Cartoonist Marlette’s likable though uneven debut chronicles the Depression-era struggles of Southern mill workers and their long-lasting effects on one family.
Pick Cantrell, a successful political cartoonist in New York, loses his job after he beats up his publisher during an argument. At wife Cameron’s insistence, they move with their young son to an old manor house in Eno, North Carolina, close to his hometown. This represents more than professional failure for Pick; it’s a forced re-entry into memories he had successfully buried. His childhood was dominated by two women: his fragile mother, in and out of mental institutions; and his fierce grandmother, Mama Lucy, matriarch of the large clan and just downright mean. Pick’s mother died when he was still a teen, but 90-year-old Mama Lucy is still going strong, ruling with an iron fist and a mouth full of chewing tobacco. As Cameron goes to work, the now unemployable Pick stays home to remodel their house. Unfortunately, he is also now available for Mama Lucy’s chore roster. When he hears that she was once bayoneted by the National Guard during a strike at the local textile mill, his interest is piqued, and his trips to mow her lawn are now peppered with the stories of Mama Lucy’s odyssey from an impoverished girlhood to union activism. Despite a few choppy segues, the flashbacks soon take on a life of their own, depicting in vibrant detail both the difficulties and simple pleasures of rural factory life until production demand turned ordinary people into martyrs for the cause of workers’ rights. Though the flow between the two timelines is not always graceful, and the final conflict involving an escaped convict is a bit ridiculous, the author nevertheless creates a large enough cast of wily characters to keep the fiction involving and the history fascinating.
Flawed, but still a readable exploration of Southern life, past and present.