Friday, November 15, 2013

Thanksgiving by Ellen Cooney, a bountiful feast of historical holiday sketches

Ellen Cooney's new e-book release centers on the members of a single family, how they relate to one another and the world around them, and the changing modes of daily life in Dedham, Massachusetts, over a period of 350 years. Each chapter focuses on one woman or girl, bringing readers into her thoughts at a particular moment in late November as she helps prepare part of the Thanksgiving meal at the family home.  Its slices-of-history structure is Micheneresque in a way, although Thanksgiving is more domestically oriented and saga-like. 

Named after a holiday, and with chapter titles reflecting different years and the ingredients that make up a traditional New England Thanksgiving "1801: Cranberries," for example it could have come off feeling formulaic and gimmicky.  It isn't at all.

In the second segment, set in 1673, young Hester Morley would much rather be spending time drawing or watching her father whittling than picking seeds out from pumpkins before they're dried, cooked, or sold.  Over three centuries later, in 2012, another young Hester, visiting from Boston with her techie parents, thinks about her favorite movies, her iPod, and her diverse group of relatives while looking out at the kitchen window at her ancestors' graves.

In between, many other Morley women grow up, fall in love, marry, and mature into the matriarchal role that awaits them. The novel is full of memorable moments, and some funny ones, too.  For example, Lydia Morley hates that her husband has bought a box of new dinner plates from Worcester, England, at the height of revolutionary fervor in 1778.  Her curious and hungry children, being children, don't care.

Nothing has ever displaced supper before.

"Horrible battles were happening while that thing," says Lydia, pointing to the box, "was sitting in Boston.  Do you understand where it came from?  It came from the same people who killed Americans."

"Bunker Hill!" cries little Ira, clapping his plump hands together.  He's thrilled about standing on a chair in this extraordinary situation.  Then he nearly topples over when he screams at the top of his lungs, "CAN WE LOOK IN THE BOX NOW CAN WE CAN WE CAN WE?" 

The viewpoint characters in one chapter may become secondary characters in the next, and after they're gone they turn into memories which their descendants recall fondly.  This creates an image of the Morleys over time as a solidly woven, unbroken braid.  Cooney ensures that the Morley name continues over the ages even though some lines of descent pass through daughters rather than sons, and she presents these scenarios in ways that reflect the social concerns of each era.

Sparely told and replete with sensitive descriptions of relationships, including grandmotherly affection and the occasional awkwardness between mothers and daughters-in-law, the novel shows how family stories like the shooting of the original Morley turkey and the discovery of one woman's lost spectacles transform over decades, and centuries.  Each woman has only a short amount of time on the page (or e-reader screen, in this case), which may leave readers wanting more, but the character sketches are deft, with illustrative details packed into every sentence.

If you enjoy literary historical fiction, consider adding Thanksgiving to your e-bookstore shopping basket and curling up with it as the end-of-year holidays approach.  A caution against reading it when you're hungry, or you may find yourself heading to the store in search of pumpkin pie and warm, yeasty bread.

It can just as easily be read at other times of year, though, as its themes and images are universal.  "Tell me a story, he'd say, as if the past weren't the past, but something to enter the little space around them, as real as an object he could hold in his hands," reminisces Eliza Morley in 1726 about her son Caleb, now an adolescent who's grown apart from her... or so she thinks.  In Thanksgiving, these personal stories derived from history become as tangible and fresh as those of today.

Ellen Cooney's Thanksgiving was published in September by Publerati as an ebook in various formats ($4.99; see options at Publerati's website).  Thanks to the publisher for granting me access via NetGalley.


  1. Terrific review of a terrific novel. Well done!

  2. Thanks, Caleb, pleased you liked the review!