In Stony Creek, “a granite town at a time when granite was going out of fashion”, the class lines are sharply drawn. There are the Cottagers, vacationing rich families and the quarrymen, a rough-tough set of poor local families composed mainly of immigrants. Adele Pietra, daughter of a quarryman who married a Cottager’s daughter, belongs to neither world. Yet her mother, who keeps aloof from other quarrymen’s families and still acts like a Cottager despite her fallen status, declares Adele’s future to be a quarryman’s wife like her own.
Coming from a woman who deeply resents her daughter for not just looking, thinking and acting like her immigrant Italian father but also for usurping her place in his affections, this pronouncement almost feels like a curse. But Adele with her sharp mind, photographic memory and a penchant for dreaminess just like her dad, doesn’t like this future so much, even as her father’s deteriorating health brings this dreaded future ever so closer. Meanwhile her brother, Charles, their mother’s favorite, has always been destined and prepared for bigger and better things, the launching pad for which is gaining an admission into Yale University.
A sudden twist in the story comes when, in a sudden mining accident, both Charles and Adele’s father are killed. Adele’s dreaded future, that of being a quarryman’s wife, is almost at the door when, in a sudden show of strength, she overrules her mother and shows a steely determination to better her lot by proposing to take on her brother Charles’ identity and study at Yale. Coming at a time when Yale didn’t take female students, this was a bold move indeed, almost foolhardy.
With her slim figure, bound breasts and tomboyish ways, Adele finds it surprisingly easy to become Charlie, just “one of the boys”. She’s soon gamboling around town, playing pranks, getting good grades and finding her feet in a new environment – all as part of a cheerful foursome of friends and fellow undergraduates. But complications soon arise in the form of compulsory physical examinations, a growing attraction towards one of her new friends, an ongoing shaky financial situation and having to date girls in order to fit in.
Before long, Adele finds herself bogged down with the burden of her pretense and frustrated with its cause. Further adding to her dissatisfaction is the work she’s doing for a twisted and bigoted eugenics professor who’s determined to twist facts to prove that class and brains go hand-in-hand. Partly to disprove him and partly as a tribute to her roots, Adele/Charlie finds solace in teaching a local Italian family and through their passion for learning, recovers her own.
But how long can Adele continue this precarious charade before it overwhelms her?
Author Chandra Prasad has written a story at once simple and powerful. Through Adele and her life, readers are made aware of a variety of socio-economic, racial, emotional and physical disparities that existed in that era (and which sadly persist to date). It’s slow going at first, but once the pace picks up readers can’t help but get immersed headfirst in this quicksand of a historical tale.
The town of Stony Creek sets the tone and in it we find a microscopic version of the larger picture. With heavy words and dreamy (almost poetic) descriptions, Prasad not only manages to bring life to the glittering but danger-filled rock quarry and indeed the mesmerizing stone itself, but also in the same vein, manages to paint an evocative and accurate picture of a small town that’s at once racially and economically segregated. Similarly, life in Yale and New Haven with its mix of old-world elegance and sleaziness is captured with deft words.
Initially, the central character of Adele feels pale, almost washed-out in comparison to the beauty and larger-than-life-figure of her elegant mother. As the story progresses, we begin to see surprising hints of the lively and bold creature underneath that quiet, dreamy and mostly-subdued self, until it comes into full-blown life when Adele begins her charade. And in this subtle way, Prasad manages to covey Adele’s growth of character from a naïve, dreamy young girl to a confident, wise young woman.
While many others would taken the safe way out and married a quarryman, Prasad’s protagonist takes the path ‘less trodden’ and resorts to a desperate but courageous camouflage in order to take her life in the direction she wants. This is not only admirable, but also makes for enjoyable reading as Prasad presents in lively terms the college life of a young male student seen through the eyes of young woman pretending to be one.
But it’s not all fun and games. This densely layered novel is a testament of that era, integrating the growing tension from the slowing of the economy with the twisted eugenics movement that placed the blame on the shoulders of the immigrant community while labeling them as inferior. Sitting on the cusp of this divide, Adele’s dilemma remains whether in Stony Creek or New Haven.
All in all, this is a story that begins slowly but ends in such a way to leave readers desperate to know what happens next in Adele/Charlie’s life. Hopefully author Chandra Prasad will continue this insightful saga. Entertaining and educating, this well-researched historical is full of surprises and stealthily worms its way into a reader’s heart before the reader even knows it. A five star read, in short.