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My Favorite Historical Novels, by DE Johnson

I could cite a great number of historical novels here, because there are so many that are outstanding, but I’ll choose only two: Ironweed by William Kennedy and The Road to Wellville by TC Boyle.

Ironweed, which won a Pulitzer Prize in fiction, completes Kennedy’s “Albany Cycle”, a marvelous three-book series set in and around Albany, New York. The cycle starts with Legs, the story of 1920s and 1930s gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, as told by attorney Marcus Gorman. The second, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, takes the titular character, a small-time and tarnished gambler during the Great Depression, through a harrowing kidnapping story.

The cycle finishes only a few weeks after the end of book two, with Ironweed, the story of Billy Phelan’s father, Francis, who returns to Albany with Helen, his companion and fellow hobo.

In his youth, Francis was a baseball player with major league potential and ambitions until he lost a finger in a fight. He fled Albany after dropping his thirteen-day-old son, Gerald, killing him. Decades later he returns to Albany to face the ghosts of his past, both literally and figuratively. Here’s how the book starts:

Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods. The truck was suddenly surrounded by fields of monuments and cenotaphs of kindred design and striking size, all guarding the privileged dead. But the truck moved on and the limits of mere privilege became visible, for here now came the acres of truly prestigious death; illustrious men and women, captains of life without their diamonds, furs, carriages, and limousines, but buried in pomp and glory, vaulted in great tombs built like heavenly safe deposit boxes, or parts of the Acropolis. And ah yes, here too, inevitably, came the flowing masses, row upon row of them under simple headstones and simpler crosses. Here was the neighborhood of the Phelans.

Ironweed is a story of guilt and redemption, or such redemption as one can find in this life. It is at once violent and tender, hateful and loving. In my opinion, this is a masterpiece of American literature. My favorite book of all time.

The Road to Wellville is a very different book. I hadn’t read any of Boyle’s previous novels when I came across it lying on a new fiction table at a local bookstore. The cover looked interesting, and the cover flap info showed it was set in Battle Creek, Michigan, which is only about 30 miles from where I live. I read a few random pages and decided I immediately needed to devour it.

The Road to Wellville is one of those rare books that create grief about halfway through – a book so good and so much fun to read that I start to feel sad that I am going to finish it and will no longer be able to look forward to reading it every day. I come across those only every few years, and they all get reread.

Boyle brilliantly skewers the health industry of the early Twentieth Century with the story of Will Lightbody, who is dragged to the Battle Creek “San” (sanitarium) by his grieving wife, who had recently miscarried their child. John Harvey Kellogg, the founder and head doctor of the San, leads the patients with his brand of healthfulness, much of which is on the mark, with a few notable exceptions like radium treatment. Kellogg was a real man and was very influential at the time. He created the breakfast cereal industry and could certainly be described as a force of nature, which Boyle brings to the fore in this book. Here’s how it starts:

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of the corn flake and peanut butter, not to mention caramel-cereal coffee, Bromose, Nuttolene and some seventy-five other gastrically correct foods, paused to level his gaze on the heavyset woman in the front row.  He was having difficulty believing what he’d just heard.  As was the audience, judging from the gasp that arose after she’d raised her hand, stood shakily and demanded to know what was so sinful about a good porterhouse steak–it had done for the pioneers, hadn’t it?  And for her father and his father before him?

The Doctor pushed reflectively at the crisp white frames of his spectacles.  To all outward appearances he was a paradigm of concentration, a scientist formulating his response, but in fact he was desperately trying to summon her name-who was she, now?  He knew her, didn’t he?  That nose, those eyes… he knew them all, knew them by name, a matter of pride… and then, in a snap, it came to him: Tindermarsh.  Mrs. Violet.  Complaint, obesity.  Underlying cause, autointoxication.  Tindermarsh.  Of course.  He couldn’t help feeling a little self-congratulatory flush of pride–nearly a thousand patients and he could call up any one of them as plainly as if he had their charts spread out before him . … But enough of that–the audience was stirring, a monolithic force, one great naked psyche awaiting the hand to clothe it.  Dr. Kellogg cleared his throat.

If you want to know what he says, you’ll have to get the book.


DE Johnson’s author website:

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Motor City Shakedown     VictoryThe Leopard Sword (Empire)

Writing Historical Novels

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