The first pages of Threads: A Depression Era Tale, Charlotte Whitney’s latest work, is narrated by a seven-year-old named Nellie who loves cows (but not cowpies), cherry blossoms, daydreams and exploring in the woods. She’s got her eye out for gypsies, mushrooms and buried pirate treasure. What she does find, however, sends her running.
“I can’t remember nuthin’ after that,” she writes, “‘cept that I was back in the field near the barn and Pa was holding me tight as I cried. I couldn’t quit bawling and he held me tight.”
BALANCING STRUGGLE AND JOY IN 1930S AMERICA
It’s 1934, the Great War is fermenting overseas; there’s a drought, a sagging economy and the specter of a roiling mess of murderous dust in the western sky. Nellie and her family are farmers, just barely eking a living out of Michigan soil but Christian enough to hand out bean sandwiches to the young men who ride the rails, looking for work, looking for food. It’s an onerous time in U.S. history that calls for resilience, patience, fortitude and resourcefulness.
It’s also a time that calls for hope, imagination, daydreams and love.
Threads is Whitney’s first historical novel. Her earlier works have included nonfiction and romance, a combination of skill sets that make Threads a masterful read that entertains, intrigues and presents an educational look at an unforgettable part of America’s past: Roosevelt’s farm program, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a country devoid of its young men off to war, vast unemployment, the Great Depression, the massive clouds of dirt and the courage of our nation’s farmers.
Whitney’s story is told through the eyes of Nellie and her older sisters, Flora and Irene. Each sees the world in a different way, but sisterhood draws them together, and Nellie’s discovery in the woods bonds them — and the townspeople — in curiosity tinged with terror. It’s a horrible mystery that the entire town tries unsuccessfully to solve.
AN IMMERSIVE, IRRESISTABLE MIDWESTERN TALE
The girls attend a one-room schoolhouse with a schoolmarm who plays favorites and church services where a visiting preacher scares the pants off half the congregation. Gossip wounds, love heals, tragedy strikes, people rebuild — all things that appear in contemporary novels, but Threads immerses readers in the way people handled these things back in an America we’ve almost forgotten, in a small Midwestern town on a farm where life depended on rain and keeping foxes out of the chicken coop.
Whitney has kept true to her own Michigan roots, including regional dialect, mispronunciations, colloquialisms and slang in her narratives. Even the differences among the three girls — imaginative seven-year-old Nellie; over-confident Irene at 11; and sweet Flora, 17, who wants only to love and be loved — ring true and loud when chapters switch from narrator to narrator.
Poverty, hunger, tragedy and war could have made this story ugly and sad, but Whitney presents it as one family’s triumph — and an irresistible read.