Recession Reading | The Reader’s Shelf, September 1, 2012

Hard Times, Come Again No More

In its short history, the United States has experienced at least five major financial recessions. The most infamous and devastating of these occurred within living memory and remains fresh in our national consciousness. The Great Depression and other panics, with their tensions and grim similarities, serve as the background for the following novels. They make fascinating reading for their resonance with today’s economic struggles and stand up well to contemporary titles that explore our own current collapse, such as Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money, and Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December.

Through the effective use of alternating narrators—disgraced spy–turned–wastrel Ethan Saunders and widow Mrs. Joan Maycott—David Liss’s The Whiskey Rebels (Ballantine. 2009. ISBN 9780812974539. pap. $15) vividly depicts the rampant speculation that led to our nation’s first financial panic in 1792, followed by the Whiskey Rebellion two years later. Historical figures, including Alexander Hamilton and William Duer, and the fledgling Bank of the United States play prominent roles as well in this richly evoked and sharply written novel.

Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier (Penguin. 2008. ISBN 9780143105541. pap. $18) follows the rise and fall and rise again of Frank Cowperwood, financially brilliant and intuitive but without conscience. The pivotal action takes place in 1873 amid the panic caused by the Great Chicago Fire and the financial and political fallout that lead to Frank’s temporary downfall. The lessons he gleans from this experience are pragmatic, not moral, and Frank is soon back on the road to success. A bit rambling but ceaselessly realistic, this American classic is a fascinating and compelling look at the ways finance works in the United States.

Before the Great Depression, the Panic of 1893 ranked as the most severe and far-reaching decline in U.S. finance. Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady (Virago. 2006. ISBN 9781844083732. pap. $15.95) portrays that decline through the story of Marian Forrester, the second wife of wealthy railroad pioneer and banker Capt. Daniel Forrester. The Forresters are the leading figures of Sweet Water, a small Midwestern town, but the financial problems of 1893–97 have affected them. An admiring narrator, young Niel Herbert, first presents Marian as a young and lovely society lady, but as the fortunes and status of the Forresters change, his revealing character study depicts a woman who is at once loyal, vain, giving, and aloof.

The financial woes of 1895 and the Brooklyn trolley strike make for a harsh winter in Streets of Fire by Troy Soos (Kensington. 2008. ISBN 9780758206251. pap. out-of-print but widely available). The recent murders of a former madam and a police sergeant forge a connection to an older case, arousing the interest of Marshall Webb, freelance journalist and sometime dime novelist. As he investigates, he consults with Miss Rebecca Davies, a social reformer from a prominent family, and Buck Morehouse, a mildly corrupt Brooklyn detective, each of whom knew one of the victims and each of whom follow their own leads to a clever reveal. The combination of sleuthing approaches, the fully fleshed characters, and the immersive setting results in a vivid portrait of the era.

Clive Cussler and Justin Scott put Isaac Bell, überoperative for the Van Dorn Detective Agency, in pursuit of a truly monstrous villain in The Wrecker (Berkley: Penguin Group [USA]. 2010. ISBN 9780425237700. pap. $9.99). The eponymous criminal is an extremely resourceful and amoral saboteur who uses the economic and labor unrest of 1907 to recruit expendable henchmen in his attacks against the Southern Pacific Railway. The power and importance of the railroads at that time are matched by the loose financial and political climate, making the Wrecker’s ambitious scheme more than possible. A tight pace, great action scenes, and wonderful descriptions of the age add to the fun of this historical thriller.

Set in the middle of the Great Depression, Pete Hamill’s North River (Back Bay: Little, Brown. 2008. ISBN 9780316007993. pap. $14.99) follows lonely doctor James Delaney, a wounded World War I veteran shattered by his wife’s desertion. He is awakened from his numb-like state when his daughter, Grace, leaves her baby, Carlito, on his doorstep as she makes her way to Spain. From an empty wasteland of regret, Delaney’s life suddenly becomes more complicated as he attracts the unwanted attention of some gangsters, and Rose, an Italian immigrant, moves in to help with the baby. Hamill excels in painting the details of 1934 Manhattan, and he uses to great effect the North (Hudson) River as a geographic, and emotional, focus in this exquisitely crafted novel.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at