Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Literary Nostalgia: Back to 1973!

So this week’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM was dedicated to books published in 1973. I picked this week’s theme as it’s the year my husband was born. You can listen to the show on the player at the end of this post, but here, as promised, are the details of some of the other things born in 1973…

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Breakfast of Champions was Vonnegut’s seventh novel, and the next to be published after Slaughterhouse Five. The book is set in the fictional town of Midland City, Indiana, and its main characters are Dwayne Hoover, a successful Pontiac dealer, and Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer. The book alternates between focus on these two characters, though sections also bring other characters into the spotlight (for instance, Hoover’s son and Wayne Hoobler, a black resident of Midland City). Hoover is growing increasingly unstable, and when Trout travels to Midland City for an arts festival, the car dealer demands that the writer sends him a message.

Breakfast of Champions is written in Vonnegut’s characteristic style, with simple syntax and sentence structure. It’s achronological, switching back and forth between both times and perspectives, and it’s both metafictional and intertextual. Like much of Vonnegut’s writing, it deals with themes of free will and mental illness, as well as critiques of economic and racial inequality. The novel was adapted into a film in 1999, which starred Bruce Willis (as Dwayne Hoover), Albert Finney (as Kilgore Trout) and Omar Epps (as Wayne Hoobler).

Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie

Postern of Fate was the last novel written by Agatha Christie – though not the last of her novels to be published, as it was followed by two titles written in the 1940s but held back until the 70s – and it is the final outing for her intrepid investigative duo Tommy and Tuppence.

Tommy and Tuppence are unusual amongst Agatha Christie’s recurring characters, as they age at a ‘real world’ rate as their story progresses over five novels (unlike Hercule Poirot, who by rights should be about 128 by his final outing). By Postern of Fate, Tommy and Tuppence are pensioners, drawn back into one last mystery when they discover a cryptic note hidden in a book left in their new house. It’s quite hard to describe any more of the plot of Postern of Fate, as it’s quite an unusual book (and not one of Christie’s most popular). It’s more of an experience than a story, and it’s not surprising that it remains one of the few Christie novels to be unadapted.

Tommy and Tuppence’s adventures see them chasing various rumours about the mysterious ‘Mary Jordan’ (who was, according to the note, murdered at some point in the past), using Tommy’s old government contacts and Tuppence’s wilful ability to launch into full-on detection. Postern of Fate wasn’t edited before publication, so it meanders through a series of vignettes that are sometimes disconnected or contradictory, and its chronology is somewhat wonky. The book is also peppered with echoes, mentions and repetitions of details from other Christie novels and from her autobiography. It’s sort of like a dream you might have if you fell asleep after binge-reading Agatha Christie, and for that reason I’m really rather fond of Postern of Fate.

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

Bawden’s classic children’s novel tells the story of Carrie and Nick Willow, two children evacuated to a Welsh mining town during WWII. The siblings are sent to stay with a grumpy and bullying shopkeeper called Mr Evans, and his kindly sister who the name ‘Auntie Lou’. They befriend another evacuee – Albert Sandwich – who is staying at a house called Druid’s Bottom with Mr Evans’s sister Dilys Gotobed, her cousin Johnny and her housekeeper Hepzibah Green. Hepzibah tells the children stories about a curse that lies of Druid’s Bottom, and Carrie attempts to get to know Mr Evans better (believing that there is more to him than his intimidating exterior). The novel is framed by a ‘present day’ narrative, in which an older Carrie, now a widow, returns to the village and tells her children about her wartime experiences.

Bawden’s novel has remained popular since its publication, winning the Phoenix Award in 1993. It has been adapted for the BBC twice. The 1974 adaptation had Juliet Waley as Carrie and Rosalie Crutchley as Hepzibah. The 2004 version had Keeley Fawcett as Carrie, Alun Armstrong as Mr Evans and Pauline Quirke as Hepzibah.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

Brown’s lesbian coming-of-age novel is pretty iconic. However, I must confess to first hearing about it through Willy Russell’s play Educating Rita (in which the protagonist ‘Rita’ – real name Susan – names herself after Brown due to a love of Rubyfruit Jungle).

Rubyfruit Jungle is the story of Molly Bolt, the adopted daughter of a poor family, and her various sexual adventures. Considered ‘shocking’ by some for its explicit content, and ‘disappointing’ by other because of its somewhat flawed protagonist, the book is groundbreaking for precisely these reasons. Molly is a brash, egotistic young woman who actually enjoys her sexuality and takes pride in her sexual conquests. She becomes aware of her lesbianism at a young age, and has a number of sexual encounters with friends at high school (including the head cheerleader). Molly is remarkably beautiful, academically talented, and irresistible to women (and, as we discover, some men). However, her adventurous life is clouded by a poor relationship with her mother – and some rather dubious interpretations of other mother/daughter relationships.

While Rubyfruit Jungle is rather dated now – and there are elements that are at odds with modern ideas of gender and sexuality – Brown’s novel is still a very significant book, with an important place in the history of lesbian fiction.

I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan

And now a book that many people don’t know exists… did you know the 1997 slasher pic I Know What You Did Last Summer was an adaptation of a YA novel from 1973? Well… now you do!

Duncan’s novel is a suspense thriller (not a horror novel, as you may have been expecting). When high school senior Julie James receives an anonymous note reading ‘I know what you did last summer’, she is forced to revisit a secret she and her friends had hoped was buried for good. The previous year, Julie, her boyfriend Ray, Ray’s best friend Barry and Barry’s girlfriend Helen ran over and killed a young boy called David Gregg. They made a pact never to tell anyone what happened. But someone obviously knows…

As the tension mounts – Helen finds a picture of a boy riding a bike stuck to her door, Ray gets a newspaper clipping about David Gregg through the post – it’s clear that someone wants the foursome to pay for their crime. But who knows their secret?

Duncan’s novel was adapted for the big screen in 1997, when it was transformed into a gory slasher film starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Freddie Prinze Jr. The original novel was more of a creepy thriller (with fewer hook-handed psychos and more slow-burn paranoia), but personally I love both versions.

Let Sleeping Vets Lie by James Herriot

The final book featured on today’s show was the third of James Herriot’s semi-autobiographical novels based on his experiences as a vet at a rural practice in Yorkshire.

Herriot – real name James Alfred Wight – spent most of his working life as a vet in Thirsk, but he is best known for his series of comic and heart-warming novels about animals and their owners, which were (sometimes loosely) based on the cases he encountered in his practice. Herriot’s first novel, If Only They Could Talk, was published in 1970, and introduced the fictional village of Darrowby, Herriot’s narrator persona, Siegfried Farnon (his boss) and Tristan (Siegfried’s charming younger brother). In Let Sleeping Vets Lie, Herriot continued with the template set by the first two novels, mixing animal tales with stories of the unpredictable Siegfried and James’s burgeoning relationship with Helen (a fictionalized version of Herriot’s wife Joan).

Herriot’s novels were considered too short for standalone publication in the US, and so they were published as omnibuses (beginning with All Creatures Great and Small and All Things Bright and Beautiful). A film adaptation of Herriot’s first two novels, named All Creatures Great and Small, was made in 1975, and starred Simon Ward and Anthony Hopkins. But the stories are probably best known from the BBC TV adaptation of 1978-80 and 1988-90 (also called All Creatures Great and Small), which starred Christopher Timothy as James, Robert Hardy as Siegfried and Peter Davison as Tristan.

To hear more about all of these titles, and my reasons for choosing them, you can catch the show again here:

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