THAT CAMDEN SUMMER
LaVyrle Spencer

 


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Jove 1996
Reviewed by Karen McNamee

It is 1916 and Roberta Jewett is headed back to her home town of Camden, Maine to start a new life with her three daughters. In an era when a divorced woman is considered a few notches above a harlot, Roberta has done the unthinkable and divorced her no-good tom cat of a husband. She decides to return to Camden because that is where her mother and her sister's family are. Her hopeful dream to find a loving family waiting with open arms soon evaporates into the old familiar refrain of disapproval, now laden with a heavy dose of shame as well. As if that weren't bad enough the men of Camden, including her own lecherous brother-in-law, think she is fair game and the women haven't had this much fodder for gossip in decades.

In the face of it all, feisty Roberta is galvanized by the challenge. She is determined to make a life for herself and her daughters in this town which has disowned her. With only a meager savings and a new job as a traveling country nurse awaiting her, she arrives in Camden to find that the house her brother-in-law purchased on her behalf is not fit for habitation. She hires local carpenter, widower Gabriel Farley, to do the necessary repairs to make it livable. He has a daughter of his own the same age as one of Roberta's, and the girls all become fast friends.

After a shaky start in which Gabriel behaves as crassly as the rest of the men in Camden, he comes to realize that Roberta is nothing like the rumor mill has portrayed her to be. As he works to turn her house into a home, Gabriel and Roberta develop a grudging acceptance of each other. He admires her resolve to overcome the burden of a male-dominated world which threatens to destroy her dreams at every turn. He's astonished to see how, through love and encouragement, she inspires not only her girls but also his own daughter to experience the joy of learning without limits. Gabriel eventually redeems himself by teaching Roberta to drive the new Model T that she has bought for her job. Their mutual respect soon blossoms into friendship, but a rocky road lies ahead.

Author LaVyrle Spencer visited Camden, Maine to research this book, and it is evident in the quality of her portrayal of the town and its history. She has created a lavish tapestry of the early 1900's in America, woven together with a diverse assortment of characters. I've always felt that description can be overdone in writing, making it seem contrived, but Ms. Spencer has an extraordinary gift for bringing her novels to life through description without boring her readers. The following are two examples: "The salt air pressed heavily, like a cold, damp cloth against their faces. It smelled of rocks draped with seaweed that soured at low tide..." "A fluffy carmel-colored cat came and shaped herself into a loaf on a third chairseat underneath the table, tucked her paws and squinted into a doze. The rattle of her purring joined the music from the teakettle while night pressed its dark face to the windows."

I have read several of Ms. Spencer's books and thoroughly enjoyed each one. Many of her stories focus on personal struggles of survival and the power of the human spirit. She has retired from writing but she remains one of my favorite authors, and I always search for her books when I visit a used book store.

October 2008

 

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