Six-year-old Lark Erhardt is the precocious narrator of Faith Sullivan’s Depression-era novel The Cape Ann. She lives with her mother, Arlene, and father, Willie, in Harvester, Minnesota. Her father is the clerk at the train depot and when he took the job, there was no housing for train employees so he and his family live in what was a “large empty room at the east of the ground floor.” Arlene is willing to make due, viewing her accommodations as their “rent-free living quarters for the next few years” while she saves money for a house of their own. The room has no running water or plumbing, no heat source, no comforts of any kind, but Arlene is determined and it is this determination that fuels the story.
Arlene and Lark settle upon The Cape Ann, plan #127, a house that “had two bathrooms, one up and one down.” Lark can’t imagine being lucky enough to live in a house with two bathrooms, especially since one of her jobs is to drag slop buckets across the railway tracks and empty them. When the novel opens, Arlene has squirreled away five hundred dollars, a princely sum at that time, and enough for a down payment.
Unfortunately, Willie has a gambling problem, enjoys drinking a little too much and is prone to violent outbursts. He really is the villain in this story. Every time Arlene gets close to achieving her dream of building The Cape Ann, Willie thwarts those plans with his selfishness. He is really a detestable character.
Sullivan’s book isn’t just about Arlene and Lark’s dreams of building a place to call their own, though. Harvester is a town filled with interesting characters, including Hilly, a handsome young man who had gone off to war, been injured and returned home with physical wounds that soon healed but with a “mind [that] had carried him back to early childhood.” Then there’s Beverly Ridza, a girl from Lark’s First Communion class, who “had no manners” which, according to Arlene, wasn’t her fault because her “drunken, good-for-nothing papa had done a disappearing act”. There are also some other family members who make an impression, including Arlene’s sister, Betty.
Nothing much happens in The Cape Ann. It is hard to believe that Lark has the insight she does at such a young age. She certainly doesn’t sound like any six-year-old I’ve ever encountered. She is both worldly and naïve, an often comical combination. She believes, for example, that the stork brings babies and that even though her father has undermined all her mother’s efforts to save for a house, staying together as a family is important.
Although I found the book slow-moving, I also really enjoyed my time spent in Harvester. Arlene was spunky. When she realizes that Willie is useless, she teaches herself to type and builds a thriving business. When Betty is pregnant and needs help, Arlene takes Lark and goes to her, taking charge of a messy situation. Arlene is a mother to be admired and when I finished The Cape Ann I knew that she and Lark were going to be okay.