Grand Manan Island is part of the province of New Brunswick and has a population of just over 2,000 (as of 2016). It is also the setting for Melba’s Wash by Reesa Steinman Brotherton, who was born in New Brunswick, and whose own story slightly follows that of Esther, the main protagonist.
It’s difficult to summarize the storyline of Melba’s Wash. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think of Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart: both have similar plots, spanning generations and various settings, and with a mirthful undertone for what is a dramatic story full of poverty, teen pregnancies, more pregnancies, deaths and secrets, lots of secrets. If you enjoyed the Giller-nominated Songs for the Cold of Heart, then you would likely enjoy Melba’s Wash.
“I am the ten-month-old baby that Melba and Russell Girling traded to her sister Flora and Sammy Weinstein for a black and white floor model RCA Victor television set, on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, back in 1954. I am also the young Jewish Princess who grew up in Cote-Saint-Luc in Montreal, Quebec. This is a story remembered, not remembered.”
So begins the Prologue to Melba’s Wash. Esther has lived two lives by the age of ten: one of poverty on Grand Manan Island, and one of privilege on the island of Montreal amid the Jewish community there. Then, after Sammy unexpectedly dies, a grief-stricken Flora concludes she must send Esther back to Grand Manan for she cannot cope with her own emotions, and having Esther around just adds to her anxieties. Melba doesn’t want Esther back; for some reason, out of all her children, Esther is the unwanted and unloved one. Esther doesn’t recognize Melba and Russell Girling as her parents (especially the dirty, mean drunkard that Russell is) and wants to get away, but she’s only ten. “Gott in Himmel, please help me get away from here I want to go home. Where has home gone?” is her constant prayer.
The story then follows the lives of Melba and Esther, who hate each other.
Esther lost her innocent smile, the one that came so naturally on Montreal Island. Now her smile was broken, bitter and hateful. It was her new Grand Manan Island smile, it was a Girling smile; it was hate at its smiliest. Hate has a fearless memory. Hate, like grief, is difficult to overcome even with faith, because first, you must want to.
Traumatized by all that has happened to her (and will yet happen, although there are happy times too), Esther goes through life wanting her Mummy and Daddy (the Weinsteins) from whom she was torn from when life was so good. She tries to replicate that happy time but never seems to be able to even seeking counselling and medication. The story brings us right up to the present day when she manages to survive the flooding of High River just outside of Calgary in 2013. Unable to move back into her building because of flood damage, and unable to afford rents in the Calgary area, she is once again homeless and decides to move back to Grand Manan to be near her older sister Frieda.
There is a definite awareness of Esther’s isolation throughout her life. I already mentioned the island theme, which extends from her birth to her upbringing in Montreal, and even to her apartment in High River during the flood. Esther slept through the night and didn’t hear the announcement on a megaphone to evacuate for she takes Valium and uses earplugs to sleep. She is soon isolated in her building as it is surrounded by water and the others have already left. At ten years of age, when she is returned to Grand Manan after living in Montreal, her refined manners and form of speech only serve to separate her from her siblings and other children. Esther endeavours to be alone. To pray, to write. She even breaks into Willa Cather‘s abandoned summer camp to hide her days away. “The cottage looks away. And she was from away,” she tells her friend Liz.
It is easy to sympathize with Esther, due to her mother’s rejection of her (and subsequent hatred) which makes the reader ponder “What could happen next to the poor girl?” The other residents of Grand Manan are not painted favourably by Ms. Steinman Brotherton. Yet their way of life and the pittance they make at their jobs does little to elevate them over the poverty line. The women are certainly fertile, and these are the days before the birth control pill existed. The men are rough, hard-living and hard-drinking fishermen, particularly Russell Skunk, Esther’s presumed father. (He is called Russell Skunk for he is usually drunk as a skunk.)
At just over 200 pages, Melba’s Wash reads like hundreds of pages more due to the passing of some sixty years from start to finish. Even so, it is an entrancing story, very straightforward, very sad, but mirthful too.
I’m putting Melba’s Wash on the 2020 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Fiction.
(Melba’s Wash will be released on September 1, 2019)
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