This third installment of a series uses a collection of short stories to expand the character of Catherine O’Shaughnessy, the fictional stand-in for the author’s mother.
The O’Shaughnessy Chronicles, the final volume of which is expected later this year, is a hybrid—family history harvested from Thorpe’s (Bittersweet Harvest, 2013, etc.) mother’s memoir amplified through fiction. The narratives are set in Iowa County in the southwest corner of Wisconsin, where Catherine and her two older sisters, Ruby and Sharon, are being raised on the family farm. Beginning with an adventure at a local carnival, during which young Catherine becomes separated from her siblings and is almost assaulted by a worker, the stories move through the post–World War I years in a series of vignettes that track the protagonist’s development from a child to a young grade-school teacher. Troublemaker Ruby is Catherine’s heroine, and the episodes in the first section of the book, “Ties That Bind,” recount the scrapes and misadventures in which the two girls find themselves. The second section, “Unfettered and Free,” sees the arrival from Texas of cousin Gusta, who has been sent to stay with the family for a year. Her antics add a bit of the wild side to the girls’ sheltered lives. Finally, in “Fraying the Ties,” Catherine, approaching her 20s, falls in love with Jonathon Hays, principal of the town’s high school. Two voices lead readers through the volume; the lengthy introduction and the prefaces to each of the stories are narrated by the author. The tales themselves are narrated by Catherine. Thorpe’s explanations for why each story is included and how it was changed from the memoir are unnecessary and become tedious—something that could have been included in endnotes without interrupting the flow of the fiction. But the individual vignettes themselves are engaging. They create a fully developed portrait of Catherine as well as vivid images of each piece’s time and place. Polished prose balances the squabbles, Depression-era poverty, and some painful losses with nostalgic innocence and humor.
Tender tales that offer strong female protagonists and a peek at early-20th-century Americana.