Catherine Cookson's own life has fascinated readers nearly as much as her novels do. She grew up in poverty in Jarrow, an industrial mining town in the North-East of England, the illegitimate child of an alcoholic mother. In fact, because illegitimacy was so frowned upon in her overwhelmingly Catholic neighborhood in Tyneside, Cookson's grandmother raised her, and until she was a teenager she believed her mother, Kate Fawcett, was her older sister. Through determination, hard work, and education, she overcame her deprived background to become one of the most prolific and successful British novelists of the 20th century. By popular demand, Cookson wrote her autobiography, Our Kate, in 1969, and like her other works it became a bestseller.
In many ways, Cookson's journey fits the pattern of one of the regional sagas she is so famous for. Janet MacLeod Trotter, a saga writer from Newcastle, has successfully taken up the challenge to turn Cookson's own story into a biographical novel. It's an absorbing, smoothly written work that will leave you with admiration of how Catherine overcame a life of intense hardship to achieve her dreams.
Return to Jarrow begins in 1923, as 17-year-old Catherine "Kitty" McMullan despairs at her mother Kate's plan to marry an alcoholic sailor simply out of desire for respectability. Over the next decade and more, as she struggles to better herself, Kitty survives a number of demeaning jobs, taunts from other girls about her shameful birth, romances with the wrong men, her mother's incessant drinking, and a horrible rare blood disease, though never gives up hope that one day she'll leave the streets of Jarrow behind. Through her aunt, she discovers the identity of her birth father and takes pride in knowing he was a wealthy aristocrat. Readers of Cookson's autobiography will be familiar with this material, though Trotter also includes details that were deliberately left out, such as how the jealousy of a dangerously overprotective Irishwoman, a former close friend of hers, nearly prevented her marriage with schoolteacher Tom Cookson. And in true saga fashion, the novel ends on an optimistic note.
Return to Jarrow is third in a trilogy. The first two volumes, The Jarrow Lass and A Child of Jarrow, cover the lives of Cookson's grandmother and mother. Each can stand alone, and all are well worth reading for their eye-opening look at real working-class women's struggles in industrial England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I've read several of Trotter's regional sagas and thorougly enjoyed them all. Her stories are compelling and heartwarming page turners, and despite the harrowing circumstances she depicts, she doesn't overdramatize. The settings feel wholly authentic, and her characters are vivid and real, with speech patterns that reflect their origins. This is a must-read for Cookson fans as well as anyone interested a well-told and compulsively readable story.
Return to Jarrow was published in 2004 by Headline at £6.99 (502pp, paperback, 0-7553-0849-2).