Parenting can be tough at times, as most parents will admit. In Linda Little’s new historical fiction, Grist, the Nova Scotia author brings to life Penelope MacLaughlin, a school teacher and miller who personifies parental fortitude.
Set mostly in a lonely mill in rural Nova Scotia before and during the First World War, the novel tells the story of Penelope’s life with a difficult man, Ewan MacLaughlin, an eccentric and uncommunicative miller.
Penelope marries Ewan and, over the years, suffers loss and loneliness and the erosion of her sense of self, but her strength of character leads her to focus on saving her grandchildren from their disturbed father, Ewan’s son Laughlin. Penelope strives to prepare her grandsons for an independent existence out west, while her granddaughter receives the gift of the family story.
Little’s previous two novels, Scotch River and Strong Hollow, have been praised for their portrayals of rural Maritime life. Grist is no less powerful, being beautifully and evocatively written and steeped in period details.
The word grist refers to grain that is ground to make flour. Here, it also suggests the gritty character of Penelope, a woman who exemplifies ordinary virtues and values.
Contacted at her River John home, the author told The Chronicle Herald that she was drawn to write Grist because of the role gender used to play in society. It occurred to her that if a woman had ever managed or worked in a mill, that fact may have been covered up as shameful.
“Except in very particular circumstances, records would show ownership in the name of the man. Tell me a story of a female miller that would not show up in any surviving documents, I asked myself. This is the story.”
As a trained historian who has worked at the Balmoral Grist Mill near Tatamagouche, Little was well placed to write this book. She also researched archival material left by Pictou County miller James Barry as well as various other sources.
The plot revolves around the character of Ewan, who, Little said, is probably somewhere on the autism spectrum.
“But to neighbour folks he is just ‘odd’ and they learn to work around him and integrate the talents he has to offer,” she said. “Notice how Nettle (a female character) is also ‘odd’ but there was much less room for women to carve a place in society if they did not fit in. Because Ewan is male, he has much more power to define his life and the lives of his family members. His world view and his schemes are not reined in by anything.”
All the characters are much affected by their environments. Ewan’s son, Laughlin, is spoiled and undisciplined when he arrives at the mill, and he is later damaged by the war. The grandsons, on the other hand, grow up surrounded by love and they learn to work co-operatively in a society that valued work, despite being thrust into the world at very young ages.
Grist is a moving and melancholy read that will probably speak most eloquently to parents striving to push their own children into the future.
— Halifax Chronicle Herald, June 27, 2014