Friday, December 13, 2013

One Family, One Holiday, Many Generations of Women

Thanksgiving by Ellen Cooney


Patience was a newlywed, pregnant with her first child on that cold November morning of 1662. When she went outside in search of her husband, she saw a turkey fly into the oak tree in her yard. The fateful killing of that bird ended up being something to be truly thankful for. It also was where the legend of the Morley family of Massachusetts began. This novel follows the Morley women over 350 years, using their ancestral home and the food they prepared for this holiday as the focal points.

This story of the Morley family women unfolds like a flower coming into bloom. As the years go by, we learn how the house grows in shape and size. The house itself starts out as nothing more than a wooden shack, without even glass in its windows. Over the decades, it gets added onto almost as often as it gets filled up. Of course, as times change and younger generations leave to find their fortunes, the home also empties out. But there is always one Morley who comes to make this their permanent residence, through to the day he or she ends up under a gravestone in the family plot.

I know what you're thinking - 350 years is a very long span of time for a novel to cover. But the genius here is that Cooney does this in only 22 chapters and less than 250 pages. How she does this is by jumping anywhere from eight to 29 years between Thanksgiving holidays. What's more, each chapter focuses on a different element of the festivities. Of course, since food is central to this holiday, most of the chapters are devoted to one of the items on the menu that fills the Morley's traditional table, and each one seems to focus on a different stage of preparing for the meal. Together this becomes an ingenious idea which has been very gently executed.

While reading this book, I wondered if Cooney had some special experience to inspire her. The cover photo is probably one of them - that being the Fairbanks home, the oldest standing American timber-framed house, located in Dedham, Massachusetts. A chance tour of that house would certainly have been enough of a muse. But what would have made me even more inspired would have been visiting that graveyard with all the old stones and names of the ancestors, with the dates of their lives going back so many years. Turning these bits of reality into a fictional story must have been a labor of love.

Moreover, this shows in the writing. Cooney's style here is very introspective, with an almost dream-like quality to it. Conversations are perfunctory, and included only to move from one action to another. Major historical incidents that affect this family are included here, but more in passing rather than taking center stage (which would have meant long descriptive paragraphs). Instead, we get into the heads and thoughts of these Morley women. We feel their connections to the other people in their lives, their emotions regarding the preparations they're undertaking, and their attitudes towards the house and all its history. Along with all this, we also get a glimpse into how this family turned their culinary skills into holiday traditions. If I have one criticism of this book, it would only be that the voices of many of these women sound just a bit too much alike - and remember, many of them have no genetic connections to each other.

Overall, this book just oozes charm and warmth, much like a welcome homecoming for any beloved holiday should. For all this, Ellen Cooney's book "Thanksgiving" deserves a hearty four and a half stars out of five, and I recommend you read it soon!



"Thanksgiving" by Ellen Cooney, released September 5, 2013 by Publerati, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada and Australia) and iTunes (in iBook format), or new or used from Alibris. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book via NetGalley. This is a version of my review that originally appeared on Curious Book Fans, Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), and previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.