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Best-Selling Novels of the 1940s

Updated on August 29, 2012

What amazed me when reading over this list of bestsellers in the 1940s was the fact that even in the latter part of the decade there are no novels in the top spot that highlight the decade's singular historical event: the Second World War. Instead, most of the books deal with historical, often Christian themes, as if engaged in escapism from the horrific events that dominated the news of the times. There is one exception that deals with cutting-edge social issues of the era, but none that deal with the war itself. Here's what the majority of readers liked in the 40s. The list is from Publisher's Weekly.

1940: How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

This novel is about a family of coal miners in Wales. It begins as the narrator is about to leave the town forever, but then flashes back to his boyhood and moves forward from there. The film version was much acclaimed, winning five Oscars, including best picture.

1941: The Keys of the Kingdom by A. J. Cronin

This novel tells the story of a humble Scottish Catholic priest who is sent to a mission in China and endures there in spite of poverty, war, plague, and famine. Unappreciated by his superiors, he nevertheless accomplishes a great work. It later became a film starring Gregory Peck.

1942: The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel

This novel depicts the story of Bernadette, who had visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes. At first she is disbelieved by many, as she alone can see the Lady. Later she became a nun, and after her death she was proclaimed a saint. The writer was a Jew who fled Austria when Hitler invaded. When the Nazis occupied France as well, Werfel and his wife were in great danger. He promised God that if they survived he would write the story of Bernadette, and this novel was the fulfillment of his promise.

1943: The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas

This is the story of a Roman soldier who wins Christ's robe in a bet and then goes on, after much inner turmoil, to become a Christian. It was a bestseller in 1943, and then became the number one bestseller again ten years later when the movie starring Richard Burton came out.

1944: Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith

This was a shocking, controversial novel when it first appeared. A white veteran of World War I returns to Georgia and falls in love with a black woman. She becomes pregnant with his child, and when the murder of a white man causes racial tensions to flare, a vigilante group is formed. This novel was ahead of its time in depicting racial segregation in the South.

1945: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

This novel takes place in the 17th century. An abandoned orphan girl's sexual prowess helps her rise through the ranks of English society. It was banned by fourteen states and by the Catholic church as pornography, though it is of course tame by today's standards. The controversy only helped increase sales, and it became the top-selling book of the 1940s.

1946: The King's General by Daphne du Maurier

Set during the English civil war in the 17th century, this novel tells the story of two people who fall in love but then are separated by a tragic accident. As the years pass they meet again several times. The woman narrates the story of what happens to them through the years. It is considered a gothic novel due to its dark viewpoint and its allusion to an important secret room.

1947: The Miracle of the Bells by Russell Janney

This novel, long out of print, tells the story of an unknown actress from a coal-mining town who is picked to play the part of Joan of Arc in a movie. During the filming she is diagnosed as having an incurable case of tuberculosis and dies right after the film is completed. The movie turns out to be a huge hit. The novel was made into a motion picture starring Fred MacMurray, Alida Valli, and Frank Sinatra.

1948: The Big Fisherman by Lloyd C. Douglas

This novel was written after "The Robe" as a sort of prequel. It tells the story of the apostle Peter, who in the novel "The Robe" is dubbed "The Big Fisherman". It did not age as well as "The Robe" and was long out of print, though a few expensive hardcover editions have surfaced recently. It was made into a film with Howard Duff as Peter.

1949: The Egyptian by Mika Waltari

This is a historical novel set in ancient Egypt. It's full of romance and intrigue, and was considered by many to be obscene. The author was Finnish, and it was one of the most popular translations of a foreign work ever. In 1954 it was adapted into a film starring Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, and Peter Ustinov.


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