The Real Minerva
by Mary Sharratt
Published by Houghton Mifflin
272 pages, 2004
Under the Postcard Veneer
Reviewed by David Abrams
Most small towns have manic bipolar personalities. There's the postcard veneer visible to the naked eye: the white pickets fences, the neatly-mowed lawns, the porch swings, the cheery wave of neighbors passing in the post office parking lot.
Then there's the reality of those storybook communities, the sub-veneer that no one likes to admit but everyone likes to talk about (behind cupped hands at the church potluck, under the hairdresser's blow dryer, across the picket fence). This is the stuff of small-town gossip, the fodder for hometown legends.
In Mary Sharratt's new novel, The Real Minerva, set in a fictional Minnesota town in 1923, the sub-veneer is squirmy and crawling with scandal. On the book's first page, we learn, "the tallest building isn't the water tower or the grain elevator but the steeple of Saint Anne's Catholic Church." Religion may loom large in Prohibition-era Minerva, Minnesota, but so do adultery, murder and several other deadly sins.
For heaven's sake, the town even has an axe murderess -- quiet, kindhearted Sadie Ostertag who chopped up her four children then tried to hang herself -- though she's mainly there to serve as wallpaper since The Real Minerva centers around three other females: housemaid Barbara Niebeck who is having an affair with her employer; her 15-year-old daughter Penny who is slowly realizing her mother is much less than a saint; and the enigmatic Cora Egan who has come to Minerva, pregnant and wearing men's clothes, to escape a bad marriage in Chicago.
The three characters' lives collide when Penny discovers her mother's infidelity and runs away to the farm outside of town where Cora's been living alone for the past several months. When Penny arrives, Cora is in the throes of childbirth. Like a plucky Laura Ingalls character, Penny helps deliver the baby, lends a hand with the farm chores, then decides to stay at the farm when she finds herself bonding with the mysterious Cora. It's not long before the older woman is teaching Penny about the ways of motherhood and how to be on guard against scheming, slimy men (like the dangerously temperamental husband she left back in Chicago).
Meanwhile, back in town, Barbara discovers that sex can sometimes lead to love as she gradually starts responding to the affections from her boss, Laurence Hamilton, owner of the soda pop factory, Rotary Club member, singer in the Presbyterian church choir, and husband to a woman who's been in a coma for four years. Barbara scrubs floors, washes windows, does laundry and obediently responds to Laurence's midday urges. Lurking at the edges of this upstairs-downstairs drama is Hamilton's petulant 15-year-old daughter Irene whose eyes shoot daggers at Barbara whenever she's in the room. If The Real Minerva was a movie, they'd be cueing the ominous-foreshadowy music at this point.
Sharratt sets several subplots in motion, then wisely steps back and lets them play out with a minimum of authorial intrusion. This is the kind of writing which engages the reader without word gymnastics, verbal fireworks or symphonic sentences. We have plot, we have characters and both work in harmony to drive the reader forward. Along the way, we become fully caught up in the lives of Penny, Cora and Barbara, suspecting the eventual outcome of their drama, but hoping against hope things might go differently for them.
The Real Minerva also reminds us of how horrendously awful small-town gossip and politics can be. In the shadow of Saint Anne's steeple, wagging tongues ruin lives and alter destinies: "The thing [Barbara] hated most about Minerva, she decided, was that everyone thought they knew you, but they saw only what fit their own notion of a person, what they were comfortable seeing."
Though it's set in 1920s Minnesota (a world which Sharratt brings to life with vivid detail), this novel reverberates into our 21st-century lives. Read The Real Minerva and you might find yourself thinking about your own hometown and all the intolerable human behavior that lies beneath the veneer. | September 2004
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.