A remarkable event occurred on an otherwise unremarkable spring day in Salford, Mass., in the early part of the last century. A woman, a stranger, was found lying in the town cemetery. She was somewhat dazed but most definitely alive. Her name was Bertha Truitt. In her valise was a bowling ball and one candlepin.
So begins Elizabeth McCracken’s wonderful novel about incomers to a settled community, about hard work and forceful personalities, and the triumph of perseverance.
Bertha’s rescuers that day include the orphaned Joe Wear who worked as the cemetery groundskeeper and Dr. Leviticus Sprague, a black man from New Brunswick. Both men become fixtures in Bertha’s new life. She married Leviticus and hired Joe to work in her establishment, Truitt’s Alleys. Bertha was a candlepin bowler. (Popular in New England, candlepin-style uses slender pins and small bowling balls.) The bowling alley is a landmark for Salford.
McCracken could have stuck to a cheerful story about quirky characters who hang out at a small-town bowling alley, but she crafts a far deeper and more interesting tale. Bertha and Leviticus build a fantastical octagonal folly of a house. They have a daughter, Minna, who is brilliant and wants nothing to do with her hometown (and certainly not bowling).
After Bertha’s death in a freak accident a new stranger comes to town, claiming to be Bertha’s son and heir. He marries the widow of a Truitt’s Alleys employee and they manage the establishment. In turn their sons grow up immersed in bowling. One son takes over the Alleys while the other rejects it.
All the while there are rumors of a fortune hidden in the octagonal house. What is the truth about Bertha’s origins? What about the unexpected son? And what will happen to Truitt’s Alleys as the decades pass into post-World War II?
Reading groups can relate the characters to newcomers to their hometowns. They can talk about what happens to family businesses that do not interest succeeding generations. In the end, readers will be charmed and, indeed, bowled away, by Bowlaway.
Ecco/HarperCollins; 9780062862853; $27.99.
Nann Blaine Hilyard retired in 2014 after a 39-year career administering small-and medium-sized public libraries in Texas, Kansas, Maine, North Dakota, and Illinois. She has served on many ALA and division committees, including the Executive Board and Council. She is currently president-elect of the Retired Members Round Table. She is convener of the ALA Biblioquilters, whose collaborative quilt projects have raised more than $25,000 for library school scholarships.