Black Chokeberry
by Martha Nelson

Brown Books Publishing Group, 2012. ISBN 978-1-612-54043-6.
Reviewed by Linda Wisniewski
Posted on 06/07/2012

Fiction: Mainstream

Unmarried women of a certain age might read the novel Black Chokeberry and find themselves in a world seemingly made just for them. The three main characters are women in their fifties to seventies, widowed, divorced, never married, and all living in the same neighborhood in the dying mill town of Oswego in upstate New York.

The black chokeberry is a shrub native to the Great Lakes, fazed by nothing and tolerant of anything that comes its way. Its dark bitter fruit is eaten in the harsh winter months by birds and small mammals, according to the website, which the author quotes in the front of the book. The shrub of the title serves as an apt metaphor for the three women who have endured so much in life and sometimes grow bitter but, in the end, are "fazed by nothing."

Fifty-two year old Ellen is depressed by the recent end of her marriage and returns to the town where she grew up looking for peace. She does not eat well and lives for her rescue dog Henry, a German shepherd mix.

Ruby is fifty-four, nosy and lonely, and always carries a Swiss army knife. She cared for her widowed mother until her mother's death and lives a very frugal lifestyle, parceling out meager portions of canned food each day.

Frances is a widow in her late sixties who was born and raised in Georgia and came to Oswego with her husband as a young bride. She never lost her accent or her Southern ways.

Soon after Ellen moves into the neighborhood, nosy Ruby brings Ellen's dog a bone. The dog knocks her over and she falls off the porch, breaking an ankle and wrist. A storm then destroys Ellen's car and garage and Frances has a stroke. Suddenly thrown together by disaster, the three women decide to move into Frances' house for a stint of rehab with Ellen as caregiver.

Each character learns to adjust, but not before tears, abject fear and finally unexpected reserves of courage carry them through.

Especially affecting for me were the author's descriptions of the fall and winter preparations the town's residents go through each year to protect their homes. They cover their shrubs with burlap or plywood and put rubber runners on their outdoor steps and outdoor carpet on their porches, all to get ready for a five-month-long winter.

Ellen, Ruby and Frances are each alone when the novel begins, but hardship teaches them that helping each other relieves their loneliness. I almost forgot they were characters in a book, and when the story ended, I found myself wishing them long happy years as friends and neighbors in their old houses on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Martha Nelson has carried around stories in her head for sixty years. This is her first novel. Born and raised in Oswego, NY, she loved growing up on the shores of Lake Ontario. She is a graduate of Syracuse University and Lipscomb University, and is a retired non-profit executive, educator, award-winning journalist, and chef. She plays the piano, harp, and used to play the flute. She has two grown sons, Terry and Billy Schiff, two daughters-in-law, Emily and Alicia, and two grandchildren, Riker and Seldon. Martha lives in the greater Nashville area with her husband, Mark, two dogs, Bart and Lulu, and Hank the cat.

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