From the tumultuous emotional climate of post-World War II America to the upheaval of the 1960s, Don’t Put the Boats Away, a new historical fiction novel by Minnesota author Ames Sheldon, follows a family through 30 years of hardship and wonder across the U.S. As a sequel to her first novel, Eleanor’s Wars, Sheldon’s new book continues the story of the Great War ambulance driver and Sutton family matriarch, Eleanor Sutton. The novel picks up soon after the end of the traumatic events of WWII, as this New Jersey family attempts to cope with the repercussions of a bloody war that has torn apart their nation and their family.
The result is a more-than-light, less-than-heavy summer read. The end of WWII ushers in an era of midcentury social anxieties and, in the case of the two Sutton children, dramatic lifestyle changes. The novel begins in 1945 as Eleanor’s daughter, the ambitious and passionate Harriet Sutton, sets off from her family’s farm in New Jersey, determined to earn her graduate degree in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and work alongside her father at the family company, Sutton Chemical. In alternating chapters, we follow her artistically minded brother, Nat Sutton, on his journey from his school on the East Coast to a grain mill in snowy Minnesota. Both Harriet and Nat struggle to live up to their father’s expectations while in the shadow of their older, heroic brother, Eddie, who was killed on the front lines in WWII.
The spirit of Eddie, who was the golden child, continues to influence the Suttons as they struggle to cope with his absence and make sense of their own lives. With their passions for music and science, respectively, Nat and Harriet find both solace and struggle in their chosen professions. Resisting his father’s wishes, Nat sets out on his own, finding a place to explore his art in the Minneapolis jazz scene. As a strong and intelligent woman, Harriet has to fight to be heard against the misogynistic roar of the 1940s academic world. Curveballs are thrown their way, and Nat and Harriet must adapt to the turning tides and changing times.
Sheldon’s cred as a historical writer is shown in her detailed descriptions of events specific to the mid-1900s. Nat’s work in a Minnesotan grain mill feels lived in, as Sheldon’s descriptions of the machinery, the everyday toils, and the real dangers reflect extensive research. At UW-Madison, Harriet, meanwhile, is immersed in the development of penicillin, a huge medical advancement of the 20th century.
Sheldon has also filled her novel with little references to local lore. Minnesotan readers will recognize landmarks like Marquette Avenue, Lake Street, and Northfield’s St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges. The harsh descriptions of winter are all too real. Even in summer, they’ll make any Minnesotan shiver with familiar dread: “Nat hunches his shoulders and clenches his whole body against the cold that cuts through his clothing. The air is so frigid he feels as if he can’t inhale.”
But, covering nearly 30 years in fewer than 300 pages, the novel’s fast pace focuses less on detailed scene construction and more on dialogue and summaries of events. If you’re looking for in-depth description and thorough character development, this might not be the book for you. However, if you are searching for a simple read with a little more substance than your typical beach paperback, then give Don’t Put the Boats Away a try.
And if you do bring it to the beach, prepare for some thoughtful relaxation; Don’t Put the Boats Away has raw and dark undertones. In mid-1900s America, mental illness and social conflicts were hushed up and swept under the rug in favor of keeping up polished appearances. Sheldon explores these furtive topics with modern clarity. Her characters experience the somber reality of life’s ailments: Eleanor turns to alcohol to cope with the loss of her son, and other characters deal with depression, discrimination, divorce, domestic conflict, and PTSD.
The internal dialogues of Nat and Harriet capture raw emotional turmoil. From Harriet’s frustration at her sexist male peers to Nat’s loneliness as he works a mind-numbing job far away from home, Sheldon’s characters are empathetically real.
The novel’s title is a bit of a spoiler (so skip this paragraph if you’re planning on getting a copy): It comes from the name of a song that Nat writes and performs with his children and nieces and nephews at the close of the story, as their summer at the family beach home comes to an end: “Let’s not put the boats away! Maybe we’ll stay for one more day…”
Sheldon shows us that, although the sea of life is filled with waves of change and raging riptides, if we surround ourselves with the people and things we love, the voyage is not so treacherous. It may be filled with storms, and you might end up somewhere that you never imagined, but the route there can still be wonderfully surprising and beautiful in its own way.
Pick up your own copy starting Aug 27 or visit Ames Sheldon’s website for more details about her local signing events. She will be at Lake County Booksellers in White Bear Lake on Sept 6 and at Jesse James Days in Northfield on Sept 7-8.