Martha McPhee’s fifth novel is a lyrical, elegant family saga, based partly on her own family history. The narrator, Isadora, is a writer and novelist whose grandmother (Grammy) has recently died. Isadora, one of four sisters, is the only family member who is interested in the past. She sifts through a web of Grammy’s papers in a trunk to recereate her complex life.
As a child, Grammy was known as Tommy, an eccentric, boyish pioneer girl who once skinned coyotes in Montana but later stole her sister Katherine’s identity to apply to nursing school in New York, using Katherine’s high school diploma. (Tommy had dropped out of school and supported Katherine financially.). Isabella tries to explore what is tangled truth and what is false in Grammy’s stories about scrambling up the ladder of class.
I love Isadora’s distant, graceful voice, but Tommy/Katherine outshines all of her descendants. Her mother, Glenna, a suffragist and leftist, deserts Tommy, age 6, and her younger sister Katherine on a train in the custody of a group of nuns and does not return. Days later, the nuns find Glenna, but Glenna does many disappearing tricks during the girls’ childhood. She prefers politics and men to motherhood. Tommy and Katherine often live alone, and Tommy raises Katherine, pushing her to do well in school, while she makes a living skinning and trading coyote skins. Katherine decides to change her name to Patricia and move west to become a movie star. And so Tommy becomes Katherine.
The situation sounds melodramatic, but the cadences of McPhee’s poetic prose , the rugged fascination with the past, and her humor make us believe in the importance of Katherine/Tommy’s family stories, even when they are false.
If Grammy was our version of Homer, I was Herodotus. I wanted to tell a history, but my allegiances were more toward providing a sense of character. My sisters, on the other hand, were straight-up historians in the mode and model of Thucydides. They required the documentation, the verification, the proof. They were fully possessed of the world’s cynicism, of the fact of realpolitik as the true measure of how things happen in human affairs. Long before she died, thus, they had stopped paying attention to Grammy’s tales. It fell to me, therefore, to be the keeper of the family stories, my inheritance from Grammy.
And, in case you’re interested, McPhee is the daughter of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McPhee.
An enjoyable, gracefully-written novel.