Fiction. Historical Fiction. To escape a big-city scandal, a Depression-era lingerie seamstress flees to the countryside, where she hopes to live and work in peace. Instead, she finds herself unraveling uncomfortable secrets about herself and those closest to her.
In February of 1931, MARION HATLEY steps off a train and into the small town of Cooper's Ford, hoping she's left her big-city problems behind. She plans to trade the bustling hubbub of a Pittsburgh lingerie shop for the orderly life of a village schoolteacher. More significantly, she believes she'll be trading her reputation-tainting affair with a married man for the dutiful quiet of tending to her sick aunt. Underpinning her hopes for Cooper's Ford is Marion's dream of bringing the daily, private trials of all corset-wearing women—especially working women—to an end, and a beautiful one at that.
Instead, she confronts new challenges: a mysteriously troubled student; frustrations in attempts to create a truly comfortable corset; and, most daunting, her ailing aunt. Once a virtual stranger to Marion, her aunt holds the key to old secrets whose revelation could change the way Marion sees her family and herself.
As her problems from Pittsburgh threaten to resurface in Cooper's Ford, Marion finds herself racing against time to learn the truth behind these secrets and to get to the bottom of her student's troubles. Meanwhile, Marion forms a bond with a local war veteran. But her past, and his, may be too much to sustain a second chance at happiness.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)|
About the Author
Beth Castrodale started out as a newspaper reporter and editor, then transitioned to book publishing, serving for many years as an editor for an academic press. She has completed three novels: MARION HATLEY (Garland Press), a finalist for a 2014 Nilsen Prize for a First Novel from Southeast Missouri State University Press; Gold River; and In This Ground, an excerpt of which was a shortlist finalist for a 2014 William Faulkner — William Wisdom Creative Writing Award. Beth recommends literary fiction on her website SmallPressPicks.com, and she has published stories in Printer's Devil Review, The Writing Disorder, Marathon Literary Review, and Mulberry Fork Review. She lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
By Beth Castrodale
Garland PressCopyright © 2017 Beth Castrodale
All rights reserved.
MARION HATLEY WAS in the habit of looking for signs of discomfort in other women. On this Saturday train from Pittsburgh she found herself glancing between her magazine and a facing aisle seat three rows down. The occupant: a woman in early middle age, undistracted by reading materials or companionship. Ankles crossed, hands clasped at her waist, she stared ahead transfixed like a witness to a crime.
This habit of Marion's was nothing she welcomed or particularly enjoyed. But as a maker of ladies' underthings, she — like her mother, Vera, before her — had come to accept it as an occupational necessity. For in Vera's mind, some part of every woman's unhappiness was physical and therefore within the power of a corsetiere to relieve.
"We cannot free a customer from a hopeless marriage" she often said. "We cannot bring her beloved back from the grave. But we can save her from the torture of ill-fitting underclothes."
It was impossible for Marion to tell how much her fellow passenger's distress could be blamed on her corset, hidden far beneath her winter coat. Yet, almost certainly, this garment was in some way sinning against her — through drooping or gripping shoulder straps, maybe, or a bodice that here chafed, there restricted, and nowhere granted improvements worth the pains. These faults and more were typical of her rivals' handiwork, and Marion had taken on the duty of removing them from the ranks of her customers' difficulties.
Enough, she told herself, aware that her fellow passenger, like the many other women Marion had observed over the years, might feel like something trapped beneath a magnifying glass.
She turned her attention to the shifting scenery beyond the nearest window — snow-bright fields, then dark stands of pine, then the sooty backs of track-side buildings — and considered how her own difficulties, the ones she was now fleeing, far eclipsed any that could be posed by a poorly fitted corset. She tried, again, to take hope that once the girls back at the shop got the word around — that Marion Hatley, "the home wrecker" was no longer employed there — such business as had been lost would soon rebound. Marion doubted that the many men who patronized La Charmante Femme on behalf of their mistresses would give half a damn about how she spent her time outside the shop. But several long-standing customers, all of them married women, pledged to never again darken La Charmante's door as long as Marion remained on staff.
One of these customers had been Livia Foxholm, who on a Monday of the previous month, glimpsed the scene that was to be Marion's undoing: Benton Granger's sky-blue Packard pulling up before Allen's Shoes, which he — and Marion — believed to be a safe distance from La Charmante. The Packard released Marion for a day of work, but not before she and Benton parted with "a lengthy and passionate embrace" (a description that, though churned out by the rumor mill, did not embellish the truth). Perhaps because of the state she'd been in, still love-tipsy from her night with Benton, Marion never spotted Livia. In all likelihood, by the time Marion came down from the clouds and got to work, Livia was well on her way to getting word of what she'd witnessed to her sister, Althea: Benton's wife.
In the days since, as stories of the "lengthy and passionate embrace" traveled along the gossip wire and made their way back to Marion, Benton had been out of town on business and had left no messages (by telephone or mail) at Marion's boardinghouse, bringing their affair to an end no better than she'd braced herself to expect. When, instead of a note from Benton, there came a letter from Ned Cook, the cousin she'd never met, Marion couldn't help but see its appearance as more than coincidental. Though she didn't believe in God or fate, it seemed some larger, if imperfect, force might be interceding on her behalf.
In so many words, Ned's letter said, My mother is dying, and if you ever wish to meet her, your time is running out. Ned and his mother, Marion's Aunt Elsie, lived just thirty miles from Pittsburgh. Yet Vera, a divorced working woman with little time to spare, had never brought Marion to visit her sister, and hadn't made the trip herself for years, not from any malice, so far as Marion knew. Dayto-day demands had simply gotten in the way, persisting, unfortunately, up to the time of Vera's death, nearly two years before.
After receiving the letter, Marion reached Ned by phone and learned in a roundabout way, after a few moments of polite conversation, that Elsie was in need of an evening caregiver. In another by-the-way, Marion learned that the local school was searching for a temporary teacher, the current one having just married, disqualifying herself from further service.
In so many words, Marion asked, Could I possibly be of assistance to Aunt Elsie, and also to the school?, mentioning her yellowing degree from normal school but none of her troubles in Pittsburgh. In so many words, Ned replied, Yes and Yes.
Thank God, Marion thought. Thank Ned.
Now, as quickly as the train barreled her toward these new duties, the relief Marion had felt since speaking to Ned was being overcome by a sense of dread, a sense that one foolish, thoughtless act — the entanglement with Benton — had simply begotten another.
She knew next to nothing about her Aunt Elsie and even less about caring for the sick. And her teaching experience, nearly a decade in her past, had spanned mere months — only long enough for her to figure out that she'd been far happier, and far better paid, designing and sewing underthings for La Charmante Femme, alongside Vera. So that's just what she'd done, and it was something she'd never regretted, until she made a hash of things.
Now, what on earth was she getting herself into?
Still, Marion did not wish herself back in Pittsburgh. If ahead of her lay a deep-blue sea, behind her most certainly was a devil, perhaps in Benton's favorite dinner jacket.
Amid all the chaos, Marion's greatest source of hope rested in a wooden-handled bag in the train's luggage compartment: bits of Vera's vision for a shaping garment that would be so flattering, so comfortable, that labeling it a corset would be "equal to an insult": Vera's words. The bits included Vera's sketches and early efforts to give them form: cut pieces joined or not, full first attempts, and various other odds and ends. Aside from these things were Vera's musings about what more might be done with this seam or that strap to both accommodate the figure and allow for graceful shaping. Unfortunately, these musings existed only as clouded memories for Marion.
Make something of these scraps and hopes and dreams, Marion thought. Make something of them for Vera's sake and the sake of uncomfortable women everywhere — perhaps chief among them, Marion herself.
As the train slowed to a stop at Cooper's Ford station, Marion searched the platform for Ned. "I'm six feet three and on the thin side" he'd told her, over the phone, "and I'll be wearing a red muffler"
In the mid-winter gloom she noticed first the bright muffler and then the man, upright and neat as his penmanship, his expression as mournful as she'd expected. He scanned the train windows, but of course he would not see her; all the carriage lights had been extinguished.
Rising from her seat Marion finally met the gaze of the woman three rows down. They nodded to each other, both attempting smiles, but the look of distress did not depart the stranger's eyes. What troubles of her own might she be fleeing from or returning to?
Moving down the aisle, Marion called out to her, "Good luck."
* * *
Within minutes, she and Ned were well into the countryside, the Ford's engine laboring gamely as they climbed then descended rolling hills, passing farmsteads blanketed in snow.
Marion had spent nearly all of her thirty-three years in Pittsburgh, not because she wished to avoid places like Cooper's Ford, though Vera had expressed a strong preference for city living until the time of her death. As for country living, Marion had resolved to come to her own conclusions about it. But seeing the gray of sky and snow — no, feeling it, it pressed upon her like a headache — she had some sense of why her mother had left the small farming town of her birth. Vera had needed color and bustle and people, even when it might have been better to have had a reprieve from them.
Whether Vera's only sibling, Elsie, chose to remain in the country out of a special affection for it, Marion had no idea. Vera had spoken so rarely of Elsie it was almost if she'd had no sister at all.
"How has your mother been?"
"Some days are fine, others quite bad. Lately, mornings have been better than nights, though the last two days haven't started out so well"
Marion heard him swallow. She kept her eyes on the road.
As they rounded a bend Ned braked. "Right there's a way to the school. Would you like me to take you past?"
Ned was leaning toward Marion's window, drawing her attention to a path up a rise. Was he suggesting they leave the car and hike up the hill? Then she noticed wheel ruts in the frozen mud. This counted for a road.
"That's very kind, but Mr. Fanion has agreed to take me there tomorrow. He wants to show me the ropes and go over my lesson plans."
"He doesn't waste any time, does he?"
"There's no time to waste, it seems" She was to be in school on Monday morning.
"Well, just so you know, the school's a half-mile from the farm. Nice walk, usually."
They'd no sooner rounded the next bend than Ned braked again. Swaggering ahead along the shoulder was a tall, thin man in a wool cap and long gray coat. Ned tooted the horn, and the stranger fluttered a wave up behind himself, as if he did not wish to be interrupted.
"There's Elder Baines," he said with quiet pride, as if he'd conjured this person by will.
Not a swagger but a limp, Marion realized, glancing back as they passed. In contrast to his labored gait his face, set in concentration, was that of someone fairly young.
"Was he injured?"
"Wounded in France, poor fellow. Got the gas, too, though for all that he gets around pretty well. Here we are"
Ned hauled the wheel to the right, taking them through a break in a stand of pines, onto a graveled path wider than the one to the school, though not by much. As the car lurched and jounced along, the stand of pines yielded to rolling, open land on both sides. The lane wound toward a rise on which stood a white farmhouse and beside it a raw-boarded barn. Nearer, to their left, was a frozen pond. To the right, a good distance from the lane, were a humbler house and barn, both gray but in respectable shape except for a slight list to the front porch.
"Our tenants, the Lisles," Ned explained.
Shortly, the lane opened out into a gravel apron that stretched between the back of the white house and the barn. Ned pulled up as far as he could to the house, passing a gas pump, a rusted metal barrel, and a dinner bell set into the high fork of a white-washed tree trunk.
Ned parked the car and cut the engine. "Why don't I take you inside to see Mother. I can bring up your things later."
They entered the house through the back porch, stepping first into a dim cloakroom, where Ned helped Marion out of her coat. From there he led her through a plain but tidy kitchen and then past the dining room and parlor, both arranged with the kind of dark, formidable furniture that required regular polishing. Indeed, a faint smell of lemon oil and beeswax pervaded.
Marion's brief impression of these rooms was that they were rather lacking in color — or rather color in a brighter register than brown, dark green, or maroon. In these surroundings, the outfit she'd chosen, a belted crepe-de-chine tea dress, one of the more sober in her collection, made her feel like something brought in from a hothouse. Though primarily black, it was splashed with showy crimson flowers. After dressing, Marion had painted her nails a matching red and had once again savored the satisfying sense of completion, like the ringing of little bells, afforded by the right polish or jewelry. Now, the red had never seemed brighter.
She followed Ned up a turning staircase to a hallway that ran the length of the upstairs. All the doors along the hall were closed but for one, and from this room issued the long, dragging breaths of sleep.
"Why don't you wait here a moment" Ned whispered, leaving Marion at the head of the stairs. He crept toward the open door and craned his head inside.
"Mother?" he called softly. "Mother?" There was a sharp coo of surprise followed by dreamy mumblings. "Marion is here. Would you like to see her?"
Marion felt, once again, the clutch of dread.
"Marion" Ned stood aside from the door, extending his arm into the room.
She stepped forward, unsteady in her pumps, and entered the bedroom. Though all the blinds were drawn, some daylight still intruded, faintly illuminating the figure on the bed, the assortment of bottles and glasses on the nightstand. Among these things was a brass bell, black paint mostly worn from its wooden handle. As gently as he could Ned lifted the blind nearest the bed. Then he excused himself quietly and stepped from the room.
Though by Ned's report Aunt Elsie had just turned fifty, her illness had aged her twenty years or more. The flesh of her face and neck was loose and sallow, the corners of her mouth drawn down into lines of permanent displeasure. Her hair, a uniform iron-gray knotted at the nape, had thinned so that her scalp showed pinkly beneath. Yet the beauty that Marion had known through Vera — an assertiveness of chin and nose, a fine outward curve to the cheeks — was there to be detected. It seemed to struggle its way forward, or rather Marion was struggling to hold it out as something recognizable from the stranger on the bed.
Elsie's filmed eyes roved the ceiling, and Marion was not at all sure her presence had been registered. Then Elsie turned her head toward Marion, as if she were no particular novelty, good or bad.
"There you are." Though she'd just been roused, her voice was unexpectedly strong and clear. "Please sit down, Marion."
Marion glanced toward the wooden chair by the headboard.
"You can sit on the bed"
"You came sooner than I thought."
A reproach? "It turned out to be a good time for me"
"You haven't been busy, then?"
"I've had a lull," Marion said, "in the sewing." Not true, really. But it was the best excuse to come to mind.
"It's the times, you suppose?"
"I imagine so."
Elsie looked her over without lifting her head from the pillows. "Did you make that dress?"
"No. It's store-bought." She couldn't tell whether Elsie approved or disapproved. As she did not elaborate, Marion assumed the latter. In fact, the air seemed to have thickened with displeasure.
"It looks like the kind of thing your mother would have made. The kind of thing an actress would wear"
From the emphasis on actress, Marion doubted this was a compliment. She wondered what Elsie would make of the fact that she, Marion, had been compared a few times to Louise Brooks but far more often to "the vamp," Theda Bara, though the latter comparison came less and less as the silent-screen actress, once a living, breathing "Cleopatra," slowly faded from public memory. Bara had been replaced by the younger, slinkier glamour girls who populated the Talkies, girls much like the beauties who sparkled in the darker corners of the life Marion had left behind — the booze-fountain bars she'd been towed into, on Benton's graceful arm.
Elsie went on: "Funny how you picked right up where Vera left off, with the sewing"
Marion didn't answer. Instead, she listened as voices floated up from downstairs, Ned's and a woman's. The voices grew louder until they could be heard in the stairwell, then just beyond the bedroom door.
That quickly, Elsie had dropped back into sleep, her slack mouth exhaling in little puffs. In a moment, Ned was back in the doorway, a question in his eyes. He looked at Elsie to get his answer, then turned to the figure behind him, a woman with dark eyes and a straight line for a mouth. The most cheerful thing about her was her new-looking apron, with its red piping and pattern of red clocks and roosters.
Excerpted from Marion Hatley by Beth Castrodale. Copyright © 2017 Beth Castrodale. Excerpted by permission of Garland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great story about a talented woman who makes her own way, set in the 1940s. Fascinating look at the life of a seamstress who invents a better corset. But more than that, it is a tale of talent, resilience and hope. Funny, surprising, exciting and tearful at different turns. Beautiful writing makes it a pleasure to read. Well done Beth Castrodale!
love a book with a strong female lead. It allows me to jump into the shoes of the main character, to see the world from her perspective. Marion Hatley decides to head to Cooper's Ford, a small country town, leaving her big city life (with it's problems and scandals) behind. She must start anew and readjust to her new world, all while trying to find her footing, set herself up financially and face new challenges head-on. One of the trials that Marion faces, is designing a new and comfortable corset. I found this aspect of the book utterly fascinating, as the travails of corset-wearing heretofore hasn't been on my study radar. (Also, my Google history is now filled with searches like "Corsets of the 30's," and "Uncomfortable corsets," and "Why women stopped wearing corsets." #nerdproblems) I found myself absolutely loving everything about Marion, her strength and her determination, as well as the part of her that perpetually remained a misfit. I was also equally drawn to the other characters in the book, which is a rare treat! I found myself wanting to know more about Elder, Ina and Walter, wondering where their story might lead, hoping for a happy ending for each of them. Bottom Line: Marion Hatley is a book that keeps you thinking, long after you've finished the last page. Beautiful characters, wonderful writing.