“Bowlaway” by Elizabeth McCracken— An Unconventional New England Family

McCracken, Elizabeth. “Bowlaway: A Novel”, Ecco, 2019.

An Unconventional New England Family

Amos Lassen

In “Bowlaway”, Elizabeth McCracken tells the story oft three generations of an unconventional New England family who own and operate a candlepin bowling alley. It all began with when Bertha Truitt was found unconscious in a New England cemetery and all she had with her were a bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold on her person. She had always been an enigma to everyone in Salford, Massachusetts. She had no past to speak of, it seems, or at least none she was willing to speak about and this is scandalous and intriguing to her fellow townspeople. Then there was her choice to marry as does her choice to marry Leviticus Sprague, the doctor who revived her after she was found. Bertha is both tenacious, and entrepreneurial, and the bowling alley she opens quickly becomes Salford’s most defining landmark and popular attraction and Bertha became Salford’s most notable resident.

But, alas, Bertha dies in a freak accident and once again her past resurfaces with the appearance of a heretofore-unheard-of son, who arrives in Salford to claim that he is her heir. It becomes clear that, even though Bertha is dead, her defining spirit and the implications of her unwillingness to share anything about her life live on and affect future generations through inheritance battles, weird paternities, and hidden wills.

Beautifully written with wonderful and sharp humor, this is a family saga of twentieth century America complete with myths and secrets, its passions and betrayals, and the ties that bind and the rifts that divide. There is a hint of magical realism with plenty of down-to-earth wisdom. 

When Bertha sits up in the cemetery and explains that she’s the inventor of candlepin bowling, the townspeople, on one hand, are perplexed and mesmerized by her and, on the other hand, are delighted with her candlepin bowling alley, where they can bowl away their problems. The bowing alley becomes a place of camaraderie. In fact, every character under the spell of Truitt’s Alley has their own demons, agendas and desires. As the years pass,  the bowling alley changes with the times as well as the aims of those who run it. We have love stories, stories of loss and beautiful tenderness. In case you do not know what candlepin bowling is, it involves thinner pins, 3 rolls per frame, and a different scoring system. If you are like me, you will come to love it and everything else about “Bowlaway”.

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