October 2004

Hardscrabble lives on the Great Plains

By Mary Sharratt
Review by
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Set in the isolated and fictitious town of Minerva, Minnesota, in the 1920s, Sharratt's luminous second novel captivates the reader from the first page with an intriguing tale of three strong women who struggle against the choking repression of both the town and the times in which they live.

The relationship between 15-year-old Penny and her mother Barbara, who is only 30, has been deteriorating since Penny became aware of Barbara's "dirty" affair with her employer Laurence Hamilton, for whom she cooks and cleans. Hamilton's wife has been in a coma-like state, a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic, for four years and lives in a nursing home in the neighboring town. Though her mother seems oblivious to the local gossip, Penny feels the town's condemnation wherever she goes; she retaliates by answering an ad for a hired hand placed by Cora Egan, a mysterious, pregnant newcomer to Minerva. Penny fortuitously arrives on the day that Cora's daughter Phoebe is born, and the lives of these three immediately become inextricably woven.

Home-schooled by Cora, Penny gains knowledge of science and literature, even identifying with Penelope of the Odyssey, who demonstrates the same determined individuality that Penny so admires in Cora. Gradually, Penny learns more and more details of Cora's past as a debutante and wife of a surgeon, and discovers why she now takes such pains to disguise her femininity by cutting her hair and dressing like a man. Tensions begin to build as both Cora's and Barbara's hidden lives seem destined to be explosively revealed, threatening both the strong bonds the women have created and the stable lives toward which they've been working.

Sharratt perceptively portrays the simultaneous freedom and repression of the 1920s, and poetically imbues even the most mundane chores with significance. As she did in her well-received first novel, Summit Avenue, Sharratt has again drawn on her Minnesota roots to bring a small, seemingly placid town to unpredictable life.


Deborah Donovan writes from Cincinnati and La Veta, Colorado.

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The Real Minerva

The Real Minerva

By Mary Sharratt
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN 9780618462322

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