HOUSE WORK by Kristina McGrath


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The quiet dignity of hard work and honest values dapples McGrath's poetic first novel with flecks of brilliance. Post--WW II bride Anna makes a tidy nest for beloved husband Guy, a would-have-been Navy man who works at Pittsburgh's Radiant Oven Company, and their three children. Guy's volatile temper and lapses in mental stability, which she'd borne with the wifely stoicism requisite of the time, finally overwhelm Anna. She moves the children out of his house and rebuilds her fractured nest, one twig at a time, alone. Against the backdrop of 1950s Pittsburgh, lyrically painted in vibrant grays and yellows, she maintains her sanity and the tenuous family finances by housework. At first the children have merely a rudimentary understanding of their unusual circumstances; they only see the benefits their iron-willed, German-bred mother's hard work has wrought. As they grow, they realize how potentially humiliating her position is, taking in neighbors' ironing and working in Lamps & China at Lehmann's Department Store without complaint while other wives and mothers tend to their houses and husbands. But Anna is no martyr, and she proves it to her children, neighbors, and readers by turning shame to pride, drudgery to redemption, and housework to heroism. Beyond providing the necessities, she bakes the children a cake every other week, teaches them about God, shows them the shore of Lake Erie and the blue sky, and gives them a legacy of joy. McGrath, winner of a 1993 Kenyon Review Award, tells her story by combining first-person narratives (most notably those of Anna and her youngest daughter, Louise) with spare, lucid depictions of Pittsburgh, Anna's soul, and the work that liberates and defines her. If we are the sum of our actions, then Anna's work and McGrath's insights into it must add up to respect and success. A domestic drama in the noblest, most wistful sense.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1994
Page count: 208pp
Publisher: Bridge Works -- dist. by National Book Network