LEAVING ROCK HARBOR by Rebecca Chace
“I kept thinking about what Alice had said that day at the mill with Lizzie and Winslow. Yes, I had Geoffrey now but what was I going to do?…I told her what I knew: I could run the house, if Ham stayed out of my way. I could bring up Geoffrey. I knew how much I loved my boy, and I was pretty sure that I loved Winslow. But Alice hadnâ€™t asked about any of that, she had asked me what I was going to do.”
Review by Poornima Apte (MAY 31, 2010)
The city of Lowell, Massachusetts, was once a thriving home to the textile industry. Just before World War I broke out, the city was at the peak of a huge economic boom. In just a couple of decades however, a slow reversal of fortunes took place. By the early 1920s work was moving south to the Carolinas and once the Depression took hold, the slide was pretty much irreversible.
Rock Harbor, the fictional New England town painted by Rebecca Chase in her new novel, feels a lot like Lowell or even New Bedford, both towns marked by severe downturns in manufacturing industries.
The story follows the fortunes of Frankie Ross, who as a teenager, moves with her family to Rock Harbor from Poughkeepsie, NY. Her father is a skilled engraver of textiles and lands a good union job. The pretty Frankie soon attracts the attention of two teenaged boys. Thereâ€™s Winslow Curtis, the privileged son of a powerful local politician, Ham Curtis, and Winslowâ€™s best friend, Joe Barros, the son of a Portuguese immigrant.
The three become inseparable and Frankie often finds herself the center of their attentionsâ€”not knowing for a while whether either of the two actually harbors any romantic thoughts about her. For her part, Frankie finds herself strongly attracted to Joe. As a Portuguese immigrant, he occupies a lower rung in the very hierarchical class system in town. Itâ€™s probably this element of â€śforbidden loveâ€ť that makes Joe even more attractive to the young Frankie. Joe also works as a mill-hand in one of the factories in town while Winslow, the son of privilege, hardly has to lift a finger. Despite the strong class differences, Winslow and Joe are fast friends and Frankie too becomes a strong element of their friendship.
But before any of the three has had a chance to speak up about any romantic feelings brewing, Joe goes off to fight in the war. From Europe he sends fevered letters to Frankie. Eventually these letters become mere catalogs of eventsâ€”they do nothing to still Frankieâ€™s passion toward Joe. Slowly Frankie turns her attentions solely towards Winslow and comes to love him. The two get romantically involved. This alliance is also one Frankieâ€™s parents encourage so their girl can move up in society.
Frankie eventually marries Winslow despite simmering feelings for Joe. She has a child, Geoffrey, with Winslow and gets used to a life of luxury and servants, as she becomes a part of the Curtis family.
Predictably Joe returns from war, woundedâ€”he loses one eye. When he returns to Rock Harbor, he becomes a union organizer and a potent force in the working community in town. His stance often brings him in confrontation with the political establishment.
Slowly Frankie finds her old feelings for Joe returning and it remains to be seen whether she will make peace with her place in life.
Meanwhile the millsâ€™ fortunes go south (both literally and figuratively) and along with that so does the Curtis fortune.
Chace, who has modeled the story after experiences from her own family, does a wonderful job of portraying the smallest of details in the fictional New England town. The everyday workings of the millâ€”including the horrific use of child laborâ€”are drawn in vivid detail. Chace also does a wonderful job portraying the subtlest class divisions among the residents of the town. The Portuguese were among the lower classes but even Frankieâ€™s mill-working family is aware of the difference between themselves and the Curtises. Chace brings out these details in nuanced observations. For example, when the Rosses are invited to a casual family dinner at the Curtis residence, they turn out in their Sunday best.
Chace also does a wonderful job with Frankie portraying her conflicting emotions for Joe over Winslow. She shows Frankieâ€™s struggle with her emotions as she settles for Winslow worrying that if she didnâ€™t, time would run out against her.
Unfortunately there are many predictable turns to the story and while Chace does her best to keep the melodrama down, it sometimes slips through. Chaceâ€™s storytelling occasionally feels as if she is rushing through eventsâ€”they read like a mere cataloging and one doesnâ€™t have time to linger and get the full impact of events as they occur. Despite all this, Chaceâ€™s storytelling skills are so tight that Leaving Rock Harbor keeps the reader hooked.
It is easy to see the parallels between the downturn in Rock Harborâ€™s fortunes and those of Frankie Ross. The emptiness Frankie feels, the regrets that tug at her every day, mirror the dwindling options left for a once-thriving town.
And while reinvention might sound liberating, as Frankie discovers, it is not always easy.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 4 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Scribner; 1 edition (June 1, 2010)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Rebecca Chace|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||More novels set in New England mill towns:
Sea Glass by Anita Shreve
Empire Falls by Richard Russo