Holidays can be tough. At their core, they’re supposed to be a celebration of great joy. They involved people, though, and often families, and relationships among individuals always have the potential to get very, very messy.
Now take that, multiply it by 350 years, add a turkey dinner, and you’ve got Thanksgiving, by Ellen Cooney. I had never read a book about Thanksgiving that wasn’t for small children. It’s not a gift-giving or candy holiday, so it doesn’t get as much fanfare as Christmas or Easter. Thanksgiving is observed mostly to eat a lot of food, see people you don’t usually see, and try to stay positive about doing the same thing in worse weather about four weeks later.
Thanksgiving (the holiday) does bring families into the forefront, though, and this novel takes that to the extreme. Thanksgiving (the book) tells the story of the Morley family from the days of the Puritan homestead to the teenager whose iPod has been confiscated. In between, we see characters be born, grow up, start their own families, age, and die, laid to rest in the family graveyard. Stories are revealed bit by bit, names reappear after generations, and a complex tale is woven.
When the story begins in 1662, Patience Morley, newly married and pregnant, is preparing a meal for her husband. Her hastily-constructed house is not much protection from the harsh winter. Sick from growing a child, she rushes outside to find a large, beautiful turkey, which is then shot from behind her. Then another shot rings out, and a terrible secret is kept. We won’t know what it is until much later.
By the next chapter, we have moved on to the fallout of the secret, framed by the gathering of pumpkins, sorted by Patience’s daughter, now a young child. In the next chapter, Patience prepares chestnuts with her granddaughter, Eliza, as they wait for Eliza’s estranged father. Then, an elderly, widowed Patience is quickly escorted to the squash patch as unfriendly Native Americans attack her home. Then Patience is gone, but the story continues with single mother Eliza and her son in the rebuilt house, churning butter in a misguided attempt to make ends meet.
In every chapter, the family grows, the personalities become richer, and another item is prepared for Thanksgiving dinner. The skill Cooney displays in developing her characters is astounding. We spend so little time with each person, and so much must be “told,” yet much is “shown,” as writers often say. I was astonished at how much I became attached to characters I saw only for brief moments at such widely-spaced moments in their lives.
The backdrop of history as 350 years passes is quite rich, as you might expect. Puritanism is key at the beginning, but that is all forgotten long before the Revolutionary War. Slavery becomes a key issue separating the Morleys in Massachusetts from family in Virginia. More than one wife marries an abusive husband. More than one woman chooses an unusual educational path. The family home is remodeled, upgraded, and expanded. The family living in it grows larger and smaller. By 2012, dinner is finally ready, but I wasn’t ready for the story to be over!
I don’t read many books that are aimed at adults, so I’m especially pleased when I pick a winner like this one. There is some objectionable content and language, but the imaginative power of the story is so rewarding that it would be a shame to skip out for those reasons alone. It’s not even just a book for the holiday of Thanksgiving. As Catholics, we give thanks every time we celebrate the Eucharist; that’s what “eucharist” means. I, for one, am thankful for the opportunity to immerse myself in this book and to share it with you.
Many thanks to Publerati for providing a free electronic copy of Thanksgiving for me to review. I received no other compensation in exchange for this review.