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Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken

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Elizabeth McCracken may not write a lot, but, to paraphrase Mike Conovan from the Hepburn/Tracy movie Pat and Mike, “what’s there is cherce.” Her fresh, new novel, Bowlaway, is a humorous, tender, and quirky look at family, and the ties that bind them not only in blood, but in geography as well. In this case, it’s not the old family manse (though there is one of those) that becomes the focal point of the family, but the candlestick bowling alley built by the matriarch of this loosely-joined clan, Bertha Truitt.

 

In true oddball fashion, the novel begins with the discovery of Bertha Truitt “in the Salford Cemetery, but aboveground and alive.” How she got to the cemetery in a small town in Massachusetts no one knows and she can’t answer, and there are no footprints in the frost leading to where she lies. Of the two men who find her and come to her aid, one is a doctor originally from Canada, Leviticus Sprague, who eventually marries her, and the other, Joe Wear, a boy in his late teens who also shares Bertha’s love for bowling.

 

Spanning as it does the beginning to the end of the last century, the upheavals in the larger society are played out in microcosm in Salford and in the bowling alley. Bertha is an independent and brash woman, immune to the catcalls of the boys in town who see her riding her bicycle in her split skirt or laughing uproariously (and, thus, in unladylike fashion) at the newspaper comics. Her prodigious bosom (of which much is made of in the novel) seems to be more defensive armor than motherly appurtenances. In her own particular blow for equality, she refuses to put up a cloth barrier between female and male bowlers, insisting that it was wrong for her “to protect somebody else’s modesty.”

 

Though Bertha is a presence throughout the novel, her actual story ends abruptly near the beginning, and it is the offshoots of her life that carry the story. As McCracken writes near the end of the novel: “People look into genealogy to find ancestors, but ancestors beget descendants in all directions, until the little boat of your family is swamped with cousins of every degree and removal. It’s possible that one or two will be interesting but mostly the study of genealogy will make you believe that being one of your people is common as dirt.” In truth, Bertha’s one child with Dr. Sprague, Minna, does seem to have what most of us would consider the ideal life. After Bertha’s death, Minna is sent to Canada to live with her father’s people, and she becomes a jazz drummer who appears in several Hollywood movies made during World War II. While Minna drops in from time to time, deus ex machina-like, it is those “common as dirt” people from Salford who are the real subjects of this story. Bertha’s erstwhile husband, Nahum, appears after her death, claiming to be her son and so the rightful heir to her bowling alley. He marries Minna’s nanny, and their two sons think they are half-brothers to Minna… and the ripples continue moving out from that fateful day when Bertha was found in the cemetery.

 

By pure serendipity, I read Bowlaway immediately after reading Min Jin Lee’s award winning novel Pachinko, and I found the parallels between the two novels interesting. Set in roughly the same time period, Lee’s and McCracken’s exploration of love and family have those same Dickensian tropes of secret parentages or family ties, orphans, and disrupted inheritances. But where Lee’s novel is weighted down by an Asian culture that puts high prices on honor and the dire consequences that shame will bring to a family, McCracken’s novel, in true American fashion, eschews shame for a hardy and humorous independence and is feather-light by comparison.

Bowlaway: A Novel Cover Image
$27.99
ISBN: 9780062862853
Availability: Available to ship now
Published: Ecco - February 5th, 2019