A single tragic event shapes four generations of American women in this accomplished and poignant debut.
It is 1927 and since their mother’s death, Mabel and Bertie rely on each other in the face of their stepfather’s abuse. Young Bertie tries to avoid his drunken rage, but Mabel maintains the peace for the price of her soul—Jim calls her little wife, rapes her regularly and, for her 16th birthday, takes her to the city to pose for pornography. When Mabel notices Jim’s eye wander to Bertie, she knows she must act. With the help of Bertie’s sweetheart Wallace, he and Mabel concoct a scheme to release the sisters from their stepfather’s tyranny. After her graduation ceremony, Bertie comes home to find Jim Butcher hung and a note implying that Mabel and Wallace have run away together. Bertie, however, never got the letter intended for her, or the enclosed train ticket to take her to her sister and beau. Crushed by the perceived betrayal, Bertie leaves town and marries Hans, finding security if not love. They make it through the Depression and have Alma and then Rainey, but nothing can ease Bertie’s hardness, and the letters Mabel sends go unopened. Mabel ends up in Chicago, becoming a photographer, and adopts a little girl named Daisy (actually she steals her away), whose father is molesting her. Mabel never gives up hope of finding her beloved sister, and this perhaps saves her and Daisy from the kind of aching unhappiness that infects Bertie and her daughters. Alma marries a wealthy, unkind doctor and has a son who grows up to be just like dad, while devoting her life to becoming the perfect hostess. Rainey has the bad luck of getting pregnant by Carl, a closeted homosexual. Her daughters Lynn (who never gets over being separated from her father) and Grace, who crafts body armor after her Vietnam vet husband dies, continues the legacy of discord born of an undelivered letter.
Encompassing the lives of women in the 20th century, this sprawling saga is tender and satisfying, with a heartbreaking end.