A three-generation family chronicle by a first-time writer inspired by her grandmother’s diary and published by a small press operated by college students might not entice the average reader, but it works out surprisingly well.
Charley Beck, a young technician at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, falls in love with Emma, a post office clerk, daughter of a drunken ex–Civil War doctor. At 37 and well into spinsterhood, she cannot believe her luck, but Charley is the real thing. This being 1893, they marry after a long courtship and combine their savings to build a house. Their only child, Lillie, beautiful and brilliant but no feminist, grows up to marry Ferd, also a Bureau employee. He moves in; Lillie bears nine children and never doubts her good fortune until she dies of pneumonia in 1933. The author creates believable characters whose lives contain plenty of passion and tragedy, but, despite a Washington, D.C., setting, great events pass with barely a mention. Yet history itself is the novel’s best feature. The author has done her homework, infusing her work with convincing details of 19th- and early-20th-century city life, courtship, work, domestic routine (brutal for a woman), education, and medicine. Life was hard even for the middle class; fortunately they didn’t realize it. Readers will easily follow as the author jumps back and forth between generations, but they may drift off during long excerpts from diaries and letters. Whether fiction or not, they read like the real thing: verbose, repetitious, and mostly preoccupied with trivia.
Despite a lack of editorial gumption, this student-run publishing house has turned out a good book.