Book Review: Kings Row by Henry Bellamann


Published in 1940, Kings Row is out of print and hard to find, which is surprising for a book that was hailed in a movie trailer as the best book of the year. The movie version, released in 1942 with an all-star cast, included Robert Cummings, Ann Southern, Charles Coburn, Claude Rains, Betty Field, and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. In fact, it has been suggested that this film is considered to be Ronald Reagan’s finest work before he later ventured into politics.  

Until recently, I had not heard of either the movie or the book. I learned of Kings Row during one of those deep dives on my phone late at night, where one fascinating fact leads to another. I am interested in historical fiction, especially stories that capture a sense of time and place, the paradox of beauty and tragedy, and the dark underbelly that rears its ugly head in stark realism. From this standpoint, Kings Row does not disappoint. 

Author Henry Bellamann was widely criticized for writing Kings Row. His detractors claimed he was taking revenge on the small town of Fulton, Missouri for his unhappy childhood. Defining Kings Row as autofiction matters not. Kings Row paints a portrait of small town life from the 1890s through to the early Twentieth Century, where corruption, brutality and perversion are exposed for the world to see.  

Some critics of past yore have placed Kings Row on the same literary shelf as Peyton Place. Author Grace Metalious wrote about three women in a small town in New Hampshire who are coming to terms with both their identity and sexuality. Kings Row protagonist, the handsome young Parris Mitchell, is musically gifted, sensitive and refined, a profoundly deep thinker, worldly beyond his years, and bound for medical school in Vienna. Orphaned as an infant,  Parris is being raised by his grandmother, the strong willed and stoic Madame Marie von Eln, who recognizes her grandson’s intellectual curiosity, integrity and compassion for all people, even those far less fortunate and often undeserving.  

Like Peyton PlaceKings Row has many complex characters who are also coming of age, exploring their identity and sexuality. The difference is in Kings Row, terrible, terrible things, mindboggling tragedies, happen to good people. The sinister town medical doctor, Dr. Gordon, amputates both legs of his daughter’s love interest, Drake McHugh, in a deliberate sadistic act of moral punishment. Drake McHugh is not Dr. Gordon’s only casualty. The extent of his rampage is not fully discovered until long after his death.

Along with incest, homosexuality, racism, classicism, mental illness, and prejudice against the disabled, there is no shortage of cruelty in this small town; but for all of its human failings, the setting is lush, full of rolling hills, pastures, creeks, wildflowers, and pastoral light slanting between the leaves of noble trees. Every season under the sun has its own unique beauty that dresses a scene for endless seduction.  

Characters come and go, all of them bound by the roots that they share in common with having grown up in Kings Row. Even the characters that leave the town are compelled to return in an endless cycle of seeking one’s own redemption—that redemption can only be found by once again going home. As Parris Mitchell notes, “The human mind works as a whole-it moves all at once, the whole machine, like an engine on rails.” Mitchell lived in Vienna for five years and loves Europe’s culture and sensibility, and yet, he will never seek home anywhere else on earth than in the town that first formed who he is and who he is still becoming. 

Kings Row is small town Americana at its finest. Events unfold at the same slow rhythm as baseball. Just when things are moving so slowly that a reader loses patience, an event as earth shattering as a grand slam forever alters the lives of the characters. Yet the book’s long passages of philosophical diatribe are exasperating. Pages and pages of monotonous dialogue might enhance the realism of the time period, but they should have been cut and polished, and integrated more cohesively within the context of the book’s narrative. Too much philosophical ranting, excessive dialogue, and long rambling chapters are serious flaws, yet not enough to destroy the book’s integrity as a masterpiece; nonetheless, it is a flawed masterpiece. 








Patricia Vaccarino

Patricia Vaccarino is an accomplished writer who has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, articles, essays, speeches, web content, marketing collateral, and ten books.

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