Get to know these female authors from the 1920s to 1960s, and add some new zest to your reading life with some of their best midcentury novels!
Guest post by Michelle Quinn
Do you remember Arnold Lobel’s Owl At Home? It isn’t as famous as his Frog and Toad series but it’s my favourite Lobel book. I loved it as a child and have read it to students and my children countless times over the years.
My favourite story is “Tear-water Tea.” In it, Owl sits down to think of incredibly sad things in order to fill his kettle with tears and make his special tea. Of course, the sad things are unique and whimsical:
- Chairs with broken legs
- Songs that cannot be sung
- Spoons that have fallen behind the stove
- Pencils that are too short to use
- Books that cannot be read
A couple of years ago, I started thinking about tear-water tea in relation to my reading. I realized my reading choices were either modern (written in the last five years) or classic (100+ years old). I started to wonder about authors from the 1930s to the ’60s. What had I missed? What else was out there? What about the books that have fallen into obscurity because of the age, gender, and/or race of the writer? If that doesn’t make some tear-water tea, I don’t know what will.
This started me on a reading journey that’s introduced me to so many great authors, many of whose names were just vaguely familiar or entirely new to me. I’m still on this journey, uncovering new-to-me authors and their books but here are five books that really stick out as favourites:
1. The Street by Ann Petry
Written in 1946, The Street follows Lutie Johnson, a single mother trying to make ends meet in Harlem. It’s a powerful depiction of racism, sexism, poverty, and the myth of the American Dream. Ann Petry was a social worker and her depiction of how the system fails Lutie and her son is so real and complex. Petry takes it one step further and imbues this street in Harlem with dark, gothic imagery that really works. The Street was an instant success and the first book written by a Black woman to sell more than one million copies. Sadly, it settled into obscurity until it was recently re-released.
Related: Here are more classic novels by African-American authors you might enjoy.
2. The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
Set post-WWII, a mother and her grown daughter are living out in a big, gloomy house called “The Franchise.” They have been accused of kidnapping, imprisoning, and beating a wide-eyed teenage girl. All the clues point to their guilt. So begins a taut, psychological thriller. A noted Golden-Age of mysteries rule breaker, Tey wrote The Franchise Affair without a murder to solve and her detective, Inspector Alan Grant, is only in two very small scenes. This was rated #11 in the Crime Writers’ Association top 100 mysteries of the twentieth century.
Mystery fan? Join the Wimsey Club to get classic mystery novels shipped to your mailbox!
3. Quicksand by Nella Larsen
Larsen’s novella Passing has been recently re-released as well as been adapted by Netflix. Thankfully, I read an anthology that also included her first book, Quicksand. Published in 1928, it follows a young, biracial woman named Helga Crane. Like Larsen herself, Helga’s mother is Danish and her father is African American. Due to her mixed heritage, Helga never feels like she fits in. Quicksand explores profound loneliness and disconnection and moves between Chicago, Harlem, Copenhagen, and the American south.
4. Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp
Margery Sharp wrote many books from the ’20s to the ’70s – including the Rescuers series that were made into Disney films. Cluny Brown is a twenty-one-year-old living in 1938 London. She was orphaned at an early age and raised by Uncle Arn and his late wife. The thing that worries dear old Uncle Arn is that Cluny doesn’t seem to “know her place.” She’s trying to be her own person and not molding herself into the narrow confines that society provides for her. She’s naïve but oddly astute, really fun and hilariously blunt. The book is light and funny and the ending is exquisite!
5. The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyn
This is an odd, dark, and unsettling book. Written in 1959 but set in Edwardian times, The Vet’s Daughter centers around young Alice. Her father is cruel and demanding to Alice and her mother. His anger and brutality are slowly killing her mother and Alice dreams of somehow escaping. Comyn writes with a detached, matter-of-factness balanced with touches of magical realism. Fans of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle should enjoy this dark, slight book.
Related: Here are more haunting, suspenseful page-turners for your TBR!
What authors, genres, or eras of literature did you miss out on, and how have you been filling in the gaps?
Michelle Quinn, a lover of books and make-believe, was born and raised in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Canada and continues to live there with her husband and grown twins. Building on her love of reading, Michelle became a primary teacher and has taught for twenty-five years. When not reading, Michelle loves to travel, write, go for long drives and needle-felt little book-loving animal figures for her Etsy shop. You can find her on Instagram at @noraandedie or at her website noraandedie.ca.