Vivid tale of miller’s wife writ­ten with care

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Jennifer Ryan

‘THIS is the story of how you were loved,” Pene­lope Ma­cLaugh­lin whis­pers to her grand­daugh­ter. The open­ing to Linda Lit­tle’s third novel, Grist, is res­o­nant and mem­o­rable. Those nine words are the stuff of fa­mous open­ing lines. Ex­cept those nine words don’t open the book. They come at the be­gin­ning of Chap­ter 2, af­ter a tightly wrought pro­logue in which Pene­lope, suc­cinctly and with great in­sight and ob­jec­tiv­ity, sums up her young life be­fore she met her hus­band-to-be, the so­cially awk­ward town miller, Ewan. The care with which the Nova Sco­tiabased Lit­tle selected those nine words is ev­i­dent through­out. Ev­ery scene car­ries its weight; not a word is un­nec­es­sary. Pene­lope’s par­ents only ap­pear in this first chap­ter, and even then, only as a mem­ory in her re-telling. As she says, “They worked hard and died young.” Yet Lit­tle has painted them with such nu­anced clar­ity in those few in­tro­duc­tory pages that read­ers will re­mem­ber them through­out Pene­lope’s re­count­ing of her own long life, set against the back­drop of Lit­tle’s home prov­ince of Nova Sco­tia. Pene­lope and Ewan marry on the first Thurs­day in May in 1875, af­ter a short and prag­matic courtship. Al­ready 30 years old, Pene­lope has no il­lu­sions about her di­min­ish­ing ca­pac­ity to at­tract a hus­band, de­scrib­ing her­self as a “large, square-jawed girl — grace­less but strong. There was noth­ing del­i­cate about me and noth­ing pretty. A great horse of a girl.” She looks for­ward to the sta­bil­ity and joy of be­com­ing the miller’s wife. Un­for­tu­nately, Ewan be­comes in­stantly with­drawn and can­tan­ker­ous af­ter their wed­ding night. Dur­ing their courtship, Pene­lope had seen a glimpse of Ewan’s de­vout piety. In due course, it is re­vealed to be a manic kind of zealotry. More than merely a be­lief sys­tem, Ewan uses his re­li­gion as a trap for his wife and an es­cape for him­self. Pene­lope’s story continues un­der Lit­tle’s prac­ticed hand. Lit­tle’s 2001 de­but novel, Strong Hol­low, and her 2006 fol­lowup, Scotch River, are also both set in the Mar­itimes. But they were just warm-up acts for this thought­ful de­pic­tion of one woman’s heartaches and hard­ships as she works to make a home for her fam­ily, and then to as­sume in­creas­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for the mill — the fam­ily’s liveli­hood — when Ewan dis­ap­pears with greater and greater fre­quency. Pene­lope’s daugh­ter is no luck­ier in love; she too finds her­self mar­ried to a man given to tem­per tantrums and with a shock­ing mean streak. In fact, the lone woman who has a happy, healthy re­la­tion­ship with a man is Pene­lope’s only friend Abby, whose farm is sit­u­ated on a rocky and in­hos­pitable strip of land. She and her kind hus­band soon up­root their large fam­ily and head west to take their chances at a new life, in boom­ing Win­nipeg. Pene­lope is an old woman when her story of en­durance comes to a close. Her hap­pi­est years were those dur­ing the Great War, when most of the men are off fight­ing and she is tak­ing care of her home and chil­dren. She de­scribes a vivid, com­fort­ing place of warmth and do­mes­tic­ity, with Lit­tle’s se­lec­tive lan­guage aug­ment­ing the scene: “Ours was a house for women and chil­dren. There was a scat­tered airi­ness to it.” When her story fi­nally ends, with whis­pered words in her grand­daugh­ter’s ear, she looks back on those happy years and can’t re­mem­ber a flaw. “It must have rained and snowed and there must have been days of bit­ter wind and bit­ing cold. There must have been lessons for­got­ten and bat­tles of will and boot­laces un­tied but I re­mem­ber it all as a sin­gle golden day.” It’s the same feel­ing af­ter turn­ing the fi­nal page of Grist: surely there must have been flaws or mo­ments of weak­ness or te­dium. If there were, they are eas­ily for­got­ten in favour of the mem­ory of mas­ter­ful and en­gross­ing sto­ry­telling.

Jennifer Ryan is a Win­nipeg writer.

Grist

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