Sold on a Monday
Kristina McMorris brings us the fictionalized story behind a real-life picture of the Great Depression in her latest novel.
Hard working wannabe photojournalist Ellis Reed is on his way back from an auxiliary luncheon when his engine overheats in the downtrodden farm community of Laurel Township, PA. There, he captures the painful toll that the depression has wrought upon the country. Photographing two young boys sitting on the porch of a house, he doesn’t immediately notice the sign hanging around their necks, which declares that they are for sale.
Horrified, Ellis nonetheless brings his roll of film to the office, knowing that shooting unsanctioned photographs on the company’s dime is against the rules. This is where secretary Lily Palmer, an unwed mother whose four-year-old son Samuel lives with her parents out of town, finds out about the pictures. Lily’s looking for a way up the ladder of the boys’ club infesting the paper when she spies the photos, immediately realizing Ellis has captured an important story, and arranges for the editor in chief to see them. He immediately commissions a feature from Ellis, who is reluctant to track down and interview the children and their guardian for the article.
When Ellis’ negative and picture are ruined in a printing accident, he’s forced to find a proper replacement, but the children and their original guardian are long gone. He substitutes Calvin and Ruby Dillard, two children he finds in the same neighborhood, for the children in his original picture, their mother Geraldine assenting after Ellis lies to them about his intent.
Ellis’ article and accompanying pictures land him a job with the New York Herald Tribune, where he hopes to bring attention to the plight of other suffering children in the world. In the meantime, the Dilard children have been sold – apparently to a wealthy banker named Arthur Millstone. Since this is all their fault, Ellis and Lily team up to track down the kids and make sure they’re being taken care of. The path is long and difficult, taking them through the twisting turbulence of the time period, including mafia violence and the world of black market adoption. Will Ellis be able to maintain his dignity and his journalistic integrity? Will Lily be able to balance her work, home and secret lives? And will love rear its head and surprise the both of them?
AAR staffers Lisa Fernandes and Shannon Dyer read Sold on a Monday, and are here to share their thoughts on the novel.
Lisa: I liked a lot of different parts of this story but it didn’t really manage to cohere into something that was perfect or serviceable for me. How about you, Shannon?
Shannon: I went into this book expecting something totally different from what I actually got. I was hoping we’d see things from the point of view of one of the children who were sold, or maybe their mother. Having the story filtered through the lens of Ellis and Lily made me feel a bit too removed from what was going on. I love when books transport me to a different place and time, but this one wasn’t able to do that. So, while certain aspects were interesting and enjoyable, the book as a whole didn’t work well for me.
Lisa: This is an excellent point; telling the story through the lens of Ellis’ and Lily’s guilt and ambition provided more of a distraction than anything. I felt like it even kept the narrative distant from the actual horrors of the Depression that Ellis is supposed to be so moved by. Speaking of him, how did you feel about Ellis? I liked the deep forthrightness of him and his ambition, but his foolhardy and selfish choices made it difficult to like him as a character.
Shannon: Ellis was tricky. On one hand, his dedication to his work is admirable, but it also causes him to act in some pretty horrible ways. I’m glad he felt remorse about the things he did. In fact, it was his feelings of guilt that turned him into a character I could feel some sympathy for.
Lisa: How about Lily? Did you agree with the sacrifices she chose to make? I found her understandable and relatable – the mix of guilt and love she had for Samuel, the way she wants to be more, to live up to the ambitions she held in her youth.
Shannon: I liked Lily quite a bit. I loved her relationship with her young son, and the sacrifices she made because of his birth felt completely believable to me. I enjoyed watching her grow over the course of the novel. She was sometimes a little too idealistic for my liking, but that’s a relatively small quibble. I felt she had become a different person in a lot of ways by the end of the book.
Lisa: Did you feel like they made a good team? Did you buy the sudden twist their relationship took into romance? I think it kind of worked, but I really liked Lily more with Clayton.
Shannon: You know, I really liked Ellis and Lily together, and felt they were able to balance each other out in ways that made total sense. Their romance wasn’t my favorite part of the story, but it didn’t feel forced. I think it helped to bring out the best parts of both of them.
Lisa: What about the plot machinations in charge here? Did you find the way the first picture was destroyed ridiculous? Or did you like the way it drove Ellis to repair the mistake he’d made and become a better reporter? Honestly, this is where the book lost me; this is the man’s big career-breaking photograph and he didn’t make an extra set of negatives?!
Shannon: The destruction of the original photograph was totally off the wall. Obviously, the story couldn’t exist without that event, but I think the author could have made it more believable somehow. I really had to suspend my disbelief while reading those scenes.
Lisa: What did you think of the mystery surrounding the Dilard children? Was it gripping?
Shannon: I’m a sucker for a good suspense plot, but I’m not fully convinced it was necessary here. In some ways, I felt the story might have been more cohesive if the author had just told the story of the children’s sale and their mother’s attempt to get them back. As it is, the book feels a little too busy, like there’s too much going on all at once, and it was kind of hard to focus on the important parts.
Lisa: An excellent point; honestly, it would’ve been a lot more compelling if it were Geraldine scrapping through the night, looking for clues as to what happened to Calvin and Ruby. It’s like the author wanted to write a thirties-style mystery, but she also wanted to deal with the Depression AND the mafia and gangster violence going on in that time period AND the notorious black market adoption scandals. Between that and Ellis and Lily’s stories, it’s all too much going on for the length of the novel. I really liked Clayton among the supporting characters; he was gritty and a real stand-up guy, the kind of dude that Lily definitely deserved. And Geraldine was pretty interesting; I liked her bond with Lily. And little Ruby was honestly one of the best parts of the book.
Shannon: I loved Clayton so much! There’s a part of me that would have liked to see Lily end up with him. He was such a genuinely nice guy, the kind we don’t see enough of in today’s romances. Geraldine was an intriguing character, someone I was prepared to strongly dislike but ended up identifying with on a number of levels. It was wonderful to watch her begin to form a friendship with Lily. They obviously learned a lot from one another.
Lisa: Did you feel any sympathy at all for the Millstones?
Shannon: It’s obvious that the Millstones experienced a devastating loss, and I felt a lot of compassion for them because of that. At the same time, the way they chose to cope with that loss was extremely unhealthy and destructive. Mrs. Millstone in particular needed some serious help.
Lisa: What’s your final grade? I’m giving it a C – the suspense part of the plot kept me reading, but the blandness of the characters and my lack of investment in anything but the fate of the children left me cold.
Shannon: It gets a C from me. The book had a ton of potential that it didn’t manage to live up to. The children’s story was compelling, but it was overshadowed by Ellis and Lily. I’m interested in checking out another of this author’s books though. Do you think you’ll read anything else she’s written?
Lisa: I’ll definitely give her another try; she’s great at research and at some elements of plot configuration. I’ll just have to see if she does better with another story.