"This is the story of how you were loved," Penelope MacLaughlin whispers to her granddaughter. Theopening to Linda Little's third novel, Grist, is resonant and memorable. Those nine words are the stuff of famous opening lines.
Except those nine words don't open the book. They come at the beginning of chapter 2, after a tightly wrought prologue in which Penelope, succinctly and with great insight and objectivity, sums up her young life before she met her husband-to-be, the socially awkward town miller, Ewan.
The care with which the Nova Scotia-based Little selected those nine words is evident throughout. Every scene carries its weight; not a word is unnecessary.
Penelope's parents only appear in this first chapter, and even then, only as a memory in her re-telling. As she says, "They worked hard and died young." Yet Little has painted them with such nuanced clarity in those few introductory pages that readers will remember them throughout Penelope's recounting of her own long life, set against the backdrop of Little's home province of Nova Scotia.
Penelope and Ewan marry on the first Thursday in May in 1875, after a short and pragmatic courtship. Already 30 years old, Penelope has no illusions about her diminishing capacity to attract a husband, describing herself as a "large, square-jawed girl -- graceless but strong. There was nothing delicate about me and nothing pretty. A great horse of a girl." She looks forward to the stability and joy of becoming the miller's wife.
Unfortunately, Ewan becomes instantly withdrawn and cantankerous after their wedding night. During their courtship, Penelope had seen a glimpse of Ewan's devout piety. In due course, it is revealed to be a manic kind of zealotry. More than merely a belief system, Ewan uses his religion as a trap for his wife and an escape for himself.
Penelope's story continues under Little's practiced hand. Little's 2001 debut novel, Strong Hollow, and her 2006 followup, Scotch River, are also both set in the Maritimes. But they were just warm-up acts for this thoughtful depiction of one woman's heartaches and hardships as she works to make a home for her family, and then to assume increasing responsibility for the mill -- the family's livelihood -- when Ewan disappears with greater and greater frequency.
Penelope's daughter is no luckier in love; she too finds herself married to a man given to temper tantrums and with a shocking mean streak.
In fact, the lone woman who has a happy, healthy relationship with a man is Penelope's only friend Abby, whose farm is situated on a rocky and inhospitable strip of land. She and her kind husband soon uproot their large family and head west to take their chances at a new life, in booming Winnipeg.
Penelope is an old woman when her story of endurance comes to a close. Her happiest years were those during the Great War, when most of the men are off fighting and she is taking care of her home and children.
She describes a vivid, comforting place of warmth and domesticity, with Little's selective language augmenting the scene: "Ours was a house for women and children. There was a scattered airiness to it."
When her story finally ends, with whispered words in her granddaughter's ear, she looks back on those happy years and can't remember a flaw.
"It must have rained and snowed and there must have been days of bitter wind and biting cold. There must have been lessons forgotten and battles of will and bootlaces untied but I remember it all as a single golden day."
It's the same feeling after turning the final page of Grist: surely there must have been flaws or moments of weakness or tedium. If there were, they are easily forgotten in favour of the memory of masterful and engrossing storytelling.
Jennifer Ryan is a Winnipeg writer.