Monday, June 15, 2020

An Elegant Woman by Martha McPhee, a century-spanning saga of American women's history and family legacies

A richly animated work, McPhee’s enthralling new novel glides through American history, from early 20th-century Billings, Montana, to a Prohibition-era Adirondacks lakeside retreat and beyond, alongside fabulous characters.

Sorting through the family home in present-day New Jersey, Isadora, a novelist, tells her late Grammy’s story as she would have wished, mingling realistic happenings with embellished ancestral lore. As a stocky child standing with her pretty younger sister, Katherine, on an Ohio train platform in 1910, awaiting their long journey to Montana with their mother, Thelma “Tommy” Stewart seems unlikely to develop into an elegant East Coast matriarch, but circumstances drive her to become a mistress of self-invention.

This quality she picks up from her mother, the fascinating Glenna (“cultivation and wilderness combined in her”), who takes charge of her own life, even depositing her daughters with kindly neighbors while away teaching in a tiny Western town. Later, Tommy raises Katherine alone; while her sister attends school, Tommy earns money by begging and selling coyote pelts. Both make choices that shift their paths in surprising ways.

The frequent mentions of hereditary artifacts feel overdone at times. Overall, however, McPhee elevates the generational saga into a dazzling, artfully detailed presentation of self-determination, women’s responsibilities and freedoms, and how people craft family legacies.

An Elegant Woman is published by Scribner this month; I'd reviewed it for Booklist's annual historical fiction issue, which came out on May 15th.

Other notes:
This novel one of my favorites of 2020 so far. I especially loved the portraits of the girls' daily lives out West in the early 20th century, in railroad towns and out-of-the-way homesteads while Glenna was off being an itinerant schoolteacher (a job for which she had to be a single woman) and advocate for women's suffrage. This was an angle on Western history I'd rarely seen in fiction, and not from a female perspective.  I hadn't initially realized, either, that McPhee based the novel so closely on her own ancestors' experiences and stories.

Booklist is currently available for free online due to the pandemic, and you can read the full May 15th issue here, for additional reviews and essays on historical novels (as well as the magazine's regular coverage across the genres).

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