Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
Published by Ecco
Publication date: February 5, 2019
Genres: Fiction, Historical
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It’s the end of the 19th century when Bertha Truitt appears in Salford, Massachussetts. Literally, just appears. If she has a past she doesn’t want to talk about it. What she does want to do is open her own candlepin bowling alley and with the money she has she does. This is just the first of Bertha’s actions that make her the most intriguing character in Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel, Bowlaway. Which is saying a lot because the town of Salford is stuffed full with unusual people.
In short order, Bertha opens her lanes and goes on to marry the doctor who initially save her. It’s another unusual decision because he’s black and she’s white. They have a daughter named Minna. And then, before a hundred pages have passed, Bertha is killed in a freak accident. With her secrets and disinterest in the past or anything that wasn’t right in front of her, she is a hard act to follow. Bowlaway is handed off to the lives of her offspring and the other characters, but not all are up to the task of a carrying a novel.
It is not just Bertha’s secrets that make her fascinating. It’s the driving force that leads her to build Truitt’s Alleys: women need a sport of their own, something outside of the home.
Here is a ball. Heft it in your hand. Nobody’s going to stop you. Some man might call out with advice, too much advice, but in the end it’s your game to play and your game to win.
In a way, this summarizes Bertha’s life and makes Bowlaway a much sadder place when she’s gone. Her daughter leaves Salford to be raised by her husband’s relatives and a son no one knew about shows up and banishes women from playing at Truitt’s Alleys. What was so promising becomes dreary.
Bowlaway is a literary Twin Peaks—a book populated with the odd, the tender, the unlikable. The problem is it works better in a visual medium. As a book, some of what might appear quirky in a charming way is just irritating. What does hold true is that Elizabeth McCracken knows her way around words. Even when the plot left me less than interested I was littering pages with post-it flags for her turns of phrase and the inner life she unearthed in some of her characters. Her writing kept me reading, but ultimately, Bowlaway was not a strike.