Reviewed by Donna Meredith
We all—well, all of us except Lady Godiva, nudists, and that one infamous Emperor of fairytale fame—wear clothes. Yet most of us give little thought to the mill workers who create the fabrics or the seamstresses who sew them. Two recent fiction releases from the University of South Carolina Press explore a world most of us know little about: the world of textiles.
The action in Fate Moreland’s Widow, the debut novel of poet and memoirist John Lane, takes place in 1935 in a South Carolina cotton mill, while Mary Hood’s novella Seam Busters is set in current times with loosely connected stories about the workers at Frazier Fabrics in Georgia. Though different in scope and tone, both stories possess all the qualities of significant literary contributions.
Fate Moreland’s Widow
Lane’s prose is faultless; the pacing, superb; the dialogue rings true. If you enjoy fiction that brings complicated historical struggles to life, you’ll love this novel.
At its heart stands Ben Crocker, a man caught in the middle of conflict. Tugging on one side are his family and his roots; pulling on the other are Ben’s employers, the McCanes. The son of mill workers, young Ben wanted more in life than standing on a factory floor, so he studies accounting and is hired by the mill’s owner George McCane. Gradually Ben does more than keep books. He becomes McCane’s right hand man. But in many respects what he really becomes is an “in-between man.” The McCanes use Ben to bridge the social gap, to deal with the rank and file workers, to undertake dirty tasks so their own hands stay clean.
Ben makes twice what the mill workers make, but he wonders if the fourteen-hour days he’s worked for the past seven years are worth the strain on his relationships. He will never make enough money to rise in social status like the McCanes, yet he is losing “some connection to [his] own people, even to [his] own family.” When McCane decides to remodel the mill and selects only those workers who participated in the Uprising of 1934 to layoff, Ben is pressured by his community to take their side. Tensions only worsen when McCane decides to toss union supporters and their families out of company housing.
Now add a tragic boating accident—or was it murder?—to the mix. McCane is accused of deliberately running over a family with his motor boat, resulting in three deaths. Even if it is deemed murder, will there be justice when the accused is the richest man in town? Money talks and buys influence; but it also alienates. Ben Crocker is drawn deeper into the McCane family’s web as he is sent with shush money to the widow of the drowned man. Another layer of tension arises because Novie Moreland is a stunning beauty and Ben Crocker is a married man. You have to wonder how far he will go to help the lovely widow—how far any of the men who circle around her after Fate Moreland’s death will go.
The novel is set against the rich historical backdrop of the “Flying Squadrons,” textile workers who organized brigades of hundreds of cars and trucks. They drove from one mill town to the next to protest working conditions and wages. The story reminds us of times past, when American unions mustered the strength to effect significant changes in labor conditions.
Ben delivers one of the truest lines in the novel when he explains McCane as an example of the American way: “Some get rich. All the others wish they were.”
A prologue and epilogue bookend the novel with action set in 1988, allowing a few surprises with this glimpse into characters’ future lives.
Lane is the author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, including My Paddle to the Sea; Begin with Rock, End with Water; and Abandoned Quarry: New and Selected Poems, winner of the 2012 Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Book Award for Poetry. A professor of English and director of the Goodall Environmental Studies Center at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Lane is a 2014 inductee into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.
Hood’s novella consists of nine stories focused on the workers’ lives at Frazier Fabrics, a family-owned cotton mill where cameras watch every move. The company ensures efficient production by enforcing strict compliance with rules. Lots of rules.
Irene Morgan returns to Frazier after Vicki is “walked out” for stuffing a piece of fabric down her bra. Not just any fabric. Frazier is producing top secret, hi-tech military camo for U. S. troops in Afghanistan. Irene’s son is one of them. Irene and her family serve as the main connection between the stories.
Hood captures both the rural setting and the interior of the factory beautifully. Irene and her husband Deke live on a farm, an “old-fashioned life” with canning and chickens and pigs and cattle. Irene doesn’t like to hear the cows during round-up, the mothers and their babies separated and bawling: “It never helped to turn up the radio or TV; you heard them with your heart.” The factory is nailed equally well with Irene knowing all about “squatting on schedule” and “exactly how many seconds a long seam takes” and the irony of orders to “report every scratch or accident, but don’t have any.”
The mill’s bowling team assumes the name “Seam Busters,” which becomes the book’s title. These women include Coquita, a veteran returned from three tours in the Middle East; Kit, eternally an emotional mess because of one break-up or another; Sue Nag, a shy Hmong whom Irene struggles to communicate with despite language and cultural barriers; K’shaundra, Irene’s tenant involved with an abusive man; and Jacky, a male worker with special needs who sometimes screws up, but nonetheless fills a special place at the mill. Many stories delve into the relationships between Irene and these workers in their lives outside the factory.
The management of this mill is not presented as darkly selfish and uncaring, the way the McCanes are depicted in Lane’s novel. Although the mill stresses efficiency, when tragedy strikes Mr. Frazier closes ranks with the community and gives the workers time off. He also keeps the quirky Jacky on staff.
One of Hood’s gifts is the ability to develop each of these characters quite concisely into fully fleshed out individuals, rendering them as far more than just another cog in the factory machine. Within the confines of a book this short with so many characters, it is difficult to create deep empathy; yet the last chapter moved me to tears.
Seam Busters captures so much of what makes life good, of what the word community really means. It, too, delivers truth about the American way: people doing things—all kinds of things, great and small—with love.
Hood is the author of the novel Familiar Heat and two short story collections, How Far She Went (winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and Southern Review/LSU Short Fiction Award) and And Venus Is Blue (winner of the Lillian Smith Award, the Townsend Prize for Fiction, and the Dixie Council of Authors and Journalists Author of the Year Award). Hood has also won the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Robert Penn Warren Award, and a Pushcart Prize. She was a 2014 inductee in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
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