The story is set in Rabbittown, St. John’s, and is told through the eyes of the three central Holloway women; Ellen, Audrey and Rachel.
In 1936, when Ellen’s family was still young, she opened up a corner grocery store below the living space of the house she bought with her husband, Wes. Over the years, this store becomes as much a part of the story as the characters. We meet all the neighbours as they come in to do their shopping, and we get to listen in on the neighbourhood gossip they bring with them. Everyone knows everyone, for better or for worse.
She learned more about her neighbours in those first days of shopkeeping than she had in six months of living on the street. She learned that Myrtle Hiscock was frustrated with her sickly husband and would give anything to go back out home to Spaniard’s Bay where she came from, but there was nothing to do there but fish and her husband was too weak to go out in boat ever again. She learned that the police had been called in to break up yet another fight between the two men who owned land down on Liverpool Avenue, and that one man had beaten the other with his own wooden leg in an argument over the property line. She learned that Mrs. Hynes was worried sick that her oldest daughter was only being led along by that young Ivany fellow, that he would get her in trouble and leave her. She learned that Mrs. Kelly’s daughter really did get in trouble, with Leo Nolan, but they were getting married and nobody was asking questions.
We witness the changes over the years to the shop and the purpose it serves to the community. It goes from a fully stocked grocery store to more of a convenience store for snacks and cigarettes. (It’s easy to forget how much people used to smoke until you read about it!)
The various family members take their turn working in the shop; the young ones take their shifts after school and on weekends. They grow up and move on, and others take their place.
As the years go by and we see the changes in the shop, we also see changes in the neighbourhood and in St. John’s. Young people going away to work more and more, the fisheries running dry, girls attending university rather than getting married right out of high school, no longer expected to marry “their own kind”.
Music plays a big part in the lives of the Holloways, starting with Wes who liked to play hymns and folk songs on his accordion in the living room on Sunday afternoons. References to music over the years include Hank Williams Sr., Ron Hynes, Great Big Sea, and Blue Rodeo. Some of the Holloways enjoy their music in the privacy of their living room, while others prefer to listen to it or play it in the park and at the bars, with varying degrees of success.
The war years
When the American soldiers are stationed in St. John’s during the war, Ellen’s daughter Audrey is at just the right age to be interested.
It wasn’t just the crisp uniforms: the Americans had bigger, shinier teeth, and the sugary drawl of their accents made the Newfoundland boys’ voices sound like the yip of angry crackie dogs nipping at the soldiers’ heels.
And when one of the young men proposes to her, she takes it as her chance to get out of boring Newfoundland and go to the United States. Unfortunately, things don’t work out the way she imagined. The US was not as exciting as she had hoped, Harry not as wonderful, and the weather much too hot for her – the heat and the smell of everyone made her want to write to her sister that it was “like living up in the crack of someone’s arse“. And that is how she ends up back home. She brings her son Henry with her, and as she helps out in the shop, Ellen helps out with Henry.
Her anchor then was the thought of home, this house and this store and this street, here waiting for her at the end of her train ticket. Steadfast and sure, all right. ‘Fastened to the Rock’ which cannot move.
The book is divided up into chunks of time, starting in 1936 and ending in the mid-nineties. Each chapter within these sections is narrated by one of the three women. Each section is separated by a “musical interlude”, usually narrated by either Wes or Henry Holloway, allowing us a small glimpse into the minds of the men.
The women of the family are the focus of the novel, but the men’s voices are just as strong. And the background characters – cousins, siblings, nieces and nephews, friends and neighbours – also make up an important part of the story, emphasizing the vast network of family and support spreading out from the roots – the women who live above the shop in Rabbittown, St. John’s.
Packed with goodness, and an exquisite last paragraph, this is a story about life. There are births and deaths, joys and sorrows, a cast including both young and old, kind and crusty, characters who embrace change and ones who are resistant to it. Through it all there is family, and what it means to be a part of it.
Trudy Morgan-Cole grew up, and still lives, in Rabbittown, St. John’s.
Interview with Trudy Morgan-Cole at Atlantic Books Today: “In a lot of my writing, I feel like I’m trying to hear and to re-create for the reader, the voices of characters—largely, though not exclusively, women characters—who didn’t make it into the headlines of history. Theirs are the kinds of stories that fascinate me.”
Review at The Miramichi Reader: “It is the creative editing and layout of the storytelling that makes this novel stand out. While it mainly sticks to a chronological format, it does, by means of the Interludes, give foregleams of the years to come.” “Most Anything You Please is one of those novels you cannot say enough good things about.”
Thank you to Breakwater Books for sending me a copy of this book!