Most of Norris’s books were billed as romances, which is not a genre I’ve ever enjoyed. But they’re nothing like today’s romances. There is no sex, for one thing, no divorce or adultery or violence. Instead, character development and moral awakening reign. Although these stories are not overtly Christian, they rely heavily on Judeo-Christian values: Bad behavior is invariably punished, while good behavior is ultimately rewarded. And interestingly, although each heroine’s eventual love interest may claim a share of her thoughts, she’s rarely obsessed with him; she has other things to worry about, from family responsibilities to paying next month’s rent.
In fact, money – or a terrifying lack of it – is usually a major theme in these books.
I’d heard about the grinding poverty of that era, of course. For example, both my parents lived in rented rooms when they were in college in the heart of the Great Depression, and both made it through school entirely by the grace of God, my mother insisted. But Norris does an amazing job of conveying what it was like to actually live under such circumstances. And she shows the other side of economic reality as well – usually demonstrating that money cannot possibly buy happiness.
One of the reasons I love these books is that they give me a glimpse into the lives of my nursing-home friends during their formative years. I now have an inkling of what it must have been like to trust one’s parents implicitly, for instance, even as the money was running out – and to feel those first pangs of doubt that relief was really awaiting them next week, or next month. And I have a better understanding of the factors that influenced their most important life decisions, from choosing a husband to caring for their own aging parents.
And because I’ve browsed through so many of my elderly friends' photo albums from that era, my reading is greatly enriched: When I read Norris’s often lengthy descriptions of people and places, I can easily picture the characters’ clothing and carriages, homes and furnishings. I can see, in my mind’s eye, the room that an entire family shared while Papa sought work, and picture a garden bursting with the blooms of old-fahioned lilacs and spirea and other shrubs long forgotten by us oh-so-sophisticated modern gardeners.
I recently dove into a 1927 book by my mother’s second-favorite author, Anne Parrish. It’s called Tomorrow Morning, and so far it’s a lovely description of what it was like to be the happiest of homemakers a century ago. But trouble looms: the young heroine’s husband is very ill, and it’s apparent she will soon be a widow. How will she survive, with a little boy to raise on her own, no readily marketable skills, and no government programs to fall back on? I’m looking forward to finding out – and to comparing notes with a dear 95-year-old friend whose own mother experienced precisely these challenges in the years leading up to the Depression.
If you’re interested in discovering such literary gems for yourself, be sure to look for early editions. Many of these novels have been reprinted in recent decades, and rumor has it that they’ve been “updated” to suit modern tastes. I shudder to think what that might mean.