Mary Sharratt is not a mother herself, but she captures the messiness and joy of motherhood with a deep authenticity. On the cover of her beautiful new novel, The Real Minerva, a woman’s face hovers, large and transparent, above a snowy rural landscape. This face, blended with the deep blue sky, gazes down upon everything like a goddess. Or a mother. Even when mother and daughter in this novel are apart, the mother’s presence looms, constant as the constellations.
Minerva, as Sharratt conceives it, is a small town in Minnesota, grounded in traditional (and repressive) values, rife with gossip, unkind to those who choose to live outside the 1923 status quo. Cora Maagdenbergh, “The Maagdenbergh Woman,” as she is known, is a particularly feared and ostracized figure. Pregnant, she fled her abusive husband and their highbrow Chicago lifestyle. She lives on her grandfather’s farm alone, wears men’s clothes, and works the fields.
Penny Niebeck and her mother Barbara also live on the fringes of Minerva society; Barbara, a single mother, is having an affair with Mr. Hamilton, the man whose house she cleans while his wife languishes from sleeping sickness in a rest home. Fifteen-year-old Penny, scandalized by her mother’s behavior and tired of continual cruelty from the Hamilton daughters, answers an ad for a hired girl on the Maagdenbergh farm.
When Penny arrives at the farmhouse, Cora Maagdenbergh has just given birth. Sharratt creates a vivid and harrowing postpartum scene: Penny finds Cora passed out and hemorrhaging; the baby, whose cord the woman had already cut, is bloody in her listless arms. Penny, whose grandfather tried to drown her in a rain barrel just after she was born, remembers the story of how her mother at age 15 ran away with her infant daughter to save both their lives. (Penny doesn’t know that her grandfather, through incestuous abuse, is also her father.) She takes it upon herself to bathe the newborn, to try to stanch the flow of blood between the woman’s legs. She and Cora share a deep and unruly intimacy before they even learn each other’s names.
When the doctor who Penny calls later comes and sees Cora nursing her baby, he whispers to Penny, “There aren’t very many educated city women who do it that way anymore. . . . But it figures, doesn’t it? She has to be so contrary” (37). It is this contrariness, this willingness to go against convention, that ultimately liberates Cora (and Penny and her mother, as well). The author makes it clear that Cora knows her own self, and her own body, better than the doctor (who erroneously calls the placenta “the sac the baby comes in”) ever could.
Sharratt understands instinctively how motherhood changes a person. Even Penny, who mothers Phoebe by proxy, finds her own physicality has changed: “As she approached the counter, it struck her that she had a different way of walking. Maybe it was only the baby’s weight in her arms, but her feet seemed to touch the ground more resolutely than they had before” (74). When the baby focuses on Penny’s eyes for the first time “she felt her middle go soft” (69). Sharratt captures that deep physical shift that happens when you mother a child, even a child you have not given birth to yourself.
It takes Penny a while to get used to her new boss, though, and her new position as a hired girl. Sharratt’s evocation of domestic life in 1923 made this reader grateful to live in an era of washing machines and microwaves. Many rural women were confined to the kitchen all day, boiling diapers in a copper wash kettle, plucking chickens, peeling potatoes. The domestic tedium gets to Penny, as related in this passage:
“Penny doubted that anyone would ever mention this meal she was cooking. The moment it was finished, her work would be devoured and forgotten. That’s the way it was with women’s work. It kept getting undone — the clean dishes dirtied, the laundered diapers soiled. No glory in it at all. No wonder Cora had chosen the role of the man. Penny imagined cutting off her braid, putting on a pair of overalls, and never having to cook another harvest dinner” (84).
Despite the frustration of this unending work, Penny finds happiness on the farm with Cora and her daughter; she also finds a way to escape — with Cora’s help — through books. Especially the Odyssey. Cora gives Penny what her mother cannot: a chance to further her learning. The future Cora offers is a spacious one, a future not confined to a kitchen or the city limits of Minerva. Sharratt writes: “Sometimes [Penny] thought of her future as a thing she could nourish like a baby in her womb. It would grow and grow until it was too big to fit inside her anymore” (102). Even though Penny has fled her mother, she knows this big open future will somehow have to include their reconnection as well.
The Real Minerva is ripe with images of birth — both physical birth and more metaphoric birthings, like Penny’s gestating future. It is fitting that Cora was born in the town of Puerto Natales, the Port of Birth; later in the book (and this is a bit of a spoiler), it makes perfect sense that she becomes a midwife.
Birds also play a large metaphoric role in the book, from the chickens Penny has to slaughter to the Ave songs sung by the migrant workers from Mexico. Birds can be violent and terrifying in this novel, but they also represent freedom, flight. Sharratt’s bird and birth images merge in a particularly visceral way when Penny brings Cora’s afterbirth outside and the geese attack it, blood darkening their feathers.
The goddess Minerva may have sprung whole from the top of her father’s head, but the fatherless women of Minerva find many ways to help each other give birth (to themselves as well as to babies), many ways to help each other fly, even under brutal circumstances. When Cora’s past comes back to haunt her, the women do what is necessary to survive and claim the future waiting for them.
Sharratt illuminates the fierce and complicated bond between mothers and daughters, between women and society (and between women outside of society), in rich and nuanced language. The novel is what some would call an “old-fashioned” read: solidly plotted, it takes its sweet time to unfold, lingering on details — flies plumping like raisins in a pot of tomato sauce, the feel of Calamine lotion on sunburned skin — and presenting fully realized characterizations. The Real Minerva is the real deal, indeed.