One of the most powerful functions of literature is to challenge readers to step outside of their own demographics and to view the world through the eyes of some other category of person. For example, reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy as a young man provided me a modicum of insight into the African-American experience with racism. Similarly, reading Monica Ali’s post-9/11 novel Brick Lane allowed me to imagine the world as seen through a burka. Likewise, Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt has inspired many readers to reconsider their understanding of the plight of Central American immigrants seeking safety and opportunity in el norte. It was in this spirit of vicarious experience that I read Connie Schultz’s The Daughters of Erietown.
As a proud male-feminist, which is not an oxymoron, I read TDoE with the conscious purpose of gaining as much understanding of the cross-generational experience of females – at least as lived in working class Northeast Ohio – as possible. Admittedly, it is an amount of understanding that might fill a thimble. Without going into plot detail, TDoE is a story of women of all ages confronted at nearly every turn with men behaving badly. The range of these men’s sins range from the mere tacit condoning of social institutions designed to “keep women in their place” to the horrors of physical abuse.
It would be a mistake, however, to view the novel as man bashing. It is not that. In fact, there are several examples of male characters who rise heroically in opposition to sexist standards and in support of the novel’s females. It is also made clear that men themselves are also victims of an inherited patriarchal system that at least allows for, if not promotes, chauvinistic boorishness or that locks them into prescribed men’s roles and definitions of manliness. Nor does TDoE seek to play the so-called victim card as is made clear by its final protagonist, Sam (Samantha), managing to overcome the many male-made traps set and barriers built to preclude her free agency and to forge a career and a life of her own defining outside of the conventional wife/mother role.
One of the more intriguing attributes of TDoE is the fictional setting of Erietown. It is the home to mostly blue collar, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial families. Anyone raised in any of the many once-industrial cities along the shores of Lake Erie in northern Ohio will recognize Erietown as their own. The setting is so prominent that it rises to the level of character. It is not merely a backdrop against which the story takes place, it is a shaper of the lives of its inhabitants for better or worse, like another parent, coach, or teacher. It may as well have been the place envisioned by LeBron James when he wrote, “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” For some, Erietown serves as a place of escape and refuge; for others, that same town is a prison with invisible but unscalable walls surrounding the town.
If forced to criticize for the sake of counter-argument and not to come off as a biased cheerleader for all things Connie Schultz (Which I am.), I would only point out what I thought to be one relatively-weak sub-plot in which Schultz seems to cast her inclusivity net a bit too far by having Sam fall in love with an African-American man. Although the message is a good one, it feels wedged into the plot. Also, at times, the dialogue feels a bit stilted, but the occasional awkwardness of expression is most likely due to much of the story taking place in the past. The diction and syntax of the characters have gone the way of the many Northern Ohio icons Schultz sprinkles lovingly into the text, including Higbee’s Department Store, Lawson’s Convenient Stores, and Stroh’s and Schlitz beers.
The Daughters of Erietown is a novel that will stick with me. It has inspired me to be even more cognizant and appreciative of the extra efforts required of the women in my life, both past and present, just to compete and be appreciated in what is sadly still very much a “man’s” world. More importantly, it is a fictional record and reminder of the many unseen and unheard of acts of courage and will performed every day by women since . . . well . . . forever.