This is a tale with a very impressive scope, spanning the lives of its two heroines from the time they were young girls to the time they begin to gray. It isn’t just their amazing transformation that we observe, but the equally remarkable changes in America as well, both culturally and historically, caught up in the same wave of advancing technologies and shifting values from the late 1950s to the current day. In order to cover this much ground in any depth and detail, the author makes use of the omniscient p.o.v., whose distancing effects she counters with astute, intuitive judgments on when to zoom in more closely to dilate the historical events in question, and on which scenes from the personal lives of our heroines to linger on versus which to breeze over.
What’s this novel really about? You could say it’s a coming of age story not just for the women who are its chief protagonists but of the women’s movement as a whole. Its two female leads embody the spirit of feminism; they’re emboldened by the shifting tectonic plates of history to pursue their own dreams away from the house and the traditional role of housewives. One becomes a brilliant internet designer for the military, being among the first wave of women allowed to enlist. The other, ultimately, a social worker making profound changes in the lives of very broken people. But the story is as much about traditionalism as modernism, about what happens to us when our dreams are thwarted, even crushed, about the kind of strength that’s required to endure and to overcome. It’s about what happens to the spirit of emancipation to those who have little choice but to assume a more traditional female role as head of the household. Can they too find ways to reinvent themselves?
The two small town girls, caught up in the depressed rural south of the Ozark mountains, would never have had a chance to make their dreams come true in any previous era. But they come to find out that even dreams are not all that, and freedom too comes with a price. The promise of modernism brings as many pains and challenges as the dead weight of traditionalism. But both have their sweeter sides and blessings to bestow. The author, very much a product of the times of which she writes, turns out to be a fan of all the decades she traverses, as much for their potential as their stifling limitations. That may be my favorite takeaway from this series; her female leads continue to press heroically against whatever larger than life forces are determined to mold them, proving in the end that there is no force so great as the human spirit, not history, not economics, and certainly, not the sex one was born with.
I understand the next two installments in the series are due out roughly six months apart from one another. I look forward to both as few other writers have brought history to life for me to this degree, perhaps owing to her deft way of interweaving the personal, with the interpersonal and transpersonal dimensions of our lives.