Last Updated November 17, 2023.
First published: 1940
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Social criticism
Time of work: Late nineteenth century
Locale: The Middle West
Kings Row, written by Henry Bellamann in 1940, unravels in a fictional small town in Middle America, sharing its name. The story centers on the distinctive lives of its inhabitants, delving into the human psyche and the evolution of its central character and the town itself. Beyond individual transformations, the novel reflects the shifting dynamics of society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The narrative follows Parris Mitchell, a young man raised in Kings Row by his French grandmother, Madam von Eln. Parris. Parris is exposed to French and German due to his grandmother's background and speaks English with a distinct accent. Madam von Eln ensures his musical education, arranging for piano lessons with Dr. Axel Berdorff, the German Lutheran church pastor, who recognizes Parris's musical talent.
As Parris grows older, he forms strong bonds with fellow town residents such as Drake McHugh, a charming and romantic young man; Jamie Wakefield, a reserved aspiring poet exploring his homosexuality; and Renée, Parris's first experience of love.
Parris's life takes a significant turn when he becomes involved with a former classmate, Cassandra Tower, the daughter of the enigmatic Dr. Alexander Q. Tower, a respected yet eccentric figure in Kings Row. Shortly afterward, his grandmother becomes sick, and she chooses not to inform Parris about her deteriorating condition.
Given her illness, Parris's grandmother arranges for him to train under Dr. Tower because she wants Parris to pursue medical studies in Austria. Parris and Cassie embark on a romantic relationship, but Cassie, burdened with something important to share, struggles to communicate as Parris is preoccupied with his ill grandmother. Unfortunately, Parris's grandmother passes away shortly after.
Suddenly, Dr. Tower murders his daughter Cassie and kills himself. Suspecting something is wrong, Parris meets with Drake to discuss the recent events. Parris reveals that he has found the doctor's secret diaries, uncovering a disturbing truth: Dr. Tower had an incestuous relationship with his daughter, which may have started when she was only a little girl.
Parris tells Drake that this was likely the important thing she wanted to share, and it was probably the reason why Dr. Tower decided to take both his and his daughter's lives. Shocked that his late mentor could do such a thing and traumatized by his grandmother's death, Parris leaves for Vienna to fulfill his grandmother's wish of studying medicine and eventually becoming a psychiatrist.
During his absence, Kings Row continues its routine. Drake becomes involved with Louise Gordon, the daughter of Dr. Henry Gordon, "the town's leading physician." Despite Drake's background from "nice people," Louise's parents, particularly her mother, Harriet, disapprove of their relationship. Harriet likes Drake but dislikes that he often associates with various people, especially women.
Soon, Drake becomes close to Miranda Monaghan (Randy), a sincere and lovely girl from the lower part of town. Randy, who falls for him, angers Louise, who is also in love with Drake, blaming her parents for letting him slip away.
In a shocking turn of events, James Cuthbert Curley, the president of Farmers Exchange Bank and executor of Drake's finances, steals all of Drake's money and disappears. Drake discovers the situation and asks Randy and Jamie to keep it a secret from Parris. Despite his efforts, Drake struggles to recover.
Drake starts withdrawing from society and hiding his problems, even though he feels everyone in town knows about them. To cope with his challenging circumstances, he turns to heavy drinking. Drake approaches Randy's father for a job...
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at the railroad, and Mr. Monaghan promises to help.
True to his word, he secures Drake a job, allowing him to pay off debts. Drake moves into Mrs. Blake's railroad boardinghouse, rarely venturing uptown in Kings Row. Despite losing his boyish charm, he transforms into a healthier, stronger-looking man.
Unfortunately, a work accident occurs, and Dr. Gordon is called to assist. He decides to amputate both of Drake's legs. Louise is horrified and threatens to expose her father as a monster, revealing unnerving aspects of Dr. Gordon's character and his questionable operations.
Randy decides to marry Drake and informs Parris about everything in a letter. Parris returns to Kings Row, working as a psychiatrist at the local insane asylum. As he settles back in, he observes notable changes in the town and his friends. Seeing Randy and Drake's real estate business going smoothly, he decides to lend them a hand.
Mrs. Gordon invites Parris into her home, revealing that after the Drake incident, her daughter Louise has locked herself in her room, refused to speak, and harbored hatred for her father even after his passing.
In a meeting with Louise, she discloses that her father was a sadist who wanted to experiment on people. Parris concludes that Dr. Gordon was involved in many tragedies in Kings Row, including the unnecessary amputation of Drake's legs.
Heading to his old house, Parris encounters Elise Sandor, who, fueled by town gossip, knows a lot about him. He discovers that her family bought his late grandmother's house, with Elise now occupying his former room.
Meanwhile, Drake's health deteriorates, revealing cancer possibly linked to his unnecessary amputation. He passes away, and both Randy and Parris mourn his loss. The novel concludes with Parris reflecting on the past and visiting Elise, who waves and descends the stairs to greet him.