Amazon Encore, 2013, c1994.
This is another of Nancy Pearl's Book Lust Rediscovery series; titles originally published between 1960-2000, and brought back into availability thanks to Nancy Pearl's efforts.
This book tells the story of three very different siblings born near the turn of the 20th century: Carlton, Jerry, and Daisy Malone. Brought up in the Midwest, as adults they spread out. Jerry heads to Montana to homestead, and on the heels of his arrival he also finds himself a bride. Daisy tries her luck as a singer in Manhattan, eventually reuniting with Jerry in Montana. Neither of them is that keen on Carlton, who stayed behind at home and made money.
The joy of the story is in the manner of telling. It goes back and forth, showing us these characters both old and young, told in letters and in regular narrative, moving between Montana and other possible lives. McNamer skims from moment to moment, filling in the colours of the story's outlines bit by bit. The story progresses, but as it does it also reflects and explains and explores the characters' thoughts and motives. It is a satisfying read, especially for the patient reader who loves a landscape and a history that are slowly expanded with each page.
There is a restlessness to the main characters, whether that's to make something of themselves as performers, or to succeed at land speculation in the West. This energy moves the story, and leads to some of the more outlandish events, like the attempt to invigorate small Shelby, Montana by hosting a World Heavyweight Championship in 1923. (spoiler alert: things don't go quite as planned).
In between the various occurrences, though, there are many beautiful moments of connection, and some lovely writing. It never gets precious, rather, there is the saving grace of Midwest realism, leavened with wry humour. The plot points exist, but the characters drive the story. It was an enjoyable and thoughtful read, one I'd recommend to anyone interested in stories of the western experience. Or to those who love great settings and great characters.
One of the parts I loved, was, of course, a Christmas scene. This is a quiet family Christmas; Jerry's family in Montana, who are broke, but seem to be enjoying their holiday nevertheless.
There are four of them gathered around a table with a red cloth on it and a small roast duck at its center. It is Christmas 1919, the one they believe to be their last in Montana... There is a small tree over on the hutch -- the train brought a stack of them one day from the mountains -- and it is draped with chains of paper rings and topped with a battered angel. The bare electric bulb that hangs from the ceiling is dark. There are candles on the table and in one corner the kerosene light. The light is fluttering and warm on their faces...
They eat peach preserves sent by George and his wife in Seattle; wild rice from Aunt Mina and Uncle Charles in the Twin Cities; cheese from Vivian's mother; tinned crackers from Daisy Lou....
The presents were always opened Christmas Eve so the house would have a day's warmth in it and the children would sleep through the night. Such meager gifts this year. Everyone so broke.
Maudie had yearned for a new doll with a nightgown and a traveling dress that she had seen in a neighbor's Sears catalogue. She got a small, cheaper one, and Vivian made all the clothes for it from scraps. She didn't like to sew, and it showed. There were signs of impatience on the little dresses, undone hems that made her ashamed when she saw them, though she had spent hours on the tiny scraps at night when she was half asleep.
Francis got a wooden replica of a World War airplane, made by Foster, a young guy who worked at the mercantile. Each child got an orange. And pencils from Daisy with their initials on them. And a one-dollar bill from their Uncle Carleton, which made the biggest impression of all and caused their parents to feel, for a bleak few moments, like bystanders.
The children got their mother a 1920 calendar from the mercantile. They had loved its size and color and had insisted on it, though Jerry had suggested a muffler instead. The calendar showed slim young women in fur coats, fur muffs, ice skating on a pond surrounded by pines. Thatched English cottages with chimney smoke like treble clefs. Lawns. Croquet. Parade horses with red plumes. A girl in a swing under a huge spreading maple, her blonde hair brushing the ground.
Jerry got from the children and Vivian a small cardboard case to hold his pens and pencils and silver letter opener.
Vivian's mother had sent handkerchiefs for everyone and a packet of well-wrapped fudge. Four pieces of it sat on a saucer like a prize.
This description reminded me of some of the Christmases in the Little House series, another western family making do. I thought this book was a great rediscovery, and I am so glad to have found it.