Grey promise in life of socialism
MOTHERLAND Jo McMillan, R347
John Murray TAMWORTH is the kind of town that one would really rather sleep through on a train trip.
It has little to recommend it by way of beauty or charming local stores. It’s more like a town that just exists. The locals go down to the pub, they shop at the shopping centre and the general feeling that Jo McMillan paints of most of them is that they are rather like a flock of sheep bumbling along.
It certainly is not the kind of town where you would expect a raving socialist to live with her 13-year-old daughter Jess, but this is precisely where Eleanor finds herself.
A single mother, committed to her cause, standing once a week outside the butchery shop in the local co-op trying to sell copies of the Morning Star.
They don’t sell many, in fact they put up with a fair bit of insult from some of the locals. But the thing about Eleanor is that she just won’t give up. Not on the expectation of the promise of socialism, not on the promise of happiness.
She may not have much, but what she has makes her happy.
Jess has been slotted into being a sort of double for Eleanor, she goes to the local grammar school, but her extracurricular socialist activities don’t make her especially popular with the headmistress. But the Mitchells have been communists forever.
Motherland is several types of books in one. On the one level it is a book about the relationship between a mother with a cause and her daughter. On the other it is a coming-ofage book about Jess growing up. Then – frightening for some of us as this may seem – it’s a history book set in 1978.
East Germany still exists as a socialist state. The Berlin Wall still stands. For Eleanor it’s the Promised Land, the place where actual socialism works.
So when she is approached by an old party friend James to go to the country as an English tutor for the summer holidays Eleanor jumps at the chance.
Her enthusiasm for life draws her headfirst into throwing caution to the wind and embarking with Jess on the summer of a lifetime.
McMillan’s portrayal of the East Germany, which we all now know was a pretty grey and dismal place, manages to capture both the grim reality of it and overlay it as a place of wonderful achievement as seen through the eyes of Eleanor.
Jess is drawn along through the plot and is happy to see her mother expanding her horizons and being rewarded for her commitment.
But there is the complication of Peter and his daughter Martina who is expected to arrive, but clearly is something of a wild card in the whole “we love socialism game”.
And here again the author pits two things against each other, Jess with her inborn belief in socialism and Martina who obliquely seems to be rejecting it. But we don’t get to find out who rejects what until the end of the novel.
The summer trips to East Germany become a regular feature of Eleanor and Jess’s lives. They begin to develop relationships in the country and the author draws a poignant love story out of this story of political expectations and growing up.
But, as history tells us change comes and with change come shifts in relationships.
In some of the most sensitively written parts of this book the reader is exposed to what happens when a single mother and her daughter start to push against each other.
Yet the beauty of Motherland is that there are not great big screaming dramatic moments. Rather the reader is lead through life in Tamworth and life in East Germany, and Jess growing up and her mother growing in stature.
From the historical side McMillan paints a picture of a time of great political change by focusing on the greyness of a small town, and the grey drabness of East German summer schools.
Yes, there is drama but it is not the big political dramas that the author uses to make her point about change and growth, but rather small everyday moments that history is knitted together.
Motherland is a book that everyone who is interested in the end of the Cold War, in the effect it had on ordinary people in boring towns and dreary places had.
Eleanor will find romance even in betrayal because she has been raised to accept that working for the cause is what her life is about.
She will make her lists and her plans, and she will remain oblivious to betrayals because she is a good person, or as the right wing would have had it in those days a “useful idiot”. Except of course she isn’t an idiot but a person of principle who will stick to her work no matter what.
For Jess, the world will be a different place, but forever marked by her teen years.
It’s a well-structured and written novel with an elegance of the ordinary that makes it stand head and shoulders above most debut works.