By Julie F.
Connie Schultz is one of my favorite columnists; her sweet daily reminders on Twitter to “breathe” are a vital moment each evening in a busy routine. Her debut novel, a summer highlight, is full of moments reflecting on the secrets and struggles of working-class families in Ohio, from 1956 through 1994.
Brick McGinty marries Ellie Fetters just before they graduate from high school; there are no other options in the late 1950’s for a young couple about to become parents. Brick and Ellie both know and accept this, but they also accept that teenage dreams will be postponed or even eliminated – Ellie’s to train as a nurse, and Brick’s to accept a sports scholarship and become a teacher and coach. Both come from broken families who couldn’t escape the numbing, self-fulfilling dictates of their class, and both had hoped for a better future for themselves and each other. They remind me of the heartbreaking line from Bruce Springsteen’s “The River”: “And for my nineteenth birthday, I got a union card and a wedding coat.”
Ellie resolves to be a good mother, but also yearns for substance and fulfillment. When disappointments seem likely to break her, Ellie tells her daughter Samantha not to rely on the men in her life. “The sad look on Sam’s face made Ellie wish, for the first time, that she’d had only sons… No matter what she did, Ellie would never be able to save her daughter from that heartache waiting to ambush her” (395). Progress awaits with the upheavals of the sixties and seventies, though, and Sam grows, asserts her independence, and fulfills her ambitions in a way that Ellie and her generation couldn’t have imagined. I love the moment where Sam reckons with her own questioning personality: “To go through life just coasting? That’s unthinkable” (733).
Brick, meanwhile, makes huge mistakes that temper his expectations with the bitterness of devastating consequences. His misogyny and racism are in keeping with his small-town upbringing as a white male who has never had to consider his position in society in relation to others. Brick is an imperfect father, husband, and son, and he knows it, deep down. But he makes progress and attempts in small ways to atone, specifically with his son, with Ellie, and with Sam. Brick’s little family is the best thing to ever happen to him, and despite the glaring gap between promise and reality, his strength is loving them through all the pain and disappointment.
If you love sweeping stories that develop the collective life of a family through successive generations, the journey of the McGintys across the decades will captivate and absorb you. Schultz, whom the Pulitzer committee described as writing “pungent columns that provided a voice for the underdog and underprivileged,”advocates for people from those communities throughout her work, in part because of her working-class background. Her TED Talk about the women of her generation, “A Woman Over 50: A Life Unleashed,” shares more insight into the themes of this novel, including single motherhood, women’s place in the world, and not listening to “that voice of ‘no’ in your head.”
Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch. She loves gardening, reading, and all kinds of music.