Linda Little’s latest novel, Grist, is a gorgeously written tale set in rural Nova Scotia in the late 19th century. The story focuses on the life of Penelope MacLauglin, a one-time school teacher who seems destined to remain unmarried until she meets Ewan, a miller. While Ewan is short on words, he nevertheless manages to successfully woo Penelope and convince her to become his wife. While Penelope is optimistic that she’ll provide Ewan with a happy home full of children, she soon learns that her husband is not the man she thought he was. Ever hopeful, Penelope constantly struggles to connect with her husband and be the wife he expects her to be. Ewan, however, shows little interest in his wife, and as the years pass Penelope is increasingly left alone to run both the mill and the household as Ewan heads out of town to conduct business. Penelope’s life is not an easy or a happy one, but she is able to find solace in her grandchildren, especially the granddaughter for whom this tale has been written.
It is evident from the very first page of Grist that Linda Little has a beautiful way with words. Her descriptions of everyday life, as well as of the thoughts and feelings of her characters, make the reader feel as if they are an active part of the story rather than just observing events through the pages of a book. Readers can sense Penelope’s isolation and loneliness, and experience her loss of hope and rising sorrow as the events of her life turn increasingly tragic. The reader can’t help but feel sorry for Penelope, and yearn for her to experience the happiness that she desperately seeks yet that continually eludes her. Although the story is told primarily from Penelope’s perspective, a few chapters are told from Ewan’s point of view. While these chapters initially had me feeling some sympathy for Ewan, it wasn’t long before his actions turned me against him completely.
The narrative of Grist moves along at a slow but steady pace. This pace helps to evoke a strong sense of time and place. While daily life in 19th century rural communities could be slow, it was also characterized by regular routine. Little effectively illustrates these routines, giving the reader an appreciation for what daily life must have been like for a woman such as Penelope. The MacLauglin’s mill is a important element of Grist, and it is clear that Little undertook a good deal of research in order to convey to the reader some of the finer points of building and running a mill.
Recommended to fans of literary historical fiction, novels that feature unique heroines, and/or readers interested in rural life in the 19th century.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
— Confessions of an Avid Reader