Daughter of Providence
The Overlook Press
Forthcoming summer 2011
Lessons I Learned from a Historical Novel:
A Review of Julie Drew’s debut novel Daughter of Providence
In Julie Drew’s debut novel, Daughter of Providence, only one thing is certain, and try as the reader might to forget it, there is no getting around it. A little girl is going to die. In the style of Richard Ford, we see what the ending will be, what lesson will be learned, but that really doesn’t matter. What matters is the journey and what it has to teach us.
Welcome to Milford, Rhode Island in 1934, a town still struggling from the economic crash of the twenties. Men are out of work. The town’s mill is boarded up and vacant. In the midst of all this, the mill owner’s daughter, Anne Dodge, awaits the arrival of her younger half-sister, Maria Cristina, whom she has never met, and while Anne comes to know and love the little Portuguese girl that received all the love that their mother never gave to Anne herself, Anne’s father struggles to reopen the mill amid the turmoil of union upheavals.
When I first opened my copy of Daughter of Providence, I admit I was skeptical of its nondescript cover, its overwrought language, and most of all, its prologue. I’m not usually a fan of prologues, and here was a prologue, set in italics no less. However, as I read, Anne’s voice came to life. Her first person account of this tumultuous summer rings true to character and brings to life a time and a town in a way that leaves me pondering the lives of Milford’s inhabitants long after I finished the book’s concluding pages. In short, I sat down to read this debut novel, and it swept me away with character and plot, place and description.
Anne narrates with all the voice of a poised and polished twenty-something born into privilege. She is equal parts dutiful daughter and independent woman, discussing in detail the necessities of her sex, including shopping ventures and pot roast, as well as the becoming tilt of her stylish hat as she dresses for a date. At the same time, she has her own rebel spirit. In a lot of ways her female American spunk seems inherited from Alcott’s Jo March, but with the etiquette and poise of a Jane Austen heroine. A woman ahead of her time, she has a penchant for wearing men’s clothing and ship building, aspiring always more towards manly endeavors than the more traditional roles allotted to her in the feminine sphere. It is when she is building boats that this character really comes to life. Her first person accounts, when working on her half-completed skiff, reveal care and attention to detail in a way that her account of frying bacon just cannot match, revealing her boredom for one task versus her obsession with the other.
It is with this same love that Anne paints a portrait of her hometown, Milford, from its steepled church to its dry goods store to the limping master ship carpenter Ezra’s one-room shack and accompanying workshop. Through Anne, the town comes to life and becomes a character all its own, populated with individuals, each crafted with their own personalities and faults. These characters face conflict with each other, through class and race struggles, through union interlopers, unsolved murders, and economic hardship. Anne sets the tone of the tale she tells but the town brings that tale to life and gives it meaning.
Drew takes on historical fiction—with all of its research and need for accuracy—and she pairs it with domestic realism, mystery, crime, drama, and romance, with a hint of bildungroman, all without losing site of what makes the book feel complete, its concrete sense of place. In the detailed setting of a 1930s New England town, Drew throws in a grab-bag of story threads and an entire town’s worth of characters, each with his or her own needs and agendas, desires and dreams.
Will Dekker, for example, wants only to marry Anne, who wants only to be free to live a life independent of a husband’s thumb. Mrs. Hatcher likes to irritate her out-of-work husband by leaving straight pins in his jacket, while their daughter Kate and her husband share a hope of unionizing Milford and its mill employees. Meanwhile Anne’s father worries only that he get the mill running again for the good of its workers, even if that means joining hands with a union buster. The Sullivans, meanwhile, want their son to finish high school, even as they need his help to get food on the table. Then there’s Maria Cristina, who wants only the acceptance of her half-sister’s father, who only sees her as a reminder of his unfaithful wife.
The conflicts and storylines converge and coincide, all functioning as necessary distractions in which to forget the inevitable end, already laid out by the end of the prologue: Anne’s sister won’t live to see the conclusion of this book, and if finding out why isn’t enough to keep you reading, there are plenty of other questions hanging in the sea air of Milford:
Who killed the Da Silva boy?
What is Ezra hiding about his past?
Why did Anne’s mother really leave town?
Can Anne’s father get he mill reopened?
Will Anne finally marry Will?
How long does it take to build a boat anyway?
Overarching all of these, of course, is the inevitable connection to present day troubles. The economics of a recovering 1930s New England isn’t so different from our own problems almost a century later—big business too greedy and workers, perhaps, wanting more than some businesses can offer. Everyone going without in his or her own way, whether it’s by living with the out-of-fashion clothes in the bureau or going without meals entirely. The troubles facing these characters feel real not because they happened once in history but because they are happening now. When Anne comments on the boarded up windows of an out-of-business women’s apparel shop, it isn’t hard to think about the vacant mall on the other side of town, or the local auto plant that just couldn’t stay open. This town’s troubles are our troubles, and their tragedies perhaps serve as a warning that we avoid repeating the mistakes revealed to us from history.
In a lot of ways, this story is about building a future just as much as it is a confession of the past. Anne’s confession, her need to share her story, shines a light on the horrors of the past not to dwell in it but so that it might not be forgotten as she goes on toward the future, her lesson learned. That little girl gets buried in the cemetery, but the secrets that put her there, secrets spawned from socio-economic, racial, and religious conflicts, stare up from the pages of Daughter of Providence, revealed to the world. These secrets cannot change the outcome but rather make that ending the chance for a new beginning. I hope we get the message.
Kate Graham is currently one year away from an MFA in fiction through the NEOMFA program, by way of Cleveland State University, where she is the fiction editor of the literary magazine Whiskey Island. She also authors a blog, http://awrittenrecipe.blogspot.com, about vegetarian cooking, gardening, and the occasional knitted vegetable. Hailing from a town called Temperance in Southeast Michigan, she currently rents an apartment in Cleveland. She does not think the many references to liquor in her life are coincidental.