Songs In Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris. 1995, Allen Lane. 740 pages.
This one took awhile to grow on me, but when it did, it definitely took hold. Songs In Ordinary Time is the story of the citizens of Atkinson, Vermont in 1960. With the world on the precipice of huge changes, the good citizens of Atkinson were feeling the uneasiness. The book has a huge list of characters, which created a challenge for me while listening to the book on my Ipod. As with other long, detailed books, there were times that I wanted and needed to “page back” and see who was related to whom. The author admits that she had to resort to cards taped all over her walls to keep up with the large number of characters while writing the book. But listening to the book did force me to pay very close attention to every detail until I was able to sort out the people and their relationships to each other, and that’s a good thing.
A major theme in the book is morality. The morality of the times as well as the morality of the individual characters. Marie Fermoyle, the center of the story, is a struggling single mother of three children. Alice, the oldest child, is graduating from high school and holds out hope that money will materialize for her to attend college. The middle child, Norm, is about sixteen and headstrong, but with a strong sense of responsibility to his mother and siblings. The youngest, Benjy, has emotional problems and spends most days in front of the television set.
The Fermoyle family is beset almost daily with humiliations and struggles. They must deal with Sam Fermoyle, the town drunk and ex-husband of Marie (and father of her children). Sam lives with his dour sister and invalid mother and his drunken antics are legendary in the small town. The two oldest children get jobs to help Marie with expenses as she desperately holds onto her pathetic, low-paying bookkeeping job. She manages to buy a ramshackle house, but the house is falling down around them and she has no more money to put into it and no husband to fix it up.
Omar Duvall, an intenerate salesman, enters the town after committing a horrendous crime known only to him. The citizens, all struggling with various trials, accept him as a hard-working, smart man. His silver tongue ingratiates him to the people and especially to Marie Fermoyle. Going against her nature, Marie lets Duvall into her home and into her heart. When Duvall comes across with a pyramid scheme involving selling soap, he sees the good folks of Atkinson as the perfect fools to launch his scheme. To the willing citizens, he is the Messiah that they are seeking.
Mary McGarry Morris has drawn these characters beautifully. The length of the book is understandable when you see the detail she has put into the descriptions of these people. This book’s greatness is in its characters, their constant struggles and their gut-wrenching need to believe in a savior. These are truly ordinary people in ordinary time. The book refers to Ordinary Time in religious vernacular as the time of the year when there are no holy holidays – just ordinary time. These folks are living through the ordinary time immediately before the country and the world undergoes great and momentous change. Their struggles and needs mirror our own. This is a book that I highly, highly recommend.
Out of five stars, I give Songs In Ordinary Time….
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