Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving by Ellen Cooney

There just aren't that many Thanksgiving stories, even though so many people name it as their favorite holiday, so I leaped at the chance to download Ellen Cooney's wonderful novel, Thanksgiving, earlier this fall.  I read it slowly, not more than a chapter a day, and often not even that.  It was warm and interesting and an exceptionally good book for October/November.

Thanksgiving lends itself to this kind of slow savoring because of its structure.  Each chapter takes place in a different year, and chronicles a family, the Morleys of Massachusetts, from Pilgrim days to 2012, as its members, usually the women, prepare for the coming Thanksgiving feast. I love this idea, which is somewhat similar to the Edward Rutherford books I enjoy so much--he, however, spends more time at each stop along his journey through time, whereas Cooney devotes just one short chapter to each year she visits.  Often characters straddle chapters, so that a baby who is born in one chapter, shows up as a young adult in the next, and then a grandpa or grandma in the third.

I confess that I found the first third of the book a bit hard to read.  It's written in present tense, which can be a bit challenging anyway, but in the early chapters Cooney had a penchant for jumping into the middle of a scene and relaying the internal musing of her main character.  There were times when it took me awhile to figure out what the heck was going on, and then the chapter was over and I had to learn about a new character in a new time all over again.  However, about a third into the book, it clicked for me and I found the rhythm and groove of the narrative and I was able to really enjoy each visit to the family as they marched through time.

The pace really picked up after the Civil War, and I could relate more to the characters and their Thanksgiving stories.  I especially loved the chapter in which the character Emily makes pies in the early twentieth century.  Cooney did some really outstanding, lyrical writing in that chapter and moved me to tears with her words.  Other memorable chapters are those when the dishes arrive from England and when the glasses arrive from an estranged husband.  Mostly though, the stories are about food--finding it, growing it, preparing it, serving it.  The bonds that are forged in the kitchen, at the hearth, are ones that can withstand hardship, loss, and time.

Cooney did a wonderful job of linking together the characters and their traditions and foods, all within the same house, even though many of the later characters didn't know who their ancestors were.

Thanksgiving is a marvelous book that reflects the holiday perfectly--it is about family, traditions, home, and evolution,  It makes me think of the saying by Heraclitus — 'No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.' 

A holiday like Thanksgiving, a family like the Morleys, evolves but some things remain constant, just as some things about a river are constant, regardless of what constitutes it at any one instant of time.

I can see myself rereading this book every fall, in anticipation of our great American holiday.  Now I'm eager to see what else Cooney has written.  


  1. Slow stories where you get to savor the thoughts and the growth of the characters have a charm all their own - its more real somehow, or I think so, anyway.

    But the thing with that type of story is, as you say, it can be difficult to get into at the start, if the characters aren't engaging, or if the structure is a bit unusual.

    Perhaps there'll be a Christmas one like this (a little different and best savoured slowly)? Look forward to your recommendations. Hope you have a great Thanksgiving :)

  2. This book sounds like such a neat idea. It also seems that the author put some research into what folks were eating in the past.

  3. As is true for many great works, rereading this novel reveals much that you missed previously, or so it did for me. As the publisher and editor of this novel, I have now read it six times this year and marvel at the subtle threads connecting the characters, the home, the family possessions through the many generations. It reminds me a little of Winesburg, Ohio in this regard. The sections are only loosely connected but the connections are there. Since we donate to the WorldReader Organization I greatly appreciate your reviews. Happy Thanksgiving from Publerati!

  4. Jane, I've just been trying to think of Thanksgiving stories, and coming up blank - even with my old stand-bys, Laura Ingalls Wilder & Louisa May Alcott. This sounds lovely. I always enjoy family stories, with continuing characters linking the generations. I hope you have a wonderful holiday!

  5. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, I hope you have them home for the holiday.

  6. I need to get this for my mom who not only loves Thanksgiving but is an avid reader of books with an historical setting. It sounds like this is a book to read the same way I read Marilyn Robinson's "Gilead." When the writing is so wonderful, you just want to savor a little at a time.

  7. I really like the sound of this one, and not to late to bookmark this one and even read some of it, because the Christmas feast preparation looks very similar at my house. :) Thanks for recommendation--indeed it is harder to find a good Thanksgiving-themed book at this time of year.

    1. I had meant to reread it this year but got swamped with other reading projects. But it is a good holiday book nonetheless.