Mary Sharratt The Real Minerva

ISBN 13: 9780618618880

The Real Minerva

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9780618618880: The Real Minerva
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Minerva, Minnesota, in 1923 is the picture of Willa Cather-like gentility: the Northern Pacific Railway runs through a town center dominated by church steeples and the Hamilton Creamery and Pop Factory. But Minerva is also a small town of limited opportunity, a place where the status quo is firmly entrenched and rigidly enforced. Against this tableau of midwestern placidity and calm, three Minerva women assert their dignity and independence against all odds.
The troubled relationship between young Penny and her mother, Barbara, is getting worse. Disturbed by her mother's affair with the man they clean house for, Penny answers an ad to work for Cora Egan, a Chicago society woman who has fled a bad marriage and intends to raise her child alone on her grandfather's farm. Cora's situation shocks the town, but over time her presence opens a door in Penny's and Barbara's lives. Through these women, Mary Sharratt considers what it takes to reinvent the self, to claim one's true identity.
Mary Sharratt's first novel, Summit Avenue, was hailed as a "remarkablel debut . . . [that] weaves dark, evocative fairy tales and passionate longings into an incandescent coming-of-age story" (Publishers Weekly, starred review). Readers interested in feminine archetypes and women in myth will be similarly drawn to Sharratt's newest novel. Exquisite historical detail and emotional resonance infuseThe Real Minerva,an old-fashioned story with a modern spirit.

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About the Author:

MARY SHARRATT, the author of seven critically acclaimed novels, is on a mission to write strong women back into history. Her novels include Daughters of the Witching Hill, the Nautilus award-winning Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen,The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, and Ecstasy, about the life, loves, and music of Alma Mahler. She is an American who lives in Lancashire, England.
 

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1 Minerva, 1923

The day before the heat wave began, Penny Niebeck cleaned Irene Hamilton’s room. Stooping to her knees, she picked the strewn stockings and underwear off the floor, and the dress that had been worn only once since its last washing and was now crumpled and stained. She was stuffing it all into the laundry bag when Irene marched in, pale and plump, white-gloved hands clenched. Penny struggled to her feet and steeled herself, sweat beading under her armpits as she met Irene’s colorless eyes. Irene’s hot breath, smelling of breakfast bacon, fanned Penny’s cheeks. Both girls were fifteen, their birthdays five days apart. For the past eight years, Penny’s mother had worked as the Hamiltons’ cleaning woman. For almost as long as she could remember, Penny had clothed herself in whatever Irene had worn out and cast away.
You want to know something?” Irene let out a swift exhalation that lifted the hairs on the back of Penny’s neck. Your mother named you Penny because she’s cheap, and so are you.” Penny took a step backward, nearly stumbling over the laundry bag. You have to go catch your train,” she said. Irene and her sisters were leaving for summer camp that day.
Doesn’t it leave at noon?” A glance at the porcelain-faced clock on the dresser told her that it was nearly half past eleven.
I forgot something.” Irene turned to snatch her mother’s photograph from the lace-topped vanity and clutched it to her chest, her arms carefully folded around it. The photograph had been taken before Mrs. Hamilton fell ill from the sleeping sickness. For the past four years, Mrs. H. had been an invalid in the Sandborn Nursing Home. Her face was frozen up like a statue’s. She didn’t talk anymore, didn’t do anything but sleep and let the nurses feed and change her like a baby. The doctors couldn’t say how long she would live or if she would ever get better.
You know why Daddy’s sending us away.” Irene spoke accusingly.
Penny breathed hard. No, I don’t.” But her voice faltered and blood began to pound at her temples.
You know.” Irene spoke so vehemently that her spit landed on Penny’s face. Even someone as dumb as you could figure it out.” I’m not dumb.” Oh, yeah? Then why aren’t you going to high school this fall?” Penny looked down at her cracked old shoes, the color of potatoes left to rot in the cellar. When she had finished ninth grade that spring, her mother had told her it was time to leave school and earn her own keep. High school was for people from well-off families or children whose parents cared about education and that sort of thing. At fifteen, Penny had hands already as swollen and red from all the cleaning as her mother’s were.
Your mother’s too cheap to keep you in school,” Irene said, sticking her face into Penny’s so that she couldn’t look away. She’s as cheap as they come.” Is that so?” Penny shot back. Well, your father seems to think she’s just fine.” She watched Irene’s face go from flour white to chicken-blood red. You better hurry,” she said, or you’ll miss your train.” Downstairs Mr. H. was calling for his daughter. Your mother’s a whore,” Irene whispered, something glinting in her eyes, which had suddenly gone pink. She hugged her mother’s photograph tighter. You don’t even know who your father is,” she said, her voice breaking as she dashed out the door.

After the Hamilton girls left for horse camp in Wyoming, the hot sticky weather moved in the kind Penny hated most. Those nights the back bedroom she shared with her mother seemed far too cramped, the sloping ceiling about to collapse on them. At least winter, for all its bleakness, was pristine, the glittering snow covering everything, even the manure on the road, making the world look immaculate. But in the heat of late June, everything stank and decayed the garbage pail near the back door with the trail of ants marching up its side, the reek of her sweating body as she scrubbed floors and heated the iron on the stove.
With the windows wide open, she heard every noise at night the raccoons knocking over the garbage pail, the laughter of lovey-dovey couples walking up the street. The sound of Mr. H. pacing in the master bedroom while her mother rolled in her narrow bed, the springs creaking beneath her.

Penny and her mother were hanging laundry on the clothesline when Mr. H. appeared without warning, home from the pop factory at eleven in the morning. Without more than a hastily mumbled hello, he ducked past them and disappeared inside the back door.. A furious pounding filled Penny’s head like someone hammering away on scrap metal. Her mother, her beautiful mother, turned, chicory-blue eyes narrowing against the sun’s glare.
I s’pose he forgot something.” Clothespins clamped between her lips, Penny graaaaabbed a wet bedsheet from the laundry basket and was about to pin it up on the line when her mother yanked it out of her hands and threw it back into the basket. Penny stared at her, too furious to speak.
We need bleach,” Barbara Niebeck told her daughter, forcefully but quietly. Go get some bleach.” She pulled two dimes out of her apron pocket.
Spitting the clothespins out of her mouth, Penny fisted the coins her mother thrust at her.
Go on,” she said, squaring her shoulders and using the tone Penny knew better than to argue with.
Her mouth trembling, Penny shot out of the yard. She hid behind the lilac bush in the alley and watched her mother head toward the house, watched her skirt swing from her slender hips like a bell. There was nothing hesitant in her mother’s gait.

As Penny stumbled off in the direction of the store, she didn’t hear the dogs barking or the whistle of the train pulling into the depot four blocks away.
She heard only her mother’s voice, as hateful as a stranger’s. Go get some bleach. Afterward her mother would try to disguise the odor by dribbling lily-of- the-valley toilet water all over her bed. The smell was enough to make Penny gag. With Mr. H. of all people. Mr. H.
with his wife in the nursing home. How could her mother possibly find him attractive, with his sissified New England accent and his high balding forehead?
Penny understood without wanting to what he saw in her mother’s firm body, in her thick, lustrous hair that wasn’t dark brown like Penny’s but blue-black exotic coloring in Minerva, where most people’s hair was blond or mousy brown. Once Penny had overheard Mr. Wysock from church telling someone that her mother looked like Mata Hari. If people said unkind things about Barbara Niebeck, they all agreed she was a stunner.
Penny had been very fond of Mrs.
Hamilton, who in the days before her illness had been kind to her.
Mrs. H. had baked shortbread, which she cut into delicately pointed triangles called petticoat tails. When it was fresh from the oven, she had invited Penny to join her daughters at the table for shortbread and sweet milky tea. Mrs.
H. had made her daughters be nice to her, had told them to let her join their games. Penny remembered going to bed praying that Hazel Hamilton was her real mother, but that was four years ago, before Mrs. Hamilton’s illness.
Penny told herself she was too old for such games of make-believe. Her mother always said that no one could get away with being too soft in life, and Mrs. H. had been as soft as a big hortensia bloom. Look where it had gotten her. The Hamilton daughters would do much better for themselves. They were prickly little porcupines trundling along, knowing that no one would ever lay a hand on them.
Turning onto Main Street, she could feel the heat of what would be another merciless day, the humidity coating her skin like grease. When she walked into Renfew’s Grocery and Mercantile, loudly jangling the bells on the door handle, Mr. Renfew didn’t glance up from his crossword puzzle. His two customers, Mrs. Deal and Mrs. La Plant, were too caught up in their conversation to look her way.
Oh boy, it’s gonna be a hot one today,” Mrs. La Plant told her friend. Supposed to get up to ninety-nine degrees. And with this humidity!” Inside the store, it was almost bearable. An electric fan whirled from the high, pressed-tin ceiling.
Positioning herself to get the most of the circulating air, Penny rubbed the sweat from her forehead with the heel of her hand. She crossed to the shelf where the chocolate bars were displayed and fingered the illustrated wrappers. Her favorite showed a fancy city lady walking a Scottish terrier. Raising the bar to her nose, she smelled the rich chocolate through the layers of colored paper and foil. In the heat, the chocolate had lost its firmness and went limp as butter in her hands. Her fingers sank in, leaving indentations on the lady’s face.
Taking a quick look around to make sure no one was watching, she returned the misshapen bar to the shelf before slinking to the water dispenser in the corner. During the summer months, Mr. Renfew set out a big tin canister of ice water and a tray of glasses beside it. Often farmers came in, dry and dusty from the fields. Some farm hands and hired girls walked all the way into town. Sipping from her glass, she read the handwritten ads on the notice board. One in particular made her smirk: WEDDING DRESS, WORN ONCE, CHEAP, FIVE DOLLARS. How was it, she wondered, that girls spent a month or more and all their savings besides sewing their wedding dress, decorating it with ribbons, lace, and fake pearls? Why put so much work and expense into a dress they wore only one day? Once it was used, they were lucky if they could sell it for a few dollars.
Mrs. Deal and Mrs. La Plant wilted in the heat. Their carefully crimped hair went lank. The sweat rolling down their faces left snail tracks in their powder and rouge. When Mrs. Deal raised her hand to order another glass of Hamilton’s strawberry pop, Penny couldn’t help noticing that the armpit of her georgette blouse was dark with perspiration.
But before Mrs. Deal could get Mr.
Renfew’s attention, the screen door opened and a farmer strode into the shop. The two women looked over at once. Even Mr. Renfew lifted his eyes from his crossword puzzle. Penny stared at the farmer’s manure-crusted work boots, his patched overall legs, and the buttoned overcoat he wore in spite of the heat. He was not anyone she recognized. His smooth young face, shadowed by a dusty Panama hat, was guarded and expressionless. When the farmer approached the main counter, she saw in profile the burgeoning belly the overcoat was meant to hide, that belly curving out like a firm ripe melon. Even she knew it could not be the belly of a fat man.
The Maagdenbergh woman. Of course, Penny had heard the rumors about her, but until this minute they had seemed like tall stories. Yet there she was, digging her grocery list out of her pocket and reading it to Mr. Renfew, who pulled the items down from the shelves and packed them into an orange crate for her.
Insane,” Mrs. Deal muttered to Mrs. La Plant. That creature is insane.” Penny inhaled sharply, wondering if the Maagdenbergh woman had heard. She saw her stiffen, but the woman just went on reading her shopping list. Two pounds of coffee beans . . . four bars of Luna white soap . . . a bar of Castile soap.” Her tone was smooth, resonant. A quarter pound of brick cheese . . . two pan loaves . . . a pound of rice . . . a box of Ralston crackers . . . two pounds of Cream of Wheat . . . a dozen cans of tomato soup.” How’s the farm?” Mr. Renfew managed to ask.
The price of wheat has dropped so low, it’s a sin.” A spark of emotion crept into the Maagdenbergh woman’s voice. I’ve heard some farmers are switching to potatoes. At least the mills can’t fix the price of potatoes, but what can I do? The wheat’s already planted. Let’s hope the weather will hold for the harvest.” After paying Mr. Renfew, she hoisted the crate of groceries and made her cumbersome way to the door.
Penny winced, not willing to believe that such a hugely pregnant woman would carry such a load.
Ma’am!” Mr. Renfew cried. The ma’am must have slipped out before he could stop himself. He leapt out from behind the counter and attempted to wrest the crate from her arms. That’s awfully heavy.” The Maagdenbergh woman trundled right past him. I’m perfectly capable of carrying my own groceries, Mr. Renfew.” He held the screen door open for her as she hauled her load out to her pickup. As soon as she was gone, he turned shakily to Mrs. Deal and Mrs. La Plant, opening his mouth as if to comment on what had just transpired, when the Maagdenbergh woman marched back in and handed him a piece of ivory-colored letter paper.
Mr. Renfew, would you mind putting this up on your notice board?” He pinned it beside the scribbled ad for the used wedding dress.
Thank you.” The Maagdenbergh woman’s voice was as smooth as that ivory paper. Goodbye, Mr.
Renfew. Goodbye, ladies,” she added, turning to Mrs. Deal and Mrs. La Plant.
The look she gave them spoke loud and clear. It was as if she had shouted in their faces, Don’t think I didn’t hear what you were saying about me.
Then her green eyes sank into Penny, fixing her in place so that she could not look away. She felt as though the Maagdenbergh woman could see right inside her, right to the bottom of her humiliation. As though she knew her mother had sent her to the store so she could have a dirty tumble with Mr. Hamilton. Penny shrank, the cheap tumbler falling from her hand. At the sound of the glass striking the floor, everyone turned to her. Mr. Renfew, Mrs. Deal, and Mrs. La Plant looked at Penny in startled confusion as if seeing her for the first time.
Goodbye, miss.” The Maagdenbergh woman stepped out the door. Only when she was gone could Penny take a deep breath and meet Mr. Renfew’s eyes.
Indestructible, that glass,” he said as she picked it up, still in one piece, and set it back on the tray. Mrs.
Deal and Mrs. La Plant smiled at her a little too sweetly. At least none of them seemed to notice her terrible shame. Only the Maagdenbergh woman had seen that.
Penny?” he said. Is everything all right? You look kind of pale.” It was true, she was shaking.
It’s the heat.” Mrs. La Plant sighed.
A person can’t even think straight in this heat.” You better sit down,” Mr. Renfew said.
Why don’t you eat something? How ’bout a piece of pie?” Penny edged her way to the counter and took a seat, leaving an empty stool between herself and Mrs. La Plant. Mr. Renfew cut her a slice of his wife’s rhubarb pie. Want some ice cream with that?” Penny offered him one of the dimes her mother had given her, but he shook his head. This one’s on the house.” I can’t believe her nerve,” Mrs. Deal whispered to Mrs. La Plant. Going around dressed like that and in her condition.” She glanced at Mr. Renfew. Did she have the rifle along in her pickup again?” He nodded glumly. It was there in the gun rack. I don’t like to see a pregnant lady riding around with a gun.” Heard she took a shot at the Nelson gang the other week,” Mrs. La Plant said. They drove by her place looking to stir up trouble ” She’s asking for trouble,” Mrs. Deal cut in.
and she shot clean through their windshield.” The Nelson brothers are no good,” Mr.
Renfew said. Serves them right. I just wish she’d try a little harder to stay out of harm’s way. Nothing good can come of her living alone on that farm. I don’t know how she’ll manage when the baby’s there.” They went on talking, their three faces a closed circle. Penny ate her pie in silence, grateful to be invisible once more.
What was that notice she wanted you to put up on the board?” Mrs. Deal asked.
She’s looking for a hired woman.” God almighty!” Mrs. Deal slapped the counter and laughed. No one in their right mind would work for a creature li...

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9780618462322: The Real Minerva: A Novel

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