Review of Mrs. Somebody Somebody by Tracy Winn, Southern Methodist University Press, 2009.
By Jessica DeVoe Riley
Mrs. Somebody Somebody is a collection of short stories set in Lowell, Massachusetts, a town that was founded on the banks of the Merrimack River and made a name for itself as a mill town during the post-WWII era. Through the course of Mrs. Somebody Somebody’s nine stories, readers and characters alike witness the changing landscape of the city: the mills close down and give way to condos and malls, the working class comprised of Greek, Irish, and Polish immigrants moves up and a new, Latino immigrant working class takes their place, women and men clash over gender and equality, and people grow and some die – yet through it all, the Merrimack River flows strong alongside the Mile of Mills standing firm with its line of smokestacks, even long after smoke no longer rises from them.
The first story - the title story - sets the stage for the book. Readers meet Stella, an employee of Hub Hosiery Mill, who hopes her pretty face will help her achieve her dreams of being a bride, being a Mrs. Somebody Somebody. For Stella, being a bride means having an identity that sets her apart from everyone else, a goal not so different from others who flocked to her thriving mill town. Stella makes appearances throughout the other stories, enabling readers to experience the exact ‘somebody’ she becomes in their eyes, suggesting that goals can often be achieved, even if not in the manner intended.
Stella is only one of the characters who appears and reappears throughout the tales. Winn incorporates references throughout all of her stories to pivotal characters of single stories, giving readers the feel of what it might have been like to work in Lowell. Just as Stella in "Mrs. Somebody Somebody" knows nothing of Lucy at the beginning of the tale, then learns much more as the story progresses, so readers know nothing about the people of Lowell at the start of the book, then learn much more about them, both through their eyes and the eyes of others. The most prominently featured main characters are the Burroughs family, the descendants of the founder of Hub Mills, a family reminiscent of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. After meeting the son of the founder in the first story, readers go on to read about the founder’s grandson, Charlie, Charlie’s wife, and their children, who all fall further and further away from their old money class with each riveting tale.
An important aspect of Winn’s stories is the focus on loyalty. While her stories span various lives and the changing landscape of Lowell, her characters prize loyalty above all else -- loyalty to one’s job, one’s country, one’s family, one’s home, and one’s identity. And when there is a rejection of loyalty, for better or worse, the decision is hard wrought and with consequences, as Helen hauntingly learns in "Copper Leaves Waiting:" “the house, like a map of her growing up, went wherever she looked.”
The Merrimack River is the physical counterpart to loyalty, a constant in ever-changing Lowell. Every person who looks to it sees, hears, smells, and feels something different – something tangible, something inescapable, something beautiful, or as Kaylene suggests in "Another Way to Make Cleopatra Cry," a force that can move time: “Maybe [my life] would be like a river, the Merrimack, winding around… and what happened from there would stretch out differently, get right, as we rolled forward.”
Mrs. Somebody Somebody is a treat for any reader who appreciates a well incorporated city setting. Lowell, Massachusetts is a character unto itself, simultaneously moving the characters along their life paths and changing its cityscape based on the choices of its characters. These characters on their different walks of life – upper and lower class, immigrants, blue collar, union boosters – congregate to tell the story of the life cycle of the American city, from the moment a town makes a name for itself on a map through the downfall of its industry and then on to the emergence of a new, conflicted identity that tries to retain the spirit of its old roots despite no longer having any real connection to them. Highly recommended.
Tracy Winn, who earned her MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, is the recipient of grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Barbara Deming Memorial Trust, and the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Millay Colony. Her short stories have appeared in journals such as the Alaska Quarterly Review, The New Orleans Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts, with her husband and daughter, and works with Gaining Ground, an organic farm for hunger relief. Mrs. Somebody Somebody is her debut collection of stories. Check out her website here.