When the main character in Faith Sullivan’s “The Cape Ann” leaves Harvester, Minn., for a fresh start in California, Nell Stillman, the town’s kindly widow, tells her she’d like to go, too — but just not yet.
In Sullivan’s new novel, “Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse,” Nell never does get to California but instead remains in Harvester her entire life, which might seem provincial were it not for her love affair with books, particularly the novels of P.G. Wodehouse.
“To be unsophisticated was no crime if you weren’t narrow,” Nell thinks, “and she hoped that her reading kept her from that.” Indeed, reading does broaden Nell’s perspective, just as it helps her survive public and personal tragedy.
Spanning the years from pre-World War I to the early 1960s, this stand-alone story set in Harvester (scene of other Sullivan works) begins with the death of Nell’s husband, which leaves her with an 18-month-old child and 65 cents in a jar in the kitchen. Swooping to the rescue are Juliet and Lawrence Lundeen, owners of the dry goods store, who set Nell up as a third-grade teacher at the local school, where she will remain for 37 years. During those years, Nell raises her son, Hilly, with the help of a hired girl named Elvira, who becomes a close friend and protégée.
Elivra soon befriends the Lundeens’ charming son and his new bride, Cora, who, while giving birth, is paralyzed. Cora loses her liveliness at the same rate her husband prematurely ages. Both find themselves “moving into that pale landscape where the sun shines dimly through a scrim of vanished possibilities.” Smitten with the couple, Elvira will do anything to help them, and she does, but not without consequences.
Nell’s son, Hilly, is a bright presence in the novel, a sweet boy bullied by a local thug. Like his mother, Hilly loves to read and to help others. When world events — the sinking of the Lusitania, World War I — intrude on Harvester, Hilly joins the war effort, sending letters home and making the locals proud. But Hilly is injured, and his subsequent shell shock brings out the worst in the town. Yet through it all, Nell remains big-hearted, thanks to her reading of Wodehouse novels and to the love and courtship of John Flynn, a widower and local politician.
Sullivan’s novel is as quaint as a checkered tablecloth in a meadow, and although there are ripples of worry and passion to disrupt the picnic, there are no raging thunderstorms to toss us about. Instead, Sullivan describes small-town life through the eyes of an intelligent, generous narrator who fights off gossip, pettiness and tragedy with compassion, perseverance and forgiveness. Who wouldn’t want to spend a late-summer afternoon or two in the company of such a person?
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer.