“Sold on a Monday,” by Kristina McMorris

The wooden sign reads “2 Children for Sale,” in 1931 rural Pennsylvania. This propels the novel, Sold on a Monday.

Ellis Reed is a struggling junior Philadelphia newspaper reporter with a photography hobby, who snaps a photo of the sign accompanied by two small kids. This leads to a feature article getting wide attention, advancing Reed’s career. And to two children actually being sold.

Their cash-strapped mother thought she was dying. Turns out she was misdiagnosed. Reed goes on a labyrinthine mission to reunite the family, helped by press room secretary Lily — of course they fall in love.

The tale was inspired by an actual newspaper story, from 1948 Ohio, centered on a photo of a mother and four children with a sign offering their sale. Author McMorris’s afterword notes that that sign was suspiciously well lettered. Yet those kids did get sold. Moving the story to the Depression era enhances verisimilitude. However, the book doesn’t really convey a Depression ambience; doesn’t actually show us the deprivation. Go read instead Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, giving a much grittier picture.

In McMorris’s novel, Reed’s original photo had gotten accidentally spoiled, so he went back for a re-do. But the family was gone. He did manage to find the sign lying in the dirt — and a different pair of kids to photograph with it. But after his article goes “viral,” Reed is haunted by the photo’s journalistic dishonesty — as well as its upshot of those kids’ fate.

I would not have been much troubled by different children illustrating the article, if its substance was true. However, about that crucial text we’re actually told nothing. With Reed having interviewed no one, what exactly did he write? Generalized social commentary would have been fine. But if he made up particulars about a family, then we’re in Janet Cooke – Jayson Blair territory. Seriously unethical. This is left strangely unspecified.

As for the book’s writing, I had a hard time putting my finger on what irked me. It wasn’t bad writing. Even fitting, perhaps, for a ’30s flavor. Indeed, it felt like the text for a movie of the time, not a noirish one, but more like Miracle on 34th Street, exuding a kind of forthright innocence.

With characters not unreal, exactly, yet behaving in such a formulaic way that I couldn’t quite take the story seriously. The nastiness of some characters was almost made to feel endearing. Even the tense conflict between Reed and his father seemed formulaic.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve been spoiled by more searing modern literary realism. For all the iniquity it actually depicts, this novel seemed like a throwback to a more innocent time.

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