The Washington Post
The Real Minervaby Mary Sharratt
Minerva, Minnesota, in 1923 is the picture of Willa Cather-like gentility: the Northern Pacific Railway runs through a town center dominated by church steeples and the Hamilton Creamery and Pop Factory. But Minerva is also a small town of limited opportunity, a place where the status quo is firmly entrenched and rigidly enforced. Against this tableau of
Minerva, Minnesota, in 1923 is the picture of Willa Cather-like gentility: the Northern Pacific Railway runs through a town center dominated by church steeples and the Hamilton Creamery and Pop Factory. But Minerva is also a small town of limited opportunity, a place where the status quo is firmly entrenched and rigidly enforced. Against this tableau of midwestern placidity and calm, three Minerva women assert their dignity and independence against all odds.
The troubled relationship between young Penny and her mother, Barbara, is getting worse. Disturbed by her mother's affair with the man they clean house for, Penny answers an ad to work for Cora Egan, a Chicago society woman who has fled a bad marriage and intends to raise her child alone on her grandfather's farm. Cora's situation shocks the town, but over time her presence opens a door in Penny's and Barbara's lives. Through these women, Mary Sharratt considers what it takes to reinvent the self, to claim one's true identity.
Mary Sharratt's first novel, Summit Avenue, was hailed as a "remarkablel debut . . . [that] weaves dark, evocative fairy tales and passionate longings into an incandescent coming-of-age story" (Publishers Weekly, starred review). Readers interested in feminine archetypes and women in myth will be similarly drawn to Sharratt's newest novel. Exquisite historical detail and emotional resonance infuseThe Real Minerva,an old-fashioned story with a modern spirit.
The Washington Post
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- (w) x (h) x 0.68(d)
Read an Excerpt
The day before the heat wave began,
Penny Niebeck cleaned Irene
Hamilton's room. Stooping to her knees,
she picked the strewn stockings
and underwear off the floor, and the
dress that had been worn only once
since its last washing and was now
crumpled and stained. She was stuffing it
all into the laundry bag when Irene
marched in, pale and plump, white-gloved
hands clenched. Penny struggled to her
feet and steeled herself, sweat
beading under her armpits as she met
Irene's colorless eyes. Irene's hot
breath, smelling of breakfast bacon,
fanned Penny's cheeks. Both girls were
fifteen, their birthdays five days
apart. For the past eight years, Penny's
mother had worked as the Hamiltons'
cleaning woman. For almost as long as
she could remember, Penny had clothed
herself in whatever Irene had worn
out and cast away.
"You want to know something?" Irene let
out a swift exhalation
that lifted the hairs on the back of
Penny's neck. "Your mother named you
Penny because she's cheap, and so are you."
Penny took a step backward, nearly
stumbling over the laundry
bag. "You have to go catch your train,"
she said. Irene and her sisters were
leaving for summer camp that day.
"Doesn't it leave at noon?" A glance at the
porcelain-faced clock on the dresser
told her that it was nearly half past
"I forgot something." Irene turned to
snatch her mother's
photograph from the lace-topped vanity
and clutched it to her chest, her arms
carefullyfolded around it. The
photograph had been taken before Mrs.
Hamilton fell ill from the sleeping
sickness. For the past four years, Mrs. H.
had been an invalid in the Sandborn
Nursing Home. Her face was frozen up
like a statue's. She didn't talk
anymore, didn't do anything but sleep
the nurses feed and change her like a
baby. The doctors couldn't say how
long she would live or if she would ever
"You know why Daddy's sending us away."
Penny breathed hard. "No, I don't." But
her voice faltered and
blood began to pound at her temples.
"You know." Irene spoke so vehemently
that her spit landed on
Penny's face. "Even someone as dumb as
you could figure it out."
"I'm not dumb."
"Oh, yeah? Then why aren't you going to
high school this fall?"
Penny looked down at her cracked old
shoes, the color of
potatoes left to rot in the cellar. When
she had finished ninth grade that
spring, her mother had told her it was
time to leave school and earn her own
keep. High school was for people from
well-off families or children whose
parents cared about education and that
sort of thing. At fifteen, Penny had
hands already as swollen and red from
all the cleaning as her mother's were.
"Your mother's too cheap to keep you in
school," Irene said,
sticking her face into Penny's so that
she couldn't look away. "She's as
cheap as they come."
"Is that so?" Penny shot back. "Well,
your father seems to think
she's just fine." She watched Irene's
face go from flour white to chicken-blood
red. "You better hurry," she said, "or
you'll miss your train."
Downstairs Mr. H. was calling for his
daughter. "Your mother's a
whore," Irene whispered, something
glinting in her eyes, which had suddenly
gone pink. She hugged her mother's
photograph tighter. "You don't even
know who your father is," she said, her
voice breaking as she dashed out the
After the Hamilton girls left for horse
camp in Wyoming, the hot sticky
weather moved in — the kind Penny hated
most. Those nights the back
bedroom she shared with her mother
seemed far too cramped, the sloping
ceiling about to collapse on them. At
least winter, for all its bleakness, was
pristine, the glittering snow covering
everything, even the manure on the road,
making the world look immaculate. But in
the heat of late June, everything
stank and decayed — the garbage pail
near the back door with the trail of
ants marching up its side, the reek of
her sweating body as she scrubbed
floors and heated the iron on the stove.
With the windows wide open, she
heard every noise at night — the
raccoons knocking over the garbage pail,
the laughter of lovey-dovey couples
walking up the street. The sound of Mr.
H. pacing in the master bedroom while
her mother rolled in her narrow bed,
the springs creaking beneath her.
Penny and her mother were hanging
laundry on the clothesline when Mr. H.
appeared without warning, home from the
pop factory at eleven in the
morning. Without more than a hastily
mumbled hello, he ducked past them
and disappeared inside the back door. A
furious pounding filled Penny's head
like someone hammering away on scrap
metal. Her mother, her beautiful
mother, turned, chicory-blue eyes
narrowing against the sun's glare.
"I s'pose he forgot something."
Clothespins clamped between her lips,
Penny grabbed a wet
bedsheet from the laundry basket and was
about to pin it up on the line when
her mother yanked it out of her hands
and threw it back into the basket.
Penny stared at her, too furious to speak.
"We need bleach," Barbara Niebeck told
her daughter, forcefully
but quietly. "Go get some bleach." She
pulled two dimes out of her apron
Spitting the clothespins out of her
mouth, Penny fisted the coins
her mother thrust at her.
"Go on," she said, squaring her
shoulders and using the tone
Penny knew better than to argue with.
Her mouth trembling, Penny shot out
of the yard. She hid behind the lilac
bush in the alley and watched her mother
head toward the house, watched her skirt
swing from her slender hips like a
bell. There was nothing hesitant in her
As Penny stumbled off in the direction
of the store, she didn't hear the dogs
barking or the whistle of the train
pulling into the depot four blocks away.
heard only her mother's voice, as
hateful as a stranger's. Go get some
bleach. Afterward her mother would try
to disguise the odor by dribbling lily-of-
the-valley toilet water all over her
bed. The smell was enough to make Penny
gag. With Mr. H. of all people. Mr. H.
with his wife in the nursing home. How
could her mother possibly find him
attractive, with his sissified New England
accent and his high balding forehead?
Penny understood without wanting to
what he saw in her mother's firm body,
in her thick, lustrous hair that wasn't
dark brown like Penny's but blue-black —
exotic coloring in Minerva, where
most people's hair was blond or mousy
brown. Once Penny had overheard
Mr. Wysock from church telling someone
that her mother looked like Mata
Hari. If people said unkind things about
Barbara Niebeck, they all agreed she
was a stunner.
Penny had been very fond of Mrs.
Hamilton, who in the days
before her illness had been kind to her.
Mrs. H. had baked shortbread, which
she cut into delicately pointed
triangles called petticoat tails. When
fresh from the oven, she had invited
Penny to join her daughters at the table
for shortbread and sweet milky tea. Mrs.
H. had made her daughters be nice
to her, had told them to let her join
their games. Penny remembered going to
bed praying that Hazel Hamilton was her
real mother, but that was four years
ago, before Mrs. Hamilton's illness.
Penny told herself she was too old for
such games of make-believe. Her mother
always said that no one could get
away with being too soft in life, and
Mrs. H. had been as soft as a big
hortensia bloom. Look where it had
gotten her. The Hamilton daughters would
do much better for themselves. They were
prickly little porcupines trundling
along, knowing that no one would ever
lay a hand on them.
Turning onto Main Street, she could
feel the heat of what would be
another merciless day, the humidity
coating her skin like grease. When she
walked into Renfew's Grocery and
Mercantile, loudly jangling the bells on
door handle, Mr. Renfew didn't glance up
from his crossword puzzle. His two
customers, Mrs. Deal and Mrs. La Plant,
were too caught up in their
conversation to look her way.
"Oh boy, it's gonna be a hot one
today," Mrs. La Plant told her
friend. "Supposed to get up to
ninety-nine degrees. And with this
Inside the store, it was almost
bearable. An electric fan whirled
from the high, pressed-tin ceiling.
Positioning herself to get the most of the
circulating air, Penny rubbed the sweat
from her forehead with the heel of her
hand. She crossed to the shelf where the
chocolate bars were displayed and
fingered the illustrated wrappers. Her
favorite showed a fancy city lady
walking a Scottish terrier. Raising the
bar to her nose, she smelled the rich
chocolate through the layers of colored
paper and foil. In the heat, the
chocolate had lost its firmness and went
limp as butter in her hands. Her
fingers sank in, leaving indentations on
the lady's face.
Taking a quick look around to make sure
no one was watching,
she returned the misshapen bar to the
shelf before slinking to the water
dispenser in the corner. During the
summer months, Mr. Renfew set out a big
tin canister of ice water and a tray of
glasses beside it. Often farmers came
in, dry and dusty from the fields. Some
farm hands and hired girls walked all
the way into town. Sipping from her
glass, she read the handwritten ads on
the notice board. One in particular made
her smirk: WEDDING DRESS,
WORN ONCE, CHEAP, FIVE DOLLARS. How was
it, she wondered, that
girls spent a month or more — and all
their savings besides — sewing their
wedding dress, decorating it with
ribbons, lace, and fake pearls? Why put so
much work and expense into a dress they
wore only one day? Once it was
used, they were lucky if they could sell
it for a few dollars.
Mrs. Deal and Mrs. La Plant wilted in
the heat. Their carefully
crimped hair went lank. The sweat
rolling down their faces left snail
their powder and rouge. When Mrs. Deal
raised her hand to order another
glass of Hamilton's strawberry pop,
Penny couldn't help noticing that the
armpit of her georgette blouse was dark
But before Mrs. Deal could get Mr.
Renfew's attention, the screen
door opened and a farmer strode into the
shop. The two women looked over
at once. Even Mr. Renfew lifted his eyes
from his crossword puzzle. Penny
stared at the farmer's manure-crusted
work boots, his patched overall legs,
and the buttoned overcoat he wore in
spite of the heat. He was not anyone
she recognized. His smooth young face,
shadowed by a dusty Panama hat,
was guarded and expressionless. When the
farmer approached the main
counter, she saw in profile the
burgeoning belly the overcoat was meant to
hide, that belly curving out like a firm
ripe melon. Even she knew it could not
be the belly of a fat man.
The Maagdenbergh woman. Of course,
Penny had heard the
rumors about her, but until this minute
they had seemed like tall stories. Yet
there she was, digging her grocery list
out of her pocket and reading it to Mr.
Renfew, who pulled the items down from
the shelves and packed them into
an orange crate for her.
"Insane," Mrs. Deal muttered to Mrs. La
Plant. "That creature is
Penny inhaled sharply, wondering if the
had heard. She saw her stiffen, but the
woman just went on reading her
shopping list. "Two pounds of coffee
beans . . . four bars of Luna white
soap . . . a bar of Castile soap." Her
tone was smooth, resonant. "A quarter
pound of brick cheese . . . two pan
loaves . . . a pound of rice . . . a box of
Ralston crackers . . . two pounds of
Cream of Wheat . . . a dozen cans of
"How's the farm?" Mr. Renfew managed to
"The price of wheat has dropped so low,
it's a sin." A spark of
emotion crept into the Maagdenbergh
woman's voice. "I've heard some
farmers are switching to potatoes. At
least the mills can't fix the price of
potatoes, but what can I do? The wheat's
already planted. Let's hope the
weather will hold for the harvest."
After paying Mr. Renfew, she hoisted
the crate of groceries and
made her cumbersome way to the door.
Penny winced, not willing to believe
that such a hugely pregnant woman would
carry such a load.
"Ma'am!" Mr. Renfew cried. The ma'am
must have slipped out
before he could stop himself. He leapt
out from behind the counter and
attempted to wrest the crate from her
arms. "That's awfully heavy."
The Maagdenbergh woman trundled right
past him. "I'm perfectly
capable of carrying my own groceries,
He held the screen door open for her as
she hauled her load out to
her pickup. As soon as she was gone, he
turned shakily to Mrs. Deal and
Mrs. La Plant, opening his mouth as if
to comment on what had just
transpired, when the Maagdenbergh woman
marched back in and handed
him a piece of ivory-colored letter paper.
"Mr. Renfew, would you mind putting
this up on your notice board?"
He pinned it beside the scribbled ad
for the used wedding dress.
"Thank you." The Maagdenbergh woman's
voice was as smooth
as that ivory paper. "Goodbye, Mr.
Renfew. Goodbye, ladies," she added,
turning to Mrs. Deal and Mrs. La Plant.
The look she gave them spoke loud
and clear. It was as if she had shouted
in their faces, Don't think I didn't hear
what you were saying about me.
Then her green eyes sank into Penny,
fixing her in place so that
she could not look away. She felt as
though the Maagdenbergh woman could
see right inside her, right to the
bottom of her humiliation. As though she
knew her mother had sent her to the
store so she could have a dirty tumble
with Mr. Hamilton. Penny shrank, the
cheap tumbler falling from her hand. At
the sound of the glass striking the
floor, everyone turned to her. Mr. Renfew,
Mrs. Deal, and Mrs. La Plant looked at
Penny in startled confusion as if
seeing her for the first time.
"Goodbye, miss." The Maagdenbergh woman
stepped out the
door. Only when she was gone could Penny
take a deep breath and meet
Mr. Renfew's eyes.
"Indestructible, that glass," he said
as she picked it up, still in one
piece, and set it back on the tray. Mrs.
Deal and Mrs. La Plant smiled at her
a little too sweetly. At least none of
them seemed to notice her terrible
shame. Only the Maagdenbergh woman had
"Penny?" he said. "Is everything all
right? You look kind of pale." It
was true, she was shaking.
"It's the heat." Mrs. La Plant sighed.
"A person can't even think
straight in this heat."
"You better sit down," Mr. Renfew said.
"Why don't you eat
something? How 'bout a piece of pie?"
Penny edged her way to the counter
and took a seat, leaving an empty stool
between herself and Mrs. La Plant.
Mr. Renfew cut her a slice of his wife's
rhubarb pie. "Want some ice cream
with that?" Penny offered him one of the
dimes her mother had given her, but
he shook his head. "This one's on the
"I can't believe her nerve," Mrs. Deal
whispered to Mrs. La
Plant. "Going around dressed like that
and in her condition." She glanced at
Mr. Renfew. "Did she have the rifle
along in her pickup again?"
He nodded glumly. "It was there in the
gun rack. I don't like to see
a pregnant lady riding around with a gun."
"Heard she took a shot at the Nelson
gang the other week," Mrs.
La Plant said. "They drove by her place
looking to stir up trouble —"
"She's asking for trouble," Mrs. Deal
"— and she shot clean through their
"The Nelson brothers are no good," Mr.
Renfew said. "Serves them
right. I just wish she'd try a little
harder to stay out of harm's way. Nothing
good can come of her living alone on
that farm. I don't know how she'll
manage when the baby's there."
They went on talking, their three faces
a closed circle. Penny ate
her pie in silence, grateful to be
invisible once more.
"What was that notice she wanted you to
put up on the board?"
Mrs. Deal asked.
"She's looking for a hired woman."
"God almighty!" Mrs. Deal slapped the
counter and laughed. "No
one in their right mind would work for a
creature like that."
"Now, Edna," Mrs. La Plant said. "Don't
be so uncharitable."
"I don't see why she doesn't go back to
where she came from."
"Back where?" Mrs. La Plant asked.
"Back to her husband in
Mrs. Deal didn't say anything.
"I don't understand," Mrs. La Plant
continued, "why you can't feel
a little more sympathy for a lady who
had to run from her own husband."
"Is it true she tried to shoot him?"
Mr. Renfew lowered his voice to
Penny listened to them hash out the
story, pieced together from
so many different scraps of gossip that
it was hard to sort out the truth. The
Maagdenbergh woman's real name was Cora
Egan. She was the wife of Dr.
Egan of Evanston, Illinois, a man who
had served as a military surgeon in the
Great War. That was where they had met —
supposedly she had gone to
France as a Red Cross nurse. People said
Dr. Egan came from money and
owned a big house a few blocks from Lake
Michigan. As a young wife, Cora
Egan had been a celebrated beauty,
renowned for her charity work, her
picture all over the Chicago papers.
Then the previous November she had
appeared at her grandfather's farm
outside Minerva and asked if she could
stay. Roy Hanson, the hired man, claimed
she had gone straight for the
kitchen shears and hacked off the thick
and wavy chestnut hair that had
garnered her such praise in the society
columns. She had burned the shorn
tresses in the stove along with the
dress she had traveled in. From that day
onward, she had worn only men's clothes,
straight from her grandfather's
closet. Then one night her husband
showed up. First he acted all gentle and
nice, but when she cussed him out and
said she'd never go back to him, he
started to get mean.
"Roy told me he tried to protect her,"
Mrs. La Plant said. "Threw
himself between her and her husband and
got a punch in the gut. Said he
was all doubled up on the floor."
"Now that I don't believe," said Mrs.
Deal. "Who ever heard of a
doctor knocking down a hired man?"
Mrs. La Plant ignored her. "Roy ended
up on the floor and old man
Van den Maagdenbergh was too frail to do
anything but shout. So she got
her grandfather's rifle and shoved it in
her husband's face. Told him to get
out, and if he ever came back, she'd
shoot him dead."
For a moment no one spoke.
"Roy said she was all shaky and white
in the face." Mrs. La Plant
fiddled with her handkerchief. "But she
wasn't bluffing. Her finger was on the
trigger. One false move and her
husband's brains would have been all over
Penny looked down at the sticky red
remains of the rhubarb pie.
Mr. Renfew cleared his throat. "I
remember when she and her
brother used to come visit their grandpa
in the summer. In those days she
seemed like a nice enough girl. I went
to school with her mother," he
added. "Theodora Van den Maagdenbergh."
A distant look passed over his
face. "She was a tomboy but nice to look
at. Sharp as a nail, too." He wiped
the counter meditatively. "Went to
Chicago on scholarship money and met
some swell rich fellow. They ran off
together . . . to Argentina, I think it
She must have broken her old man's heart."
"Argentina," Penny broke in. Startled
by her voice, they turned to
her. "Why would somebody from here go
all the way down there?" She
thought of the globe in the Hamiltons'
study. Argentina was at the bottom of
"A lot of people were going to
Argentina in those days," Mr.
Renfew said. "It was after the Wild West
closed up. Down there they still had
a frontier. They had mining and cattle
ranches bigger than the ones in Texas.
People thought they could strike it rich."
"Argentina's where the tango comes
from," Mrs. Deal said
"I think Roy said her parents ran a
hotel down there," said Mrs. La
Plant. "They died when she was twelve.
She and her brother came up to live
with the Chicago grandparents. They're
dead, too, now. She doesn't have
"What about her brother?" Mr. Renfew asked.
Mrs. La Plant shrugged. "I don't know
anything about the brother.
She had Roy, though, but then she fired
him. Right after her grandpa died
and everyone was ready to feel sorry for
her and help her out. Told Roy he
didn't show her the proper respect." She
laughed in disbelief. "Can you
imagine? He took a punch in the stomach
for her sake, and she tells him he
doesn't respect her." She rolled her
eyes. "None of this trouble with the
Nelson gang would have happened if she'd
had a man with her on that farm."
"It would be a lot easier to feel some
sympathy if she let her hair
grow back," Mrs. Deal said, "and put on
"Things are never that simple." Mr.
Renfew let out a sigh. "You
have to keep up with the times. Harriet
cut her hair as short as a boy's." His
daughter Harriet lived in Minneapolis.
"She wears trousers sometimes.
Smokes cigarettes and drives her own
car. All the young gals in the Cities
are cutting their hair. It's the new
"Fashion?" Mrs. Deal snorted. "You know
darn well the
Maagdenbergh woman doesn't give two
hoots about fashion. She wants to be
Mr. Renfew blinked and took away
Penny's empty plate. Mrs. La
Plant plucked a hair off her skirt.
Silence settled over everyone, stifling
heat. Penny slid off her stool and
Copyright © 2004 by Mary Sharratt.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Meet the Author
MARY SHARRATT is an American writer who has lived in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, for the past seven years. The author of the critically acclaimed novels Summit Avenue, The Real Minerva, and The Vanishing Point, Sharratt is also the coeditor of the subversive fiction anthology Bitch Lit, a celebration of female antiheroes, strong women who break all the rules.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
I read this novel in a single afternoon, utterly paralyzed by the consuming story. It's a wonderfully satisfying novel, descriptively rich but spare of conventional sentiment whilst achieving a holistic view. If you liked Kent Haruf's 'Plainsong,' then you are certain to be mesmerized by Sharratt's 'The Real Minerva.' And, if you hated the Haruf, you still should read the Sharratt. Life in small-town in Minnesota was, of course, surfeit with gossip, hidden drama and repressed sensibilities. Sharratt's novel captures all of this but rather more in their grandure than their conventional tawdriness. Minerva is the most alive small town I know -- fictional or otherwise. The protagonists in this book will win your heart but not through cheap sentiment.
Ms. Sharratt, because of the time and setting of her novel, will be undoubtedly compared to Willa Cather, but she writes with a voice that is all her own. The sense of place is indelibly evocative, but it is the characters who grab the reader and won't let go. Suffice it to say that this is one new novel that is not to be missed.
I was surprised as to how much I enjoyed this book. I'm not the most diligent of readers, but had a hard time putting this one down. I enjoyed it very much and recommend it.
Life in 1920's Minerva, Minnesota--the fictional town in which the action of Mary Sharratt's The Real Minerva unfolds--is hard on those who are not fortune's favorites. Teen-aged girls mooning over matinee idols turn quickly into hardened farm wives with work-ravaged hands and too many children. But more onerous than the simple demands of survival in a difficult environment are the constraints imposed by the small town's repressive society, whose members abhor and squelch diversity and police behavior with vicious gossip and shaming. The three women on whom Sharratt's quietly suspenseful novel focuses are each eager to be free of the confinements imposed on them from without, to shed their identities and become reborn, to have possibilities open before them. Of the three, former Chicago society matron Cora Egan has largely succeeded in shedding her past by the time the novel begins. Having fled, pregnant, from her abusive husband, Cora settled on her grandfather's farm, which she now operates by herself, doing men's work while dressed in men's clothing. Since she has elected to live outside the roles prescribed by society for women, Cora is despised and feared in Minerva--a situation which has the potential to make her life not only lonely but dangerous. Cora is joined on the farm eventually by fifteen-year-old Penny Niebeck, who is herself fleeing the shameful behavior of her mother--an affair with a married man--which threatens to render them both outcasts. Together Cora and Penny raise Cora's infant daughter, working hard but happily--an idyllic period that readers will constantly sense is threatened by the potential re-appearance of the baby's abusive father. Mary Sharratt's novel is about repression and rebirth and heroism, about the difficulty of simple living in early 20th-century, rural America, about the relationship between parents and children and the nearly insuperable obstacles that can rise up between people incapable of communicating. And it is about how a life's course can be altered irrevocably by a handful of choices. Despite the weight of the book's subject matter and the casual cruelty and violence it depicts (but does not wallow in), the story Sharratt tells is ultimately uplifting. Her heroines persevere and finally survive, scarred but strengthened by adversity, adopting in their different ways the strategies exemplified by the characters of Athena (whose Roman counterpart, Minerva, lends her name to the characters' home town) and Penelope in Homer's Odyssey. (Throughout much of The Real Minerva Penny is in the course of reading the epic, and Sharratt weaves the stories of Athena and Penelope lightly into her narrative. My one complaint about Sharratt's novel is that her Odyssean references sometimes struck me as forced.) The Real Minerva is a rich, beautifully written novel, and it is highly recommended.