Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
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The Sewing Machine

By Natalie Fergie

Unbound, 2017


It is hard to imagine today a world in which plastics did not exist, where people used and re-used parts of everything, machines included. Yet this was part of everyday life until recently. The Sewing Machine is set in Scotland in the years just before and during World War I, in the mid-twentieth century, and the present day. Tracking changes in living standards in the past century through the food, clothing and technology her characters use, Natalie Fergie transports us to this world. She starts with an actual historical incident, the Glasgow Singer Sewing Machine factory strike of 1911.

It was an unusual strike in these years before widespread trade unionism because it was huge – involving eleven thousand workers – and because it was a strike on behalf of women workers. At the time British women did not even have the right to vote. In the novel, Jean Ferrier, an eighteen–year- old whose job it is to test the bobbins on the machines, is forced to leave the city with her strike leader boyfriend, Donald Cameron, when he loses his job. The action in the story then shifts to mid-century Edinburgh, where Kathleen Baxter and her daughter Connie sew and mend almost every garment they wear. Connie gets a job at the city’s major hospital as a seamstress. Yes, in those days, British hospitals had a sewing room. All the gowns, nurses’ uniforms, sheets, drapes, and towels were sewn in-house. The third protagonist in this story is Fred Morrison, who, in 2016, inherits his Nana Connie’s old sewing machine, as well as the tenement house in which she grew up.

The sewing machine and the tenement house are so vividly rendered they are almost characters in this story. People live without modern conveniences and in close quarters. Laundry was (and still is, I gather from this book) dried in this damp climate on a pulley in the warmth of the kitchen. Neighbors look out for one another. The old fashioned house which Fred has grown up in and loved is contrasted with the all-white sleek and modern apartment of his girlfriend in London. They work together until he’s made redundant. She visits him in Edinburgh and is so appalled by the old-fashioned house he’s attached to that she dumps him by text.

Living conditions change over time but human nature does not. Disappointments, betrayals, and new beginnings weave their way through this book. I have to say that I loved it.

As someone who has never had the patience to thread the needle on a machine I found some of the technical discussion of bobbins hard to follow. Nevertheless, I loved it. I love the idea of researching and restoring old technology. I especially loved Ellen, a subsidiary character who takes old sewing machines apart and repurposes them into jewelry and art objects. And I loved Kathleen and Connie, who sew into exercise books fabric scraps of every item they make. Record keeping as art. I also enjoyed the time markers indicated by the food the characters ate – broth and bread at the beginning of the twentieth century, stodgy meat pies in the middle, and in the twenty-first, daily treats of sweets and cakes and a bottle of champagne kept on hand.

The story structure alternates between the three time periods, allowing the reader to reflect on societal changes for good or ill. The sewing machine, a product of the industrial revolution, was a godsend to women the world over, who were freed from the daily task of hand-stitching every item of clothing their families wore. It allowed women to earn a living on their own. For Fred, the male protagonist, twentieth century technology allows him to use email and text to communicate and to seek work. Yet this also creates a sense of isolation he must work hard to overcome.

This unusual story was for me, a page-turner. If you like books in which the female characters are strong, not in the sense of being warriors or rebels but simply because they see a problem and take action to fix it, you will like this book. Natalie Fergie is a gifted writer.

Meet Me At The Museum

By Anne Youngson

Flatiron Books, Kindle Edition, 2018

I read about this book in an English newspaper. The journalist noted with surprise that this finalist in the 2018 Costa Book Awards was the debut novel of a 71-year-old grandmother. The story, the article said, was about two older people who find love through correspondence. True. But the book is so much more than that. Rarely have I savored reading a book as I did this one.

It starts with a note by sixty-something Tina Hopgood, whose best friend, Bella has just died. Bella and she were schoolgirls when they learned about the discovery of the Tollund Man in Denmark. This individual, two thousand years and more ago, had been ritually killed for reasons unknown and interred in a peat bog which preserved the body so perfectly it is as if one is looking at a living person, asleep. Tina writes to the professor who conducted the research on Tollund Man, saying that she and Bella had always wanted to come and see the mummy where he lies at a museum in Denmark. They had never found the time to do so. She writes, with candor and sadness, at this lost opportunity, and her letter is answered by the museum’s curator, Anders Larsen. Professor Glob has died, the curator says, but goes on to discuss what he knows of Tollund Man. So begins an extraordinary conversation conducted by letter and email.

The hook, The Tollund Man, tells us this is no ordinary epistolary love story. Weaving in and out of the story, this person who once lived so long ago reminds Tina and Anders that while humans have a short life span, the very fact of their existence gives meaning to those who come later. We are all part of a great stream of humanity, with hopes and dreams unfulfilled, with anxieties, fears, loves and complicated relationships with our families. What we leave behind matters deeply. As a curator of ancient objects, Anders feels that “the preservation of an object of beauty carries meaning…beyond the physical appearance, to those who look at it and handle it after those who first made it are gone.”

Tina, on the other hand, relates to Tollund Man’s sacrificial death. She feels she’s sacrificed her self to social convention. Yet, despite her despair, as the letters go on the reader sees her life as full of relationships and importance. As a farmer, her work provides food, essential for survival.

Ambivalence about accidental pregnancy is one theme that recurs throughout the book. What might have been is the corollary idea. The whole humbling notion that every human being is in fact a result of accident is something that older people find easier to grasp. We’ve already lost control of events, and the ego becomes less important. Simultaneously though, the miracle of life becomes more obvious. I found my mind spinning to ever larger thoughts as I read this book, such as the notion that life on earth is so precious, however it happened.

Through the letters, we see the day to day lives of both letter-writers, and Youngson does a masterful job of conjuring up places, especially small places like rooms, in her prose. The quality of the writing is extraordinary. And finally, the question of whether an emotional attachment between two people who have never met is actually an affair is left for the reader to ponder. Unlike the illiterate Tollund Man, people today have relationships across time and space unthinkable before the age of electronic communication. Are they any less real? Or does the ease of immediate communication inspire the transmission of untamed thoughts that perhaps should be, to use a word at the heart of the book, curated?

This book is an absolute gift. I just loved it.