Monday, January 16, 2006

The Sweetheart Season (Karen Joy Fowler)

In The Sweetheart Season, Fowler brings alive a small town in upper Minnesota (in the middle of nowhere) right after World War II , a town full of young women--all the men gone from the war. These young women work in the town's mill, the main source of livelihood in the town, whose public persona is the fictional (yet very real to the mill's owner) character Maggie Collins, a sort of Betty Crocker. Besides being a whiz in the kitchen, Maggie was a popular magazine columnist where people wrote her such letters as "Dear Maggie, No one in my family will eat the end pieces of a loaf of bread. I have always eaten them myself, because I believe waste is wicked, particularly when so many in Europe are going without, but I don't really like them either and eating them makes me feel put upon. Any suggestions?"

The Jane Austen Book Club is sparse in many ways compared with The Sweetheart Season. This book is full of many characters, lots of tangents that weave their way slowly back to the main action some times, and full of lots of description. This book ebbs and flows in its action but is always entertaining and quite funny in places. There's the mill owner's wife who adopts Ghandi's teaching (during an American era where they're not sure what to do with a green salad or when to serve it during the meal and all the vegetables have meat in them), the mill owner himself who is searching for an ape who can bowl (yes, bowl, as in bowling), and Maggie Collins' recipes for keeping wallpaper clean (use a slice of bread) and polishing copper pots (ketchup, of course).

It's probably not a big surprise that I enjoyed this book: the girls work in the Scientific Kitchen at the mill where they test recipes all day and they also form a baseball team that travels around to surrounding towns. To end, here's a small excerpt from the beginning of the book. This sentence caught my attention and I knew I was in for a great read:

"He was not a local; he couldn't know that in 1882 Miss Opal May had thrown herself over the falls on the day of her own wedding, all dressed in white, and that her veil had been found more than five miles downstream with two fish netted inside it, and that Jeb Tarken had eaten one of the fish and from that day forward suffered from nightmares of suffocation that startled him awake, making him ditch the blankets and gasp for air."

Next book up: Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz

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