Even sensible girls can be taken in by unexpected attention. Linda Little’s resilient heroine, a schoolteacher in rural Nova Scotia in 1875, discovers this to her regret when her landlord’s taciturn, socially awkward brother begins paying court to her. Describing herself up front as a “large, square-jawed girl – graceless but strong,” Penelope McCabe has a warm, honest voice that endears readers to her. How she deals with a situation that becomes progressively more unhappy gains her both sympathy and admiration.
Ewan MacLaughlin’s letters to Penelope are hardly the wooing sort – full of practicalities and odd questions, they’re the opposite of romantic. It’s apparent from the outset that something’s off with him. Maybe he’s just shy? Penelope is curious about his quirky approach, but part of her is pleased regardless. Understandably, she longs for marriage and a family, just like any other hopeful young woman of her time would.
Ewan owns and runs a mill “way up the Gunn Brook,” so he has the means to provide for a wife. After he and Penelope wed, they board his wagon and ride three hours from town to Ewan’s newly constructed home, which she delights in exploring. Her optimism turns to puzzlement, though, once she gets a better grasp of Ewan’s true nature.
Ill-mannered and controlling, his personality grounded in a warped form of piety, Ewan makes it clear he hates conversation and resents her socializing with anyone. Mills are Ewan’s life, and he’s so talented at building and improving them that his skills are in high demand from all over the province. Forced against her will to run their mill alone, Penelope finds her happiness where she can: in the stark beauty of the landscape, which is beautifully evoked; in her friendship with neighboring farmers; and in unanticipated stolen moments. Ewan takes his revenge for her perceived weaknesses, and it’s left to Penelope to protect her family from its effects.
Over the course of this multi-generational story, several chapters draw readers into Ewan’s viewpoint – told in the more distant third person, as feels appropriate – and allow insight into his mindset and why the straight, predictable art of engineering served as a peaceful escape from his rough childhood. Given how he treats Penelope, these sections can be a hard sell in eliciting significant empathy for Ewan, but they succeed in providing background for why he acts as he does. Elegantly written, with lovely descriptions of mill work and the transient joys Penelope finds in family life, Grist is a bleak and bittersweet ode to historical women’s strength and endurance.
Grist was published in 2014 (trade pb, $20.95, 234pp) by Roseway, the literary imprint of Nova Scotia-based Fernwood Publishing, which “aims to publish literary work that is rooted in and relevant to struggles for social justice.” Thanks to the author and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for the review copy.
— Reading the Past