Unfortunately for Nell Plat, the heroine of Erin McGraw's immersive fifth book (after The Good Life), she is a whiz with a needle, but a failure in the kitchen. While she makes a name for herself sewing dresses in early 20th-century Grant Station, Kans., her lack of kitchen prowess is crippling to her marriage, prompting her to leave her husband and two daughters for Hollywood, where with the help of a French grammar book, she becomes Madame Annelle, modiste to the fine ladies of Pasadena. She marries oilman George Curran, and has another daughter, Mary. Just as she realizes her dream, cutting fabric alongside an established and very esteemed seamstress, her past arrives on her doorstep in the form of her two grown daughters, flappers who call themselves Lisette and Aimée in an attempt at the sophistication they hope will land them in the movies. Nell claims them as her sisters, but the lie only delays the unraveling of her California dream. Inspired by her grandmother's story, McGraw captures the lonely rigor of life on the plains and the invigorating lure of reinvention. (Aug.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard: A Novelby Erin McGraw
“I couldn’t cook but I could sew. It would have been better the other way around.” So begins this witty and transporting new novel by the acclaimed Erin McGraw, introducing us to Nell Plat, who, at age seventeen, finds herself unhappily married and the mother of two baby girls. For a young woman with a hunger for excitement and glamour, Kansas… See more details below
“I couldn’t cook but I could sew. It would have been better the other way around.” So begins this witty and transporting new novel by the acclaimed Erin McGraw, introducing us to Nell Plat, who, at age seventeen, finds herself unhappily married and the mother of two baby girls. For a young woman with a hunger for excitement and glamour, Kansas circa 1900 offers nothing but a flat horizon. Still, Nell find some joy sewing and making dresses for women in town. Dreaming over her sewing machine, she begins to entertain ambitions she knows she cannot share.
Based on Erin McGraw’s grandmother’s life, here is the storytold in Nell’s own irreverent and wise voiceof what happens when Nell runs away to Los Angeles in the year 1901 as the new motion-picture industry is just taking root. Nell marries again, has a daughter, and goes into business as a costumer in the Hollywood of the Roaring Twenties, renaming herself Madame Annelle. But a knock on the door by her grown daughters, precisely the thing she has most feared, threatens to take apart the new life Nell has so carefully built. Forced to confront the legacy of the life she believed she had shed, Nell struggles to make the right choices the second time around and finds herself truly transformed.
In vividly bringing to life the story of Nell Plat, Erin McGraw gives voice to the stories of the countless young women who, unsatisfied with their lives, headed to Hollywood in its heyday. The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard magically recreates that glamorous time and place, and allows us to witness it beautifully dressed, well lit, and close up
Although Nell Plat is only 17, she has two daughters to her name. In rural Mercer County, KS, circa 1900, Nell is known for her skill with a needle and cloth. But the legend that will follow her all her life long is the one that finds her slipping away on a westward bound train. When Nell leaves her daughters and rube of a husband behind, she does so out of dreams and desperation. Working her way up from shopgirl to Hollywood costumer, Nell even marries again and has a child she loves deeply. But Nell is unprepared for what happens when her past catches up with her. Intriguing in that it is based on the author's (The Good Life; Lies of the Saints) grandmother's life story, this novel has a natural arc of suspense and is strong on historical detail. Though some readers may question its denouement (the plot unravels, and the last 40 to 50 pages seem cut of a different cloth), many will agree this novel is highly entertaining. [See Prepub Alert, LJ4/15/08.]
Keddy Ann Outlaw
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 8.16(w) x 7.74(h) x 1.07(d)
Read an Excerpt
I couldn’t cook, but I could sew. It would have been better the other way around. Luelle Morrisey had a face like a mud hen’s backside, but everybody in Mercer County knew she could make a good meal, even at the end of winter, when nothing was left in the root cellar but tired apples. Folks talked about Luelle’s knack for food, and at church socials her pies were bid up past three dollars. “A good cook is good value,” said Ordell Rightsbaugh, one of three ranchers courting her. By the time I was nine years old, I could sew a straight seam, and at fifteen I could make a hem stitch that no one could see, but nobody assigns value to what he can’t see. I didn’t have the right mind for putting meals on the table. Staring into the crusty frying pan and waiting for onions to color, I got bored. Hot and itchy, I would stroll out to lean on the garden fence and look at the dim horizon as if it might have changed in the last ten minutes. The flat dirt, gray- brown, folded into the flat sky, gray-white, and behind me the onions burned. At night Pa poked his fork at my stew, lumps of flour floating next to the shingles of black onion. “If we auctioned you, you wouldn’t bring in as much as a mule,” he said. “More than chickens, though,” I said. “How many chickens?” “A dozen, easy. I am good value,” I said. “For somebody who already ate,” he said. Meals would have gone better if he’d just let Mama or one of my sisters cook, but he had ideas about things, and Tuesdays were my cooking days. He thought I’d learn. My family and the hands, the years we had hands, learned to avoid dinner on Tuesdays. Me, I was skinny as a whip and could get through the daylight hours on an apple. No matter what Pa would admit, I had my value. I could weigh a spool of thread in my hand and tell if it was rotten at the center. I could stitch a buttonhole in brand-new denim, and I could mend a tear so that it blended right into the cloth around it, invisible even in church when the eye needed something to rest on. There were other values: I was good with people, unlike my shy sisters. When Ernold Brown, who had already put two wives in the ground, twitched and snuffled his way up to Nussine Potter after church service, I saw that he was fixing to marry again. I hiked all the way to his place with a bunch of coneflowers he could bring to Nussine. He gave me a nickel, the first coin I didn’t have to drop in the collection plate, and I had sense enough not to tell Pa about it. I was smart about Pa, too, and I could judge when he had drunk one glass of whiskey too many and was itching to hit something. My doughy sisters never learned to clear out of his path, but I could tell a beating was coming the same way that a person can smell rain. “That’s bad-looking leather,” he’d say, looking at a patched harness. “Cheap. Everything about it looks cheap.” Then he’d raise his head and say, “It’s not one thing worth a tinker’s damn on this place.” Or in this county, or in this state. The fury would sweep over him like storm clouds. Folks knew him as a joke teller, but he wasn’t always amiable, and his jokes could turn rough in a hurry. Even Mama, so dim she never seemed to recognize anything, said Pa and I were cut from the same pie. Like him, I was restless all the time, ants under my skin, and a day spent plowing would leave me fretful with wanting something I couldn’t put a name to. The prairie’s rough grass surrounded us like a belt that kept out soft fabrics, sweet-smelling pillowsanything that might ease a life. No wonder Pa drank. When I trudged out to the barn, my eyes cut over our paltry hundred-sixty acres of wheat the same way his did. Everyone around us was buying up acreage before land prices went up againsoon ours would be the smallest farm in the county. It didn’t need to be so. Pa could have borrowed money to expand. For pity’s sake, the bank was loaning money to the Pecks, who hadn’t met a payment in five years. The manager would have loaned to us. But Pa looked out to the west toward what he didn’t own, what nobody owned. He didn’t want more of what he already had. He was squinting at the fence line when I came up to him one afternoon. He had put his hat aside somewhere, and the back of his shirt bunched up out of his trousers. The man was careless, shedding things wherever he wentshoes and papers and tobacco. Mama spent her life picking up his litter. Myself, I would have let it lie. “Feller dies and goes to the seat of judgment,” he said, eyes trained on the blurred horizon. He didn’t even look back to make sure it was me he was talking to. “Jesus says, ‘You’ve got yourself a bad record. You’ve cheated, stolen, lied. You’re going to have too go to hell.’ “Feller falls down at the feet of the Lord. He cries and begs for mercy. ‘It’s true that I didn’t lead a good life, but I wwwwwasn’t all evil. I cared for my mama and gave to the poor. I gave money to your church.’ “The Lord softens. ‘All right,’ he says. ‘I’ll take mercy on you. You can start again, homesteading in Kansas.’ “Feller stops crying, and looks up at the face of the Lord. ‘Is that spot in hell still open?’ ” “Dare you to tell it to the preacher,” I said. “Not everybody wants to hear the truth,” he said. “Preacher says only the Gospel is the truth.” “This is a different gospel,” Pa said. “For those who have ears.” “Dare you to tell it to the visiting preacher. He’s coming to dinner. Mama sent me out to fetch you.” “You’re not cooking, are you?” “It’s Thursday,” I said. My sister Mae’s turn. “Lucky for him.” “Mama wants you to wear your Sunday shirt.” “Bad as going to church,” he said. “If I have to wear my Sunday shirt in my own house, maybe I will tell him my joke.” He didn’t get a chance, though. Reverend Farley had jokes of his own: the one about the lamb and the peacock, the one about the squirrel who went to Bible camp, the one about the three ministers who went to heaven. After a while, we stopped forcing ourselves to laugh, since our laughter made no difference to the reverend. While Mae’s good pot roast hardened in front of him, he planted an elbow on either side of the plate and said, “Man finds himself at the pearly gates. The Lord says, ‘Son, it’s your day of reckoning. You lived a bad life. You smoked, you drank, you didn’t do right in business. There’s only one place for you to go.’ ” “We know this one,” Pa said. Reverend Farley didn’t even pause. “The man says, ‘Remember when I saved that widow? Remember when I ran into the burning house and snatched up the baby? Doesn’t that count for something?’ “The Lord nods. ‘You’re right. Those things count for something. You can go to Wichita.’ “The man says, ‘Remember that hundred dollars I stole?’ ” Into the quiet around the table, Pa said, “We tell it different.” “I imagine so. Everybody loves this one in Texas.” Mama got up a smile and shook her head. “You’re a regular theater.” “Do you come from Texas?” I said. Girls in Mercer County didn’t talk at the table, and Pa’s glance was sharp. “I travel so much anymore, I’m not sure where I come from. I know where I’m going when the Lord tells me to hang up my spurs, though.” “You’re not wearing spurs,” Pa said. “Where, Reverend?” said polite Mama. “California. Heaven on earth.” “I don’t imagine that’s part of your circuit,” said Pa. “I was ailing for a time, and I went to Los Angeles to recover my health. I don’t mind telling you, I’d go back, even if it meant falling sick again.” “What ailed you?” Pa said. “Tell us about California,” I said at the same time. I could see that my chatter was nettling Pa, but he wouldn’t lay a hand on any of us before company. Reverend Farley put on a sharp smile that didn’t look right on a preacher. “If California is not the promised land, it’s the closest we’ll see in this life. To walk in an orange grove is to be in Eden. The air smells sweet and tangy at the same time, and the leaves shine, and the oranges all but push themselves into your hands. Have you ever eaten an orange?” Pa said, “We see a few luxuries. We’re not poor.” “Your mouth tingles, but the fruit is sweet and so quenching you imagine you’ll never be thirsty again. The flowers are tiny, but they put out a powerful scent. And then you get to the end of the grove, and the next thing you see is the ocean crashing onto sand.” “Salty soil kills most plants,” Pa said. “Guess your orange trees are different.” Reverend Farley made a brushing motion. “Maybe not exactly at the end of the grove. But close.” “What does it look like?” I said. The reverend stopped talking, which amazed us all. He looked around the kitchen, eyes skidding over the freshly blacked cook-stove and the magazine pictures Mama had put up on the walls, over the hard dirt floor and the pie safe with a weeping willow punched into its tin door. He picked up a white enamel pot lid with a blue rim and said, “Hold this close to your eyes.” When I held it up, he said, “Closer,” until the edge of the lid was practically in my eye. “What do you see?” he said. “The blue is wobbly, and then there’s white over it. That’s all.” “That’s close,” he said. “Except it’s beautiful.” “I like the land, myself,” Mama said. “I like seeing where I stand. Would you care for some pie?” I kept staring at the lid. What I saw, the blur of blue into white, wasn’t beautiful, but I could imagine it turning beautiful. I probably looked like a pure fool, staring at a pot lid as if it were a magazine picture, but the minister had given me something that I didn’t understand. There was nothing of Kansas in that blue line. After Mae’s dried-apple pie, Reverend Farley put down his fork and announced, “Now that was cause for thanksgiving,” the first churchy thing he’d said since giving the blessing. I put on a pleasant expression, planning to think about oceans while he talked about salvation. Pa looked sour. But Reverend Farley kept unsettling us; he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a harmonica. The first song he played was “Amazing Grace,” which we none of us sang well, and after that he started on a tune I’d never heard. Sweet and slow, it had a clean ache, and I studied the tablecloth so that no one would be able to see my wet eyes. Mama joined in, her low voice true.
Oh, Shenandoah I long to hear you. Look away You rolling river.
She sang only when she felt moved; sometimes years would pass. But when she opened her mouth, we all hushed. Suddenly the air was rich, and so it became poor when she stopped. “That’s no church song,” Pa said while the last note was still hovering. “It can be,” Reverend Farley said. “How?” Pa said. “It’s about having to go away. It’s not what you want to do, but it’s what you have to do.” I said, “Why does somebody have to go away?” “Me, I heard a Call,” Reverend Farley said. “What about somebody who’s not a reverend?” I said. “Nell,” Mama said. “What does a Call sound like?” I said, heedless as a chick. It wasn’t Mama who would hurt me. She could barely lift her hand to beat biscuits. Reverend Farley said, “Two Episcopalian ministers arrive at the same church, with the congregation there waiting. It’s a big church, folks are well dressed, there are fine carriages outside. The first one says to the people in the church, ‘I heard a Call. I don’t know what the other fellow’s doing here.’ “ ‘I heard a Call, too,’ says the second preacher. “ ‘What did yours say?’ “ ‘Lo, I will make you a leader of nations.’ What did yours say?’ “ ‘No one ever lost money on hog futures.’ ” “ ‘Preach on!’ cried the congregation.” Pa snorted. Myself, I had never seen an Episcopalian. I said, “I don’t think anybody gets called to Kansas for money. Nobody’s got any.” Reverend Farley said to Pa, “She’s the spit of you, isn’t she?” “Her bad luck,” Pa said.
Reverend Farley stayed in town for a week, but we didn’t go to hear him preach past the first day, when everyone went. I didn’t want to see any more of the man. He had left me feeling rumpled, and even if I wasn’t fool enough to repeat the experiment with the pot lid, I couldn’t forget the glimpse he had given me of a view that was light and rested on a color I’d never seen in nature. After he came I couldn’t keep a mind to things. Even the chores I normally likedwatering the chickens, chopping back the galloping weedsdidn’t keep my attention, and I made careless mistakes, spilling kerosene and leaving the lamp out overnight, the kind of mistakes my sisters made. Me, the sharpest of Pa’s girls. I dawdled and sighed and drifted, thinking shapeless white and blue thoughts, and later when Mama asked where the eggs were, I couldn’t tell her. I was unsettled, as nervy as a horse when a big storm is coming in. The horizon remained placid, without new wind or the purple blur of thunderheads, but that steadiness was no comfort. Something had slipped into me and burrowed down, and now I scratched and twisted, miserable in my skin. Pa could see my distraction. I was never able to hide anything from the man if he wanted to look, and ever since the dinner with Reverend Farley he kept me close to hand. The Tuesday after the reverend’s visit, he took me out to the barn. Doing chores with him meant I didn’t have to make dinner, but it also meant Pa had something he wanted to say, so it was hard to know whether I felt freed or trapped. “Did you call me out here because you’re wanting a piece of meat tonight that’s cooked all the way through?” I said. “You’re a stubborn thing.” He handed me the flat tin of barn salve that we used on all the cows’ cuts and wounds. The salve had been white once, but it had aged to a thick yellow and smelled like bad cooking fat laced with kerosene. The barn stank whenever we opened the tin, and this summer we had to open it a lot. Both our cows were eaten up by biting flies, their rumps pink with weeping, crusted sores. The cows could hardly stand to be touched, even to be milked, and their lowing was full of long misery. They were normally sweet-tempered animals, but in a minute one of them would try to nip us while we kept dabbing on the sticky ointment. Pa said, “You could make things easy, but you won’t do it.” “What’s easy?” The smell of the greasy salve stuck to me. The cow twitched her flat rump and huffed irritably. “Girls half your age can manage to make a loaf of bread that doesn’t come up gummy in the middle.” “It’s a knack. I haven’t got it.” “I think we all can see that much.” He reached across the cow’s back to flick a bit of salve from my face. “Girl, what do you want?” If Pa had looked mean or angry, I would have known what to say, but his face was stony. Mostly, I was aware of the rich, sweet smell of the cows, the tang of manure, and the acrid medicine that was smeared halfway up to my elbows now. “I like to sew.” “I went to town last week. Jack Plat asked after you. His daddy’s spread is bigger than this one.” Everybody’s spread was bigger than ours. Pa knew that I knew that. My hands shook a little when I said, “What did you tell him?” “I told him you were tolerable.” “You don’t help a girl much, do you?” “I don’t see as that’s my job.” Jack Plat’s daddy’s three hundred acres spilled between us. The Plats had a house with a window, and it occurred to me that it would be a fine thing to look outside of a house during the daylight. Pa said, “What should I have told him, Nell? That you spent half an evening looking at a pot lid as if it could tell you something?” “No, don’t tell him that.” “Jack’ll come to see you, if I don’t stop him.” “That’s what people do, I think. They come to see each other.” “I’m only going to ask you this once. Is Jack what you want?” He let me take my time. Jack was a new thought. Marriage was a new thought, though it shouldn’t have been. Just last month, the reverend read out Nussine and Ernold’s banns while Nussine sat like the queen of Sheba in the front row, thinking on babies, Ernold’s wood-frame house, and a new wringer- washer. She wasn’t but a month older than me. Unbidden images tumbled through my head: Berlinda and Marlon Mallory ran off to Hutchinson to get married, and for months after they came back, Berlinda told about the hotel there, and the wide streets. “No one has called on Mae yet,” I said unsteadily. “There’s no law.” “It wouldn’t be easy here, just her and Viola.” Mae was already seventeen, but little Vi was only nine, and not handy. “We’ll manage. Listen up, Nellif you don’t want Jack, I’ll tell him.” Mrs. Jack Plat. Jack was shorter than me, with bandy legs and hair so curly that we used to say baa to him in school. He had stopped school at twelve, rather than boarding in Hays for high school, but I saw the Plats at church and in town; a person had to put his mind to it to disappear in Mercer County. Like everyone, I knew that Jack’s mother was a tyrant, his father a quiet man who stayed out of his wife’s way. Even at church Orris Plat could find a way to stay on the other side of the building from her, a skill we all admired. Jack favored his mother, and I wondered whether that should worry me. His lamblike curls were hers, and his strut, and his quick, cutting words when he was exercised. But he had once spent better than an hour flat on his belly under an outhouse, coaxing two kittens to come to him. He must have washed them, because when he brought them home in a basket they were as fluffy as kittens on a greeting card, and he talked his mother into keeping them. I hadn’t seen any of this, but everybody knew the story. I would learn other stories, different ones, if I lived in the Plat place. “He’s nice enough,” I said. “I won’t stop you,” Pa said. “I just want you to think.” “What’s to think about?” “Once you decide, you’ve decided. You can’t come up for air later and say, ‘Gaw, that was a mistake.’ So think. Is this what you want out of your future?” “Future’s a hard thing to see.” I presumed that Pa was thinking about me squinting across the top of the pot lid. I could still see that wavery line, full of possibility. “You better can.” “Did you, when you courted Mama?” The rough bristles of the cow’s tail whipped me under the ear. “That’ll be a welt,” Pa said. He spread more salve, working the yellow ointment down into the little craters that oozed with their own clear juice. “Your mother is a good woman. I couldn’t ask for a better one. She knows how to stretch a nickel, and she doesn’t hanker after what she can’t have.” He wasn’t saying anything but the truth. Pa and I were the hankerers. “She’s never raised her voice to me, even when she ought should have,” he said. “When I called on her, folks said she was sweet as a honey cake.” I went back over a sore I’d already dabbed. Pa wasn’t much on sweets, even Mae’s good pies. “What I’m about to say is not a complaint, you hear me? I esteem your mother. I won’t hold with anything else.” Now that Pa had stopped touching her backside, Dixie was placid, munching the oats he put out for her. “It’s a fine thing to share your days with a person. That’s what a marriage issharing. You share a home and a place. You share children. But your mother and I don’t see the world alike. When I look over the fields, I see fences that need fixing, the place where the seed washed out. She doesn’t see those things.” “I know that,” I said. “I’m trying to tell you something. What do you know about Jack?” “Same as you. Their place will support another mouth, and his mother’s a pistol.” “Not much.” “Where else am I going to go?” “You’re still a youngster. Wait for a feller who you know you like.” “Guess I’ll be waiting for Reverend Farley to come back.” “Guess you won’t either. Man who lives riding circuit isn’t looking for a wife to support. And his jokes were no good.” “Then I guess I’d better let Jack Plat come to call. Since I’m not interested in being a spinster lady.” As if it had been waiting for just this moment, my mind produced a list of Mercer County bachelors: Sam Wynn, whose last wife had died in childbirth at age twenty and who held girls too tight at dances; Carth Knoller, who lived in town and ran the post office along with the funeral home; the scattering of ranchers who came in for feed and looked over girls with the same eyes they used for livestock. In that company, Jack looked fine. “There’s no call to rush. You’re still half a child.” This was the first time Pa had indicated I was anything but all a child, and hearing him say so brought feeling up in mesomething hard, screwed tight. Everyone in Mercer County knew his pride in me, his middle girl, no bigger than a minute but still a firepop. At every funeral or covered supper, people recalled the time a man from the bank came to see Pa. I wasn’t much out of diapers and didn’t know what they were talking about, but I could see Pa sitting at the edge of the bench like a shamed schoolboy. So I crept up behind the man and bit him on the leg. The man yanked away from me and Pa whooped, saying he’d meant to warn the man about the fice dog. For a long time after that he called me Fice when he was feeling good, though he’d let that drop away lately. The cow ointment stung my eyes. I said, “I’m not after staying on the smallest ranch in Kansas. I’d like to see something fresh for a change.” He put on a grin I’d never seen before. It looked bashful, and it made the feeling in me tighten even more, like a jar lid twisted until it breaks. He said, “It’s not enough for you to see your old Pa?” “That’s the first thing I want to stop seeing,” I said, hating the words the second they flew from my mouth. They were not what I meant to say. There were no words for what I meant to say. Pa’s face slammed shut. He pitched the open tin of cow ointment at me; its top side stuck itself square against my nose and eyes, and for a panicky second all I could breathe was old, sticky fat and kerosene. “next week,” Pa was saying as I shook the tin off . “Tomorrow. I won’t have your mother living with a child who doesn’t know respect.” “Is there a rag?” I said. The ointment was all over my face and spattered onto my neck and shoulders. I was struggling not to gag. The dress was done for. He threw a feed sack at me so hard the tie strings whipped my ear. “Mouth on you like an outhouse. No gratitude.” I rubbed the burlap over my face, scraping clots of the ointment that we would need again back into the tin. “I’m guessing Orris Plat doesn’t throw cow medicine at anybody.” “I wouldn’t bet against his wife’s throwing arm, though. Looks like you’ll be finding out. You can write a letter and tell us all.” “Are you going to lock me out of the house tonight?” “I should. But you’ll have a home here as long as you want it. And you don’t want it.” I stood wiping myself clean until Pa left the barn, the cow making contented grunts. There didn’t seem anything wrong with Jack. I was fifteen years old.
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