Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Thanksgiving by Ellen Cooney
Posted by JaneGS
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.