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"My mother liked to say that life is a long straight road if you live it right, but mine has turned and tumbled."
From a small bogside cabin at the edge of a small farm in rural New Hampshire, 38-year-old Aimee Slater unravels the story of her life, attempting to make sense of the tangled thread that leads from her mother's house — a short but unbridgeable distance away — to the world she knows now. It is shortly after the Civil War; Aimee lives alone, raising rabbits and chickens, spinning yarn, making stockings, gloves, small baskets, and straw brooms, all of which are traded in town for the essentials she needs to sustain her marginal existence. But she lives uneasily, stung by the jeers of the boys who sometimes pass by, and hemmed in by the fears that keep her from going to town to do her own trading. Fortunately, there is crippled Amos, the one man who needs her as much as she needs him, who feels his own isolation from the rest of the world as acutely as Aimee, and who ferries her supplies back and forth. And there is Plumey, the strange, troubled 11-year-old girl who cannot communicate the past that haunts her, but who brings her small, curious gifts and is content to sit by Aimee's side and listen.
Aimee is haunted by her own tragic past. Filled from her earliest childhood with inexpressible yearnings for something more than the austerity of her New England farm life could provide, Aimee feels herself perpetually caught between the sensual world she so desires to be a part of and the divine retribution that her mother's every glance makes clear is in storeforher. At last, at 15, shaken by the death of a baby sister and devastated by the rupture her longings have caused in her relationship with her favorite brother, Aimee persuades her parents to allow her to go to Lowell, Massachusetts — the City of Spindles — to work in a mill, to earn her own way. But out from under her mother's watchful eyes, and cast adrift in a world in which everything is new, in which "there was no familiar," Aimee all too quickly loses her way, her heart, and her family. Only in the years since her return to New Hampshire has she regained some semblance of family, with Amos and Plumey, broken souls drawn together by loss and devastation.
Told in a voice evocative of Robert Frost (yet without a trace of Frost's misanthropy) in its spare, New England lyricism, Unravelling captures the dull ache of growing up female yet watching and feeling one's most vibrant, fertile impulses ground into dust. Elizabeth Graver's depiction of 19th-century New England rings absolutely true: This is an age of transition, a world becoming "modern," with its new buildings and inventions just glamorous enough to tantalize a young dreamer, but with values still too rigid to allow her choice to live a "different" life to be anything but brave and desperate. And yet Aimee Slater is no victim of her surroundings; she exudes a vitality that finds its expression in the homey creativity of the life she has built for herself, and a strength that enables her to stand apart. Her voice, though soft and smooth, is powerful in its determination to untangle the truth of her past, a voice tempered and tested through the trials of youth and the mellowing of years. As an adult, she reminisces about leaving home, understanding so much more than she could have at 15:
When I look back, I picture the journey marked by a long trail of white thread. It is not fancy thread, but the thinnest, cheapest, factory kind, the sort that breaks if you pull on it too hard. It begins in my mother's hand, and then it trails down the road and through the town and out by the field and into the next town, and on and on until the city, and still it does not stop. It follows the coach the whole way, and when the coach stops by the boarding house and I get out, the string follows me into the building, up to the attic room where I will sleep next to five other girls.
I picture it following me for days, going everywhere I go — unwinding longer and longer, its other end tight in my mother's fist.
This is how I picture it now. I could not, at the time, have imagined so much thread. My mother's hand was empty when I left.
By allowing Aimee this kind of perspective, Elizabeth Graver's deft, nearly invisible hand guides us along the tightly woven path of her heroine's development and continues that growth into the novel's present, helping Aimee reconcile her present self with her past mistakes — and above all, helping her feel the healing power of the love with which she is surrounded.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer and a doctoral candidate in English and American Literature at New York University, where she is currently writing her dissertation.