Joanna Scott: Follow Me
This story is narrated by Sally Bliss. It is partially about her and her parents but mainly about her grandmother, after whom she is named. Sally Werner (aka Sally Angel, Sally Mole and Sally Bliss) is born in the fictitious town of Tauntonville, a small town in the north of Pennsylvania, on the fictitious Tuskee River, not far from the state line with New York. (Scott conveniently provides a map, which essentially shows the course of the Tuskee River in Pennsylvania and New York, a river which Sally Werner is never far from.) Her parents are from Germany and are very religious. Indeed, when two of their daughters get polio, one dying and the other, Trudy, needing a leg brace for the rest of her life, they take this as a sign that their religious faith is not strong enough. Unlike her siblings, Sally is something of a rebel. One day, the family attend a church picnic, where Daniel, Sally’s older cousin who had lost an eye in the war, offered her a ride on his motorbike. She accepted and off they went. Daniel raped Sally, though she did not put up much of a struggle and only admonished him. She became pregnant. One of the key themes of this book is how life, even life in an ordinary place like the Tuskee River, can suddenly change and this event was to change the lives of Sally and Daniel, as Sally became pregnant. Daniel wanted to marry her. She did not want to marry him. After the baby was born, she left him on her parents’ kitchen table and walked off.
Georgie, a widow with a young son, takes her in. Briefly taken for an angel when she arrives, she adopts the name Sally Angel. Eventually, one of the men she met when she first arrived, Mason Jackson, offers her a good wage to be his housekeeper. She accepts. The job is easy and well paid and Mason Jackson behaves himself. But she overhears that Mason has a cashbox where he keeps all his savings. When he is out, she looks at it and counts it, more than once. She does not take any – she is not a thief, she tells herself – but is continually drawn to it. Then, one day, the day of Georgie’s wedding, a guest identifies her and she has to leave. She does take some of Mason’s money – leaving him half – and she is off, taking the bus, up the Tuskee River. Except once in a dire emergency, when she”borrows” twenty dollars she does not use Mason’s money till it is really needed. She finds a job and earns her own money. This time she meets Mole and he might be the one but fate once again conspires against her and she is left pregnant with Benny Patterson’s baby and again she has to flee. The baby is Penelope, Sally Bliss’ mother. By now she is Sally Mole but when she has to flee again she becomes Sally Bliss, after a singer she briefly knew and whose songs she sings.
While we have been hearing Sally Werner’s story we have also been learning about her granddaughter. Penelope met and married Abe Boyle. He tried to kill himself six months before his daughter was born. He threw himself in the Tuskee River but was rescued by a freak wave (his point of view) or the Tuskawali (small, legendary river creatures that lived in the Tuskee) (Sally Werner’s point of view) but still left. Penelope brought Sally up by herself and became a successful lawyer. However, during the book, Abe contacts Sally Bliss and explains why he left. Sally Bliss had already heard the story from her grandmother but Abe gives a somewhat different account. It is, of course, all to do with what happened to Sally Werner earlier in her life. Or perhaps not.
The vicissitudes of life, struggling to make a life for oneself, the unreliable narrator, strangers helping strangers – these are just some of the themes Scott gives us, while telling us, once again a wonderful story, this time by a succession of three women of a fairly ordinary background who make their lives work, more often than not by their own efforts, with little help from the men in their lives (fathers or husbands). Indeed, it could be said that they make their way despite the men in their lives. But this is no feminist tract but much more superb storytelling from a superb story teller.
First published 2009 by Little, Brown