Layla Beck, a senator’s daughter, is young, spoiled, and rebellious (in the world of my childhood, we would have labelled Layla “stuck up”). Refusing to marry the suitor of her parents’ choice, she is (temporarily) cut off from her father’s support and cast upon her uncle’s reluctant aid to find a job with the WPA (part of the “New Deal” to combat the Depression years, the WPA was a federal agency that employed millions). Given an assignment to write the history of Macedonia, West Virginia, Layla finds herself boarding at the Romeyn home. We come to know Layla through the letters she writes:
“I had no choice, Rose. I had to accept the job. Father really has cut me off, and there really is a Depression going on. Work is scarce and I have exactly $26 to my name. What was I to do? Mother says he’ll relent by Christmas, but that’s months away. I don’t know how I’ll bear it – trudging around Macedonia, West Virginia, in the blazing heat, taking down the reminiscences of a town full of toothless old hicks.”
The Romeyn family used to be one of the prominent first families of Macedonia; their father was president of the local hosiery mill. However as Layla delves into the history of the town, she finds a dark past (and the reasons behind the lost heritage of the Romeyn family).
Jottie Romeyn has never married. Her fiance died in a tragic fire at the mill (just how tragic, the reader will learn later). With her hopes for marriage and family dashed, in years following the fire Jottie cares for her two nieces from her brother Felix’s broken home. Although one of the central characters, it took me some time to warm up to Jottie and her personality but I came to understand her character by the end of the book.
At first this novel was slow for me, as I began to navigate the three characters from their alternating perspectives that were the main thrust of the book. By the second half I could not put this down!
Jottie’s niece Willa and her sister Bird are young girls growing up with a father who is more absent than present. However with the arrival of Miss Beck, Felix Romeyn (ultimately the villain of this drama), begins to take an interest, and Willa especially has mixed feelings. Longing for the attention and companionship of her father, her hero worship of Miss Beck quickly turns to resentment as she watches the relationship between Layla and her father develop.
Mixed in with these personal stories is the background and history of this small town in West Virginia, including the Civil War years. I found this novel to be riveting! Family secrets, forbidden relationships, manipulation, deceit, forgiveness, and historical truths and fabrications. These are the pre-World War 2 years when unions are still looked upon as questionable and families are struggling with poverty. Ice cream is a rare treat, and when the family goes to eat out at a restaurant the reader knows it’s an extremely rare event.
“The Bavarian Restaurant was dim and cool, with fans in the ceiling and white tablecloths and two different kinds of glasses at each place. Father said we could get anything we wanted, and of course Bird tried to get nothing but pie, but I ordered Roast Beef Lafontaine Style, which Father said was a famous Bavarian dish made out of old Frenchmen. I said I knew better than that, and he told Jottie that I was getting too smart and she shouldn’t let me read any more books. He was joking.
We had soup first. It was white as cream and delicious, and there were rolls with little curls of cold butter, too. My Roast Beef Lafontaine Style was all rolled up with mushrooms on top and it was wonderful, but I couldn’t finish it. I was too happy. Father and Jottie were laughing and talking as if they went to the Bavarian Restaurant every single day of their lives, and then Father looked around and said that all the other people in the restaurant probably thought that Bird was an heiress.”
Bootlegging is a means of income and occasionally, the seamier side of life (including rare occasions of profanity) is portrayed.
There is a hard lesson for Miss Beck to learn, a revelation for Jottie that changes her thinking on the past, and, even Willa, although only twelve, has something to teach her family. Motivations are brought out within the story and life choices adjusted as each character is affected by another one’s choices. Slowly the author brings out with each chapter, more truths to the reader until the culmination (which is really no surprise), is revealed and the characters must learn how to adjust (it’s sink or swim here folks!)
“How can you forgive him?” she burst out. “How? After what he did?”
I guess she meant Miss Beck and casting me aside and lying.
“You’re right, Jottie, but what good is it? Rightness is nothing. You can’t live on it. You might as well eat ashes.” I glanced at father… I loved him so. Once more, I tried to explain. “This is all we can do; it’s all we’re allowed. We can’t go back. The only thing time leaves for us to decide” – I picked up Father’s hand and held it tight – “is whether or not we’re going to hate each other.”