Monday, January 2, 2023

Book Review: All the Forgivenesses by Elizabeth Hardinger

 All the Forgivenesses is a debut novel set in early 20th century Kentucky featuring young Bertie Winslow. The story is told from Albertina's (Bertie's) perspective and we follow her through a difficult childhood in Kentucky and into adulthood onto the oil fields of Kansas. The story was written based on stories about oil fields life in the early twentieth century told to the author by her mother and aunts. "The voice of this novel is my recollection of the speech of my maternal grandmother" the author writes. It was Bertie's voice that took me away to another time and land.


The story begins in 1906, at a Sweet family gathering in Kentucky which serves as both family reunion and pig killing day. Bertie is a six and a half year old who is in charge of her three year old brother, Timmy, while the women work with the pig meat. Her dad and brothers go with the men to the woods to hunt. Mama bounced baby Dacia on her hip until naptime. Then Bertie was given the chore of putting Dacia down for a nap.

Bertie carried baby Dacia into Grandma Sweet's and placed her in a crib. Then made a pallet for Timmy and he fell asleep too. Later in the day Bertie discovers that Timmy is missing from the pallet and is missing from the area around the house. The search begins for Timmy but it is too late.  His body was found in the creek the next morning.

With that tragedy, the already difficult family situation becomes worse for the four remaining children.

Mama is less able to emotionally care for the children fully and Bertie becomes increasingly responsible for the household. Mama becomes pregnant, becomes physically ill, and young Bertie has more siblings to care for while Mama spends her days in bed. Their father comes and goes and the children do their best not to attract his attention while trying to survive.

We follow Bertie through her adolescence, her marriage, and adulthood. Like so many people, she carries her childhood experiences into her own marriage. Her husband, Sam, is a better provider for the family than her father was and a kind, patient man. They move to the oil fields in Kansas for work. 

"Inspired by the stories told by the author's mother and aunts, All The Forgivenesses is as authentic as it is lyrical -- a captivating novel of family loyalty, redemption, and resilience"  quote from Goodreads

I feel that I am having difficulty writing the kind of review that explains how much I enjoyed this book without giving spoilers. I agree whole-heartedly with the description of "authentic" and "lyrical".  We watch as Bertie is forced into the role of caregiver as a child and how she continues in that role as an adult woman. Parts of her story are heart-breaking. She's the heroine but she's not perfect or superhuman. Bertie carries both her strengths and her flaws into her marriage. Despite the hard conditions and difficult relationships there is something beautiful unfolding for this family; not only does Bertie keep children alive, she is able to help them thrive.

This book reminded me a bit of the Winter's Bone story in that a young girl is responsible for siblings while the adults are absent in one way or another and is making the best life they can for their siblings in an impoverished, isolated setting. 






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5 comments:

  1. This sounds like a very good story. Having responsibilities for younger siblings and the household when you are only a child yourself was a common theme in circumstances such as are found in this story in times past. I can relate to some of this story and look forward to reading it. Thanks for telling me about it, Dawn Rae.

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  2. The title makes me think there were lots of things and people that required forgiveness in this book. I suspect Bertie even had to forgive herself, as well as others, simply because too much responsibility was placed on the shoulders of a 6 year old and she felt responsible. I would assume adults were quick to shift the blame to Bertie too. History tells us that young children were given much work and responsibility in the past. I've heard stories from my own ancestors, young boys going to work on the farm & young girls having to cook and care for younger siblings. Clearly, there needs to be a realistic balance in the lives of children. Sounds like an insightful book!

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  3. This sounds like quite an intense and absorbing story, so I was surprised and intrigued at the "lyrical" characterization. Children growing up in such harsh and demanding conditions have age-inappropriate responsibilities thrust upon them. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for Bertie to live with the guilt of the death of a younger sibling in her care. It sounds as though this early trial-by-fire strengthened rather than broke her, but at a high cost.

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  4. This kind of story really pulls me right in. I think we all have times like the ones you describe in your review and have no trouble relating to the storytellers tale. I would enjoy this book for sure! Thanks Dawn for putting another book on my list!

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  5. The fact that this story is told through the recollections of her grandmother makes this one immediately interesting. I love the stories of lives gone by, they fascinate me - and I find myself living the experiences as explained by family (my mom told me many about our home town!) - The loss of the child really got me though. Suffering children is tough to bear - and the oldest having to basically raise her siblings - you've indicated that it's inspirational though, which is always moving with stories like this. Another good book to read.

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