A New Series: One Minute Reviews of
Books by Vermont Authors
Laura's column "One Minute Reviews" has appeared bi-weekly in Wilmington, Vermont's Deerfield Valley News since 2015. In April 2018, she found that no Vermont periodical consistently reviews all commercially published fiction and non-fiction by Vermont authors, so she started a series to fill that void. Published reviews from that series and some earlier reviews of local authors are listed with links to a scan of the printed copy. Reviews still in queue are listed without links until they appear in print.
Deerfield Valley News, 5/11/2023
A Woman’s Lot, A Woman’s Strength
Celia Ryker, Augusta: A Novel Based on a True Story. Rootstock Publishing, 2023
Readers of Ryker’s hiking memoir Walking Home will find that they have briefly met Augusta Dawson before. She was Ryker’s grandmother, remembered affectionately for living by a lake and teaching five-year-old Ryker not to be afraid of loon calls or snakes. Augusta, Ryker’s debut historical novel, records the life of the woman behind that early memory.
It was not an easy life. The only girl in her family, Augusta grew up on a hardscrabble farm in the Ozarks. She was grudgingly allowed to stay in school until 8th grade, but she and her mother did all the cooking and housekeeping for August’s constantly working father and brothers. At the age of 13, she was married her off to Simon Church, her best friend’s recently widowed father. (“Yer papa an’ I can’t be feedin’ ya forever. … Love ain’t all it’s cracked up ta be. A home an’ food an’ family’re more important.”)
Simon’s farm failed, and so he and Augusta, now 15 and pregnant, moved to Detroit, where he worked for the nascent automobile industry. Living in a grim tenement building, Augusta kept house as best she could—but soon after her second daughter was born, Simon deserted her for another woman. Still in her teens, she started work as a waitress, a job which barely supported her little family. A later second marriage was initially happy, but her husband lost his job, took to drink, and abused her two daughters, so Child Services took them from her, leaving her with a four-year-old son and a new baby on the way. While her husband's unexplained disappearance made it possible for the daughters to come back, poverty forced Augusta to give up the new baby to a couple she had met at work. The Book’s compelling opening scene portrays Augusta walking past the house where the adoptive family lived, hoping for a glimpse of her growing child but not daring to talk to her.
Based in part on family memories, Ryker’s novel focuses on intimate social detail, with only marginal attention to larger historical context. Thus while a little arithmetic tells us Augusta came to Detroit in 1909 and was still there in 1927 when her oldest daughter turned 18, the automobile industry that employed her husbands is mentioned only in passing, and WWI isn’t mentioned at all. When it comes to domestic details, however, Ryker’s research is tremendously effective. In the Ozarks, the reader watches Augusta sit up all night with a cow in labor; observes Augusta’s mother bargain for a graduation dress, and witnesses the death, funeral and wake of the woman Augusta replaces as Simon’s wife. In Detroit, readers share her horror at the filthy indoor toilet her family shares with the other tenants on her floor, see the cookstove stoked with scrap wood brought up three floors, and laugh at the window inserted in an interior wall of her apartment to subvert the building code that decrees that every room must have a window. Later, in a better rental house with her second husband (hot and cold running water! real windows!), readers smile as Augusta struggles with the directions of the latest laundry treasure: the Easy Washing Machine.
The book concludes on a positive note in the late 1920s, when the adopted daughter, now 12, wants to meet her birth mother, and Augusta, now in her early 30s, celebrates Thanksgiving with all of her children. We are told in the Author’s Note that the two families merged. The happy ending, like Ryker’s memory of her grandmother, is a tribute to Augusta, who not only survived a difficult life, but maintained such dignity that two generations of her offspring remembered her with the love and respect she deserved.