Bertha Truitt is found in a New England cemetery one cold day early in the 20th century. She is not dead but unconscious. The young watchman who finds her is thankful that she is not a deceased soul breaking out of her sepulchre. His cries for help bring to the scene a doctor named Leviticus Sprague. Returning to consciousness in business-like fashion, Truitt is uncertain of her name but quite clear that she is the inventor of candlepin bowling. Soon she is recovered enough to build a bowling alley. She appoints Weir, the watchman who found her, to be its manager.
She meets Leviticus Sprague from the cemetery again, and as a phrenology devotee, she reads his splendid black head with her white hands. Then his hands read her head. Together they build an octagonal house with one interior staircase and one on the exterior, and they embark on life together.
From this unusual start, the novel follows the history of the bowling alley through the events of the 20th century, Truitt’s death, and succeeding generations. It covers the story of small-town America and pastimes like bowling that formed an important part of the social fabric.
McCracken discards the stereotypes of people in a small town, indeed all their usual characteristics in fiction. Her characters, like the bowling alley itself and the octagonal house, are inimitable.
I found the novel itself unlike most I have read. The characters, while unique in themselves, are presented objectively with little relatability. Like puppets on a stage, they behave as the writer dictates. While Bertha Truitt and her legacy pervade this book, the writer’s objectivity seems to work best in her depiction of a small town full of awkward prejudices, rumours and self-righteousness. Reading this novel was, for me, a struggle.