Mama Grace by Dana Bagshaw
|Mama Grace by Dana Bagshaw|
|Genre: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: The travels and hardships of a mostly fatherless family in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma, here presented in an enjoyably matter of fact style. The real-life base of the story and personalities makes it worth its recommendation.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 276||Date: September 2006|
It's 1907, and a natural calamity forces Grace to undergo a very awkward trek across the barren state of Oklahoma, with the most unlikely mix of four children, a babe in arms, a few farm and working animals, and a massively impractical iron stove, perched on the back of a covered wagon.
The practicalities of the people involved are to the fore when they stop over with strangers, and every one of the travellers sets to by paying their hosts back in as much labour as they can muster, just as the newly-met family does all it can to help their guests on their way safely.
It is a little unfortunate that a passage of dialogue here seems just too unrealistic, regarding as it does the science of making bricks, but it does at least open up to us what the family's business was, just what they lost (almost everything save that stove) and why the father of the family is no longer with them to accompany them.
But beyond that, what is most striking about this first section is the sense of life most alien to us now – the rural cures passed down the generations, the chores everyone needed to do, and the fact that a young child so readily is given a lesson in gunmanship. The way strange males inflict on the family when back on the road, a bull attack, and the way the party is reduced in number (thankfully the animals, and not the humans) is very much at odds with our comfortable reading chairs.
All told, the first third could even come across as a piece of fantasy writing – there is no underlying reason to it beyond the story of the journey; however awkward the endurance test of the trek may have been, we don't learn much beyond something of the characters involved. But once the target of the travels has been reached – Grace's father's farmstead – the core of the writing can be met, with pleasure.
Here there is much conflict to be found – the obvious battle people faced trying to get by (let alone earn a bankable penny) on such land; a battle of egos as well; and a sense of a political conflict with an attempt at introducing a sort of co-operatised industrialism to the locals. In this more engaging section of the book we find out more about the children (I loved the boy who ended up learning how to read and write perfectly, upside down), and watch with the pleasure of distance this field cropped as another is seeded, this profit turned to this investment, and so on.
Here too, in an Oklahoma that was only made a state of the Union in 1907 is a completely unwritten question regarding the people in their small town struggling to find out for themselves what the American Way meant to their rustic reality.
But the core of the whole narrative remains Grace, rightly earning the nickname Amazing. It's not so easy to relate the cover photograph of the real Grace – all innocently fiery stare and puppy fat, with the Grace in the book – a 15 stone mama with all she was forced to undergo to keep her ever-growing family together.
And in real life records show the actual Grace bore twelve children. We must thank the author for chopping several out, as for a book this quickly readable to feature more than the half-dozen we do get would only allow us the barest sketch of the children, and not the rounded characters we do read of. But the history of the book – originally an unpublished manuscript written later on in life by the older daughter, and revised by Grace's great-grandaughter, Dana Bagshaw generations on, raises some questions.
We have to ask ourselves what is truth and what fiction, what was embellished by the original author and what buffed up by Dana, and however seldom we might do this, do it we do and it raises a slightly awkward feel. I might prefer a book that was one or the other, and not the middle ground of faction.
Still, I was more than happy to read what we do have, despite its minor flaws. I think a further draft would have given the journey a little more grit, although it is hard to feel the suffering the Yourts must have undergone when they come out of it all so lovingly, together and soundly. If anything is under-written it is only by a few percent. The biggest disappointment with the book might not be a flaw, however – but the way you read happily along until you bluntly collide with the footnotes is a little of a surprise.
The abrupt ending is when a lot of doors close for the family, but far too many are opening for us to feel happy about leaving the narrative here. There is absolutely no message-giving about the end – as there hasn't been throughout – just a matter-of-fact way of detailing narrative, environment and personality that is a very suitable style for the book.
There is supposed to be, at some future time, a second volume, whereby characters are seen in a different light, and certainly with the Great Depression around the corner it can only be a fascinating biographical read. If this book was packaged with this continuation, I dare say it would earn four and a half stars easily, but with my interest piqued too much I feel a little let down.
I don't think the purchaser of this book will feel let down much by what they do get, and alongside me will be in the queue to read what happens next – just one mark of this book being a successful historical novel, of assured general interest.
I recommend this book to all, and thank the author for giving me a copy to review.
For another story in a similar vein, if slightly earlier in time we can recommend A Small Part of History by Peggy Elliott.
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