In South Carolina in the 1920s, three memorable women struggle with challenging family relationships amid the depths of the Depression in this impressive first novel.
Spera’s debut weaves together the stories of Annie Coles, matriarch of a white, plantation-owning family; Oretta Bootles, Annie’s black housekeeper; and Gertrude Pardee, a young white woman who has fled a brutally abusive husband and their isolated, ramshackle home. The trio comes together in the small town of Branchville; one thing they have in common is fraught relationships with their daughters. Annie has been estranged for 15 years from her two adult daughters, for reasons only slowly revealed. Retta still grieves for her only child, a beloved girl who died at age 8. Gertrude is trying simply to keep her four young girls alive, given their grinding poverty, and away from their father and, in the case of the older daughters, from lusty boys. The first-person narration alternates among the three main characters, and Spera deftly creates distinctive voices for each one. The novel is rich with details about the hard physical work and emotional resilience demanded of women in the rural South almost a hundred years ago. It also makes no bones about marriage in that time. As Retta says, “When a woman marries and takes her husband’s name she is forever bound by his action and not her own. It ain’t right, but that’s the way it is.” Retta has a warm and loving marriage despite the fact her husband was badly injured in a work accident. Gertrude and Annie are not so lucky; each of them must reckon with husbands capable of terrible things. The novel’s plot can sometimes veer toward melodrama and even overload, as when a raging diphtheria epidemic, the revelation of a criminal secret, and a hurricane all happen at once. But Spera’s sure-footed depictions of women’s friendships and mother-daughter relationships are the book’s strengths.
A story of strong women pushed to extremes succeeds with convincing characters and a vivid portrait of the rural South a century ago.