Picks and Pans Review: American Girl
Growing up in Bristol, R.I., in the '30s and '40s was glorious if not always easy for Mary Lee Cantwell, as she makes clear in her affecting, exasperating memoir. For one thing, she dwelt "in the country of the blue-eyed," i.e. Protestants, and she was a Catholic, denigrated by some of the citizenry and ineligible, she learned to her horror during a school lesson, to many the King of England. That she was the best reader in class and the best speller did not enhance her social standing.
Safe harbor was Cantwell's home on Hope Street, surrounded by her younger sister, parents and grandparents—a family whose most pleasurable diversion was a "continual monitoring of other people's endlessly interesting lives." Cantwell, a member of the editorial board of The New York Times, has written an unabashed paean to Bristol—its harbor, its quiet streets, its air suffused with brine. But the panegyric often grows wearisome, all the more so because Cantwell's portrait of herself as a young girl is rendered with such skill and humanity. The reader wants more memory and less mood.
The reader could also use less of Cantwell's ornate, mannered prose. Summarizing her father's vision of his nearby hometown, gritty Fall River, Mass., where textile mills hummed day and night, she relates, "When you crossed the bridge from Somerset and entered the city, a cloud descended and wrapped you in its folds. Fall River! The heart sinks." It sinks indeed. That's just no way for a Yankee to take on. (Random House, $20)