It’s not easy being a woman at the turn of the 20th century, especially as the owner of a bowling alley in a small, patriarchal New England town. But the formidable and eccentric Bertha Truitt in Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway manages just fine and then some.
In her first novel in 18 years, McCracken (The Giant’s House) offers up a trademark bittersweet and almost-fanciful story packed with misfit characters and oh-so-perfectly-descriptive turns of phrase.
Bertha, self-proclaimed inventor of candlepin bowling, mysteriously appears in Salford (described as “hard north of Boston,” but fictional) one day and the town and its inhabitants, especially the women, will never be the same. “Bertha Truitt confounded people. She was two things at once. Bodily she was a matron, jowly, bosomy, bottomy, odd. At heart she was a gamine. Her smile was like a baby’s, full of joyful elan. You believed you had caused it. You felt felled by a stroke of luck.” But Bertha is no saint—she’s a badass before that was a thing, and more praiseworthy because of it.
Bold, brusque and corset-free, she builds a six-lane bowling alley and hires a motley and lovable crew. Truitt’s Alleys becomes a magnet, drawing even respectable ladies to its lanes. The women bowl “right out in the open”; unlike at establishments elsewhere, no curtain segregates them from male bowlers “to protect their modesty” and shield them from “ogling” men. They watch and learn from Truitt: “Here is the ball. Heft it in your hand. Nobody’s going to stop you. Some man might call out with advice, too much advice, but in the end it’s your game to play and your game to win.” Ah, but is that just a lesson in how to bowl?
Bertha marries and has a daughter, and they, her nanny, the bowling women, her employees and a man from her mysterious past come to life in Bowlaway. They love, grieve, bowl, plot, reproduce and venture off on their life paths as the decades roll by. And it’s Bertha and the ripple effects of her cut-short life who puts many of their fates into play.
McCracken can be funny, but she packs a punch. When a new owner, a man, takes over the bowling alley and wants to ban women from it because “men need a place they can come together without women,” one of Bertha’s female protégés reacts, “But wasn’t that the whole wide world?” Ha! Yes, you go, girl! But then she goes on, “Indeed, perhaps women did not need a place to come together but to be alone. That’s what Truitt’s was to her: a thunderous place where she could think in peace.” You go, girl, even more.
Even in her day, Berta wanted it all, and she wanted everyone else to want it all, too. “What she wanted was a kind of greatness that women were not allowed. If they were allowed a small measure of it, they had to forsake love. She forsook nothing.”
In the years since her last novel, McCracken has written an acclaimed memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, and an award-winning collection of short stories, Thunderstruck & Other Stories. But the way the literary queen of quirk of spins this sly and wry, multi-faceted tale makes you hope it’s not 18 more years until the next novel.
Amy Canfield is a writer and editor who had her 10th birthday party at a candlepin bowling alley. She lives in South Portland.