In a world where everything has changed, I find myself launching my fifth novel. The challenges and hardships that this pandemic has brought for so many people seem beyond measure, yet even so the world continues to turn.
Yesterday I found maggots devouring my cranberry bean seedlings. They weren’t thriving so I peeked beneath the dirt. The beautiful red bean was covered in squirming white thready maggots. I had planted about twenty, all of them perforated and infested. It took hours to correct the problem. I had to dig out each bean and put it in a doubled plastic garbage bag and then excavate around the plantings to be sure I caught as many strays as possible and then carefully dispose of the contaminated dirt. (I learned all of this from the internet. Google is my brain.) The other plants had to be checked, all the onions, the kale, spinach, lettuce, other beans. The remaining dirt in the cranberry bean patch had to be treated with an organic potion to kill any maggots I may have missed. I spent the rest of the day taking my frustration out on the chrysanthemum weeds with their nasty, sprawling roots which lurk beneath the garden, an intricate subterranean system. Their Latin name is Artemisia Vulgaris, also known as mugwort which actually has some herbal healing powers. In the wet spring dirt, well armed with a Japanese sickle (oh my word, this is my favorite gardening tool), it is easy to get them if you’re deliberate and patient. Pulling out the rhizomes, long and slithering and hairy with new tentacles, is extremely gratifying. I went to bed exhausted, but was woken around midnight by an almost full moon and heart-stopping howling of coy wolves, what seemed to be an enormous and very loud pack of the wolf/coyote hybrid that has been populating NJ recently. Our very excited and vocal dogs, kept them at a distance. Unable to sleep, I googled mugwort roots to learn that even a small piece of rhizome will regrow and, like the maggots, you’ve got to put them in garbage bags and get rid of them which is, alas, not what I had done. Even so …
I’ve been inspired to write these Silver Linings by Jenny McPhee a long time ago, back in March when I left the city. She does it daily on her blog and uncovers the best artifacts from now. Recently, she posted what is my favorite of all her posts, a short story she wrote, haunting, mesmerizingly beautiful, published in The New York Review of Books Daily.
I come from a long line of women who worked as hard as they knew how to get themselves out of whatever misery they found themselves in. Grammy, my mother’s mother, was the keeper of these stories, narratives propelled by women. Nancy Cooper Slagle’s husband died in Libby Prison during the Civil War. She had just given birth to their seventh child. Poor and a Yankee in the Confederate South, she swaddled the baby to her chest and left Richmond, hiking with the children over the Alleghenies to the safety of her husband’s family in Ohio. Her son, Albert, eventually married a milliner from Cincinnati, Laura Ann Slagle, a little blip of a woman with a congenital hip defect. Her parents saw no marriage prospects for her, but her talents with feathers and beads, intricate hat designs saw her to a career and then to catching the eye of Albert.
Their daughter Glenna, my great grandmother, upon discovering her husband in bed with his lover, left Ohio for Montana in 1910 with her two daughters to create a new life of her own. Taking advantage of the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, understanding that the westward expansion would bring families and children and a need for teachers, she became an itinerant school teacher. It didn’t matter that she didn’t have a degree. She would leave her daughters alone for long stretches of time.
Grammy, the oldest of Glenna’s two girls, figured out how to raise herself and her sister. Impoverished, gunnysacks for shoes in those cold western winters, she learned to cook, take care of a home, do what needed to be done while making sure her sister went to school. Grammy didn’t go to high school, but that didn’t stop her. “If I don’t like something the way it is,” she would say, “I simply say it as I would like it to be.” She took her sister’s name and diploma, used it as her own to get herself into the nursing program at Brooklyn Hospital.
Grammy had a daughter Pryde, my mother, and when her marriage fell apart, four daughters under the age of ten, she didn’t know how to write a check. But she managed to figure out how to start her own business as a photographer in Princeton, NJ and for forty years she photographed weddings and portraits of families in the happiest moments of their lives, thereby providing for us, her daughters.
Mom’s basement is now filled with tens of thousands of negatives, proof of how hard she worked to get us from there to here. And here I am now, in her home, escaping the city during the pandemic, fretting and fearing for our world, my children, their futures, our futures as I learn to grow a garden and raise baby chicks. On the threshold of publishing a novel, inspired by Grammy and these formidable women, scheming and dreaming of ways to help the novel get into the world in these uncertain times, I feel the strength of these women behind me. They were not always lauded, often even vilified as can happen to strong, intrepid women—but they did what needed to be done. And I am one of them too.
“By hook or by crook,” my grandmother used to say—meaning that is how we go forward. When I was a girl and had gotten into some pretty serious trouble, Grammy drove down to New Jersey from her home in Maine, arriving in her black Lincoln Continental, that big boat of a car, to tell me that she loved me. “You can lie and cheat, you can kill even and I will always believe in you.” By hook or by crook, we will make it out of here.
By Martha McPhee June 2020. 416p. Scribner, $27 (9781501179570)
A richly animated work, McPhee’s enthralling new novel glides through American history, from early-twentieth-century Billings, Montana, to a Prohibition-era Adirondacks lakeside retreat and beyond, alongside fabulous characters. Sorting through the family home in present-day New Jersey, Isadora, a novelist, tells her late Grammy’s story as she would have wished, mingling realistic happenings with embellished ancestral lore. As a stocky child standing with her pretty younger sister, Katherine, on an Ohio train platform in 1910, awaiting their long journey to Montana with their mother, Thelma “Tommy” Stewart seems unlikely to develop into an elegant East Coast matriarch, but circumstances drive her to become a mistress of self-invention. This quality she picks up from her mother, the fascinating Glenna (“cultivation and wilderness combined in her”), who takes charge of her own life, even depositing her daughters with kindly neighbors while away teaching in a tiny Western town. Later, Tommy raises Katherine alone; while her sister attends school, Tommy earns money by begging and selling coyote pelts. Both make choices that shift their paths in surprising ways. The frequent mentions of hereditary artifacts feel overdone at times. Overall, however, McPhee elevates the generational saga into a dazzling, artfully detailed presentation of self-determination, women’s responsibilities and freedoms, and how people craft family legacies.
— Sarah Johnson
Help a friend, help a bookstore — pre-order An Elegant Woman today. All buying options HERE. Thank you.
On Last Morrow’s kitchen wall hung a family portrait that included that little girl, grown up and so old her faced looked like a dried-up apple. I was a little girl myself then, and it was impossible to imagine that I could ever be that old.
From my novel, An Elegant Woman, coming, June 2. Help a friend, help a bookstore — pre-order today. Buying options HERE. Thank you.
If Glenna were a constellation, you would see her in her white teacher’s smock, striding westward across the dew-wet grass of Montana, a rifle in one hand, Temple’s Notes to Shakespeare in the other. There wasn’t room in the sky for a husband with a wandering eye, but that was where stories came in, to fill out an evening, to ask about duplicity and betrayal, the steady march of self-compromise that led to whatever cul-de- sac of banality one found oneself in—and then to wonder about what a genuine hero would do about such things.
My novel, An Elegant Woman, coming, June 2. Help a friend, help a bookstore — pre-order today. Buying options HERE. Thank you.
She would pause in her stories, ask one of us girls to get her smelling salts. “I feel faint,” she would say. And from her vanity one of us would snatch the small silver container filled with ammonia so she’d keep telling her stories. With a sniff of it, she’d sit up straight again, the bulk of her with those green, green eyes, eyes that could hold a child, midbreath, between the future and the past. “I’m not long for this world,” she’d say, like a prophet. “You need to know from where you came and to whom you belong.”
That was the sound of history. This is the sound of history. Like the catalogue of ships in the Iliad, you are not expected to remember particular names, only the sound of the names rolling along as you listen to the poem. Every history is a song, and this is what ours sounds like.
My novel, An Elegant Woman, coming, June 2. Help a friend, help a bookstore — pre-order today. Buying options HERE.
My grandmother had snow-white hair that she wore like a crown. Her exacting eyes were a startling emerald. Her large, sturdy frame seemed a fitting home for her strong opinions. She dressed impeccably in tailored suits, wore motoring gloves, netted hats, diamonds from Tiffany’s. Her snakeskin pocketbook fastened with a golden clasp, and when opened, the cinnamon scent of Dentyne wafted from within. On the dashboard of her black Lincoln Continental was a golden nameplate that read: Mrs. Charles Mitchell Brown—another name in a long line of borrowed names. She was Tommy; she was Katherine; she was Mother; she was Mrs. Brown; she was Aunt Thelma; she was Grammy. She wanted to live forever, or at least outlive Nancy Cooper Slagle, her great-grandmother, who lived to be 104 years old.
Coming, June 2. Help a friend, help a bookstore — pre-order today. Buying options HERE.
Today, April 11th, is my grandmother’s birthday. She would be 116 years old. She wanted to live to be 105 because she was competitive and wished to out live her great grandmother, Nancy Cooper Slagle who lived to be 104 and was the oldest in our line. Grammy didn’t make it, died at 91 in the hot August of 1995. Nancy, Grammy would tell us, her granddaughters, was the cousin of the great James Fenimore Cooper. We believed that for a very long time. It was not the truth, but she didn’t care. “If I don’t like something the way it is, I simply say it as I would prefer it to be.” She learned that concept growing up poor in Montana.
I’ve returned to my childhood home to care for my mother during the Virus. I’m sleeping in Grammy’s room, as we like to call it, left pretty much as it was when she died. Her beaver coat hangs in the closet along with her long fuchsia “opera” coat and a floor-length wool cape that fastens with silver buckles. On the walls are portraits of our ancestors, Grammy’s mother, sister, cousins, myself and my sisters as girls, my mother as a bride. It’s a room of many generations of women. I’m inside our family history and it is both compelling and terrifying as I am not a huge fan of time. Looking at the image of me as young girl, a pastel portrait commissioned by my grandmother because important people did this sort of thing, it is easy to feel that I am already an ancestor.
But I am not yet an ancestor. I am alive and trying to learn new things–gardening, chicks. I’ve written a fifth novel, An Elegant Woman, arriving on June 2, which uses my grandmother’s life and the stories she told (and others that she didn’t) to explore what it means to make a life and then to pass it down. Here, on her birthday, I am awed that this room has been left untouched since 1995, some twenty-five years (Lordy) not because she might come back to it, of course, but because the opera coats and the beaver fur and all the pictures are still telling their stories.
If you want to know how she got out of an impoverished childhood in Montana and into a Lincoln Continental in New Jersey, you can pre-order An Elegant Woman today–and I would be very grateful. These days, it is easy to forget that I have a novel forthcoming, and then this magically appears:
“In these difficult times, we do need a big, involved, warm-hearted family saga. This is a great distraction and a wonderful story of a family’s changes throughout the twentieth century. Through good times and very tough ones, these characters are always engrossing and usually entertaining. A lovely and much needed diversion.”—Anne Whalen, Brown University Bookstore
The day before yesterday marked three weeks that I have been in New Jersey. I have planted snow peas, sugar snaps, kale, spinach, cranberry beans, onions, broccoli rabe, parsley, basil–both red and green. I failed with the spinach, planting it too deep and covering it too tightly so replaced it with lettuce. I killed three baby chicks by overheating them–an accident, of course. And I weeded a patch of a flower bed too enthusiastically with a new favorite tool (a Japanese weeding sickle) and removed some dormant flower bulbs, killing them too. But I am learning and I enjoy learning something new. When I’m not teaching, overseeing school at home, or caring for my mother, I spend the free time watching YouTube videos about gardening. The kale I planted is sprouting in its long beautiful row.
My many onions are pushing up their green stems.
I replaced the dead chicks with six more, though it took a good ten days to get them since there has been a run on the local chick supply.
They are Purebred Ameraucanas which will have muffs, beards and a pea comb, and lay beautiful blue eggs. I also have Cream Legbars which look like chipmunks, are active and curious and are good foragers. (In fact, just today the legbars fought over a stink bug in their little coop.) They too will lay beautiful blue eggs.