Grist: Not a beach read

Linda Little, in character, reading from her novel Grist at Balmoral Grist Mill.

Linda Little, in character, reading from her novel Grist at Balmoral Grist Mill.

Linda Little’s latest novel, Grist, is set against the landscape of North Shore Nova Scotia over one hundred years ago.  In classic storytelling tradition, the tale traces the arc of one woman’s life and through the minutiae of that life, we are invited into a memorable story of work and home, men and women, family and war. Little’s is that kind of fiction where a deeply personal telling leads readers to universal questions and no easy answers.

Grist is a rare book, a short, literary page turnerfor the summer—but not in any way a light “beach read”.

The protagonist, Penelope McCabe, is a spinster schoolteacher, “a horse of a girl,” who after a practical courtship marries miller Ewan MacLaughlin and then goes off to make a home and a life. Initially Little draws us into Penelope’s new life with a strong portrait of the community she find herself in.  The miller’s frolic is described colourfully—“saws chewed through hemlock boards wide as man” and the ambience Little creates is almost audible. The clang and clatter of building the Grist mill resounds because of Little’s poetic prose and wise use of the language of sensory perception.

Initially, Penelope has deep respect for the labour and even beauty of the mill and there is a promise of a prosperous future. The frolic phase of her married life is shortlived. As Ewen’s true and complex character emerges, Penelope becomes more workhorse than cherished wife, tethered to both the mill and the man.  Gender and work are explored from a refreshing point of view in Grist. When Ewan insists she can and must run the mill in his absence, Penelope is resistant, both insecureabout hercapability and embarrassed that she should be seen doing a man’s work.

Loneliness, silent endurance and tragedy mark her life, yet—and this is Little’s gift—the book is an engrossing read, and Penelope, an unforgettable character. Little explains how she discovered her character:

The main character, Penelope, came out through the walls at the Balmoral Grist Mill in Colchester County, in northern Nova Scotia. I spent eight seasons working at the grist mill as a tour guide and I had many hours to imagine the stories that could have played out there. Balmoral was the last commercially operating mill of its type in Nova Scotia. It was still running as a business in the 1950s despite being an essentially nineteenth century enterprise. How did the last miller maintain a living, I asked? His wife was a schoolteacher. Of course!
Today in rural Canada we know the pervasiveness and importance of the off-farm job. How many of today’s small farms are supported by the professional salaries of nurses and teachers? It occurred to me that if a woman had been required to work in her husband’s mill this labour would have left no historical record. If the story were not passed down (and it may not have been spoken of because of shame and embarrassment) all traces of this labour would be erased. I created this story from this possibility.

Although Little is already the award-winning writer of short stories and two novels and her last novel Scotch River won the Thomas Raddall Award for fiction, the writing of Grist wasn’t quick or easy:

This book was eight years in the making. This is an inordinately long time. I struggled with the shape of the story, the voice, and the point of view. However, in the end, I’m glad I persisted. I have been both surprised and delighted by the strong emotional reactions readers have had to this book.

There is an epic quality to this book and a darkness. Little’s masterful storytelling is in every well-constructed sentence.  At the beginning of Chapter Four, for example, she reveals character, establishes the passage of time, creates reading pace and 19th century decorum.

A year and half has passed since our marriage and still no sign of a child. A full journey round the sun and more—two springs, two summers and soon two harvests. I counselled patience for myself but this advice grew increasingly difficult to bear. 

Although not overt or didactic, one of this novel’s themes is the need to be heard, to break silence, to tell stories. Little says “the question of interpreting silence” is a theme in all her novels.

In our culture silence is seen very differently for men and women. We have the notion of “the strong, silent type” but this idea is attached to men—to powerful, often contextually moral men. A silent woman simply disappears. Silence is forced upon my protagonist, Penelope, because she has no “listener.” Her husband will not hear her in either a literal or figurative sense. Her position in the community is defined by her roles at home. She is cut off at all paths. Looking at the position of women 100 years ago offers us enough distance to see how completely we can silence wide segments of our population by simply turning a deaf ear and diverting our attention.

In Grist, Linda’s prose is lyrical yet sparse, every word matters.  She interjects differing points of view a few times which brings us fascinatingly close to other characters. More of those tantalizing windows would have been welcome. In the end, however, this is Penelope’s tale and her microscopic truthfulness in specifics from the grind of domesticity to the grist ofthe mill is reason enough to fall under the spell of this fiction.

A searing and powerful portrait of maternal love, through Penelope‘s dignified telling and resilient spirit, we meet a woman whose ultimate response to loss, loneliness and silence is to connect and create. "This is the story of how you were loved," Penelope tells her grandaughter. In the end, it is love that infuses this hauntingly beautiful book.