Journalist Connie Schultz won a Pulitzer Prize for her columns in Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, stories that “provided a voice for the underdog and underprivileged.” So it should come as no surprise that her debut novel, The Daughters of Erietown, is a plain-spoken elegy to small-town, working-class women with big stories to tell.
The novel opens with a prologue set in 1975, as college-bound Samantha “Sam” McGinty is leaving behind her hometown, Erietown, but carrying plenty of emotional baggage along with her vintage suitcase. On the road trip to Kent State, she’s accompanied by her parents, Brick and Ellie, and younger brother, Reilly. It’s a trip that hints at Sam’s childhood scars even before the story begins to unfold through a series of flashbacks, starting in 1944.
After being abandoned by her ne’er-do-well parents, Ellie is raised by her grandparents, kind and decent folks whose old age has been interrupted by the demands of another round of child rearing. The youngest of 12 children, Brick grows up with a violent, alcoholic father, who is mourning the death of his favorite son, killed in the war, and a loving mother, who is also a victim of the patriarch’s wrath. By the time Ellie and Brick are teenagers—she’s a cheerleader, he’s the captain of the basketball team—the young lovers are inseparable and looking forward to college, careers and eventually marriage and a family.
But those dreams are dashed by an unplanned pregnancy, a quickie marriage and a move to a dilapidated rental house near the electric plant where Brick finds employment. Before long, the young couple and their baby, Sam, have settled into a routine, with Ellie raising their child and visiting with friends, and Brick turning to a corner tavern and womanizing—with catastrophic consequences.
While Schultz’s compelling narrative and realistic characters will keep readers turning pages into the night, her eye and ear for real-life details set this novel apart from other domestic sagas. Part tragic love story, part powerful testament to shifting cultural norms and the evolution of the women’s movement, The Daughters of Erietown is an impressive first novel with a big heart.