gusta. It comes as another shock that, whatever money Hall once had, it’s gone now. He died nearly a pauper.

Shad and Zoeth have lived together for some 35 years. They were once business partners with Marcellus Hall, but something happened — something unspeakable that everyone would rather as not forget — and the business went bankrupt. Now they keep a general store of their own in Cape Cod. Though far from rich, they spare no expense in raising Mary-‘Gusta and ensuring that she has every possible advantage, including sending her away to a fancy finishing school in Boston. They keep it a secret from everyone, Mary-‘Gusta too, that there is no trust fund — they’re paying for it all.

Mary-‘Gusta is a very sensible and level-headed girl. She’s not there just to find a husband, as many of the other girls are. Still, a friendship develops between her and Crawford Smith that grows into love. Crawford hopes to go to medical school at Harvard, to the chagrin of his father back in Nevada, who has an extreme prejudice against the east coast.

Mary-‘Gusta finds out accidentally that she has no money of her own. She returns home at once to find her uncles drowning in debt, their store failing for lack of operating funds, and facing the almost inevitability of losing the house. Under her stewardship, and with the help of friends and connections she made in Boston, she pulls them out of their death spiral.

Crawford, back in Nevada, asks his father’s permission to marry Mary-‘Gusta. This he won’t grant and it’s no wonder that he won’t: Edgar Farmer, alias Edwin Smith, was the fourth partner at the Hall company, who embezzled every penny they had then ran away with Zoeth Hamilton’s wife. Crawford only learns his shameful family history on his father’s deathbed. He and Mary-‘Gusta are reconciled and marry. He takes up a medical practice in Cape Cod.

Inscription: Signed Hazel Dermody on the front flyleaf. Directly beneath the signature, in the same hand, is written “Warning:- the book is minus a page, number 7+8. Of little consequence to the reader. H.D.” And she was right. It appears to be a factory error as I can see no sign of a page being torn or cut out.

The Clean Heart (A.S.M. Hutchinson, 1914)

In general overview, Philip Wriford is a very successful writer — few  authors wouldn’t envy him — but he doesn’t know what happiness is. I mean that in the most literal way.

Breaking it down further, the book is in five distinct parts, but we might summarize it in three:

The first part is the weirdest. After an failed suicide attempt, Wriford splits into two personalities. Wriford tries to flee from Figure of Wriford, but Figure of Wriford can’t be escaped. This chase eventually leads to the second part, Mr. Puddlebox.

Puddlebox is a drunken tramp who takes a liking to Wriford, who he calls his loony. Wriford is spooked, he says, and won’t be unspooked until he learns not to think so much about himself. Wriford, in his wanderings with Puddlebox, becomes reckless. Caught by a storm on the coast, Puddlebox sacrifices himself to save Wriford.

In the third part, Wriford finds himself lodging with the Bickers. He falls in love with their daughter, Essie, and wants her to go away with him, but he doesn’t want to marry her because he believes himself to be “different” and that… I don’t know, his happiness-void would sap away her happiness. Caught by another storm on another coast, Wriford’s life is again saved, only Essie doesn’t die — she’s merely paralyzed. Wriford, realizing what he’s selfishness has wrought, at last learns that happiness is caring for people other than yourself.

Inscription: signed M.E. Gerald on the front flyleaf. On the back cover is a little round sticker that reads “Tilden Stationer, Keene”. Keene, New Hampshire, I would suppose. There are several four-leaf clovers pressed between pages 60-61 and 206-207.

 

Westover of Wanalah (George Cary Eggleston, 1910)

In Virginia, in the 1850s, Boyd Westover falls in love with his neighbor, Margaret Conway. They’re engaged to be married when Boyd is caught up in scandal — he’s accused of breaking into a girls’ finishing school in Richmond. It was a case of mistaken identity and the matter is cleared up when the real culprit is apprehended, but it only marks the beginning of Boyd’s troubles.

Margaret’s father, Colonel Conway, has known Boyd all his life and couldn’t approve of him more. Of course, he knows the accusation is baseless and thinks nothing of it. Aunt Betty, however, is altogether a more conservative woman. She already disapproves of Boyd for his having the nerve to propose to Betty at his own home and not at her father’s, as convention demands. Boyd is bared from leaving the city pending trial and depends on the mails to keep in touch with his fiancee. Aunt Betty, seeing a way to sully the young man’s reputation, waylays Boyd’s letters to Margaret and ensures that Margaret’s are never sent.

The Colonel can’t understand Boyd’s silence and it puts a barrier between them after Boyd returns home, nor can Boyd understand why Margaret hasn’t replied to him, and southern notions of pride and convention forbid either from asking for an explanation. It takes the arrival of Millicent, Margaret’s friend, to break the stalemate. Millicent, a Boston native, is visiting the south for the first time. There are many things about Virginia she likes, but the poisons of pride and convention are not among them. With only a few words spoken in confidence to the interested parties, all of Aunt Betty’s scheming is undone.

Inscriptions: on the front flyleaf, “Nina G. Sanborn, Wilton, Maine, November 8th, 1912”. Directly below that, “Elaine E Holmes, Wilton, Maine, August, 1913”. Nina’s hand is neat enough, but Elaine’s is obviously very studied and practiced. I should not be surprised if she were a businesswoman.

Evergreen House (Louise Platt Hauck, 1943)

It’s WWII and Evergreen House, a stately old mansion in Kansas City, has opened its doors to servicemen training at the air force base with nowhere else to go. The novel is slight on plot, being more of a character study — Cynthia Barstow its chief concern. With Gran’s advancing age, the running of the house has fallen increasingly more on her granddaughter. All around her she sees a constant stream of men, most of whom she’ll never see again after they’re shipped out, and a fair number no one will ever see again. And she sees love affairs and hasty marriages — ill advised at times, perhaps, but all passionate. Cynthia accepts without complaint her responsibility to the house and to Gran and to the men, but at the back of her mind she worries that, when the war is over, when the men are gone and Gran too, she’ll be all alone in Evergreen House — the last of the Barstows.

Inscription: “Property of Norwich State Hospital Patients Library” says the plate pasted inside the front cover. Over it has been written “Discarded 10-29 – 48 Chappell”.

Shadow of the East (E.M. Hull, 1921)

Barry Craven travels to Japan, and just as his father had done before him, he begins an affair with a Japanese woman. And again like before, the woman becomes pregnant. However, Barry is shocked and sickened to discover that his beloved O Hara San is the child of his father’s mistress. O Hara San kills herself and Barry is haunted by grief. He would follow her to the grave were it not for John Locke, who on his deathbed entrusted his daughter Gillian to Barry’s care. The two marry. Barry falls in love with Gillian, but thinks himself unworthy of her or of anyone else; Gillian falls in love with Barry, but believes he only married her out of charity and has no feelings for her; and with typical English repression, neither can say anything.

The most surprising part of the story was that there was no surprise. It was perfectly set up that the baby survived and that Yoshio was hiding it from Barry. The book constantly drops hints that this was the case, and even until the last chapter, I was waiting for the shoe to drop — but it never did.

Inscription: at the top of the front flyleaf, “1921 Madeleine E. Gerald”.