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From Scotland to America - an Editorial Review of "Song for the Widowmaker"

Book Blurb:

Times were tough for unemployed men in Scotland in 1895. William Fraser travels to Dundee to find work and, he hopes, love. Independent working women dominate Dundee’s factories, and jute spinner Mary Coyle is one of them. The attraction is immediate and mutual. But William’s Protestant background makes Mary’s beloved Irish Catholic father unwilling to consent to their marriage. To complicate matters further, William’s estranged father has funded his journey to America to join him in a mining venture. Once apart, Mary and William must each contend with their own challenges of unrealistic expectations, promise-breaking temptations, and living with extended family. What follows is an engaging, deeply moving tale of immigrant struggle, from their arduous life in Scotland, to the adversities and dangers of mining work in America. Song for the Widowmaker alternates between Mary and William’s perspectives, revealing the obstacles of religious differences, prejudices, and separation. Song for the Widowmaker vividly brings the time and places of a world gone by to life, demonstrating the eternal power of love and commitment in overcoming monumental challenges.

Author Bio:

I am a professor in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University, Toronto, Ontario and conduct interdisciplinary research on extractive industries; and birds too!

Editorial Review:

With her book, ''Song for the Widow Maker'', The author, Gail S. Fraser, has delved deep into her own family history. From her careful study there emerges a long and eventful family saga of love, loss and gain set both in Scotland and the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century. The book is a very moving account of the fortunes of a young couple of very different background and upbringing; with the raw facts and beliefs of the time that were so divisive to the hopes and aspirations of a young Protestant Scottish boy, William Fraser and his Scots Irish Catholic love, Mary Coyle.

In 1895 young William travels to Dundee in search of work, and perhaps love. He believes he has found it in the form of a young sister of an injured workmate. There is an almost instant attraction between the two, they are of the same age and barely out of their teens. Mary's father Pat is an Irish widower and with very set views on life. As he explains to his daughter:

''You haven't experienced the meanness of people towards Catholics. Dundee is different, I don't know why, it just is. I can assure you. I have experienced meanness just for being a Catholic. It exists everywhere, in Scotland, Ireland and America....there are risks neither of you have probably thought of, which could create serious problems in your marriage. What if your husband doesn't get a promotion or a raise because he's a Catholic through marriage?....There's one thing more more I've to say. And Mary, my love, this is difficult, very difficult. But one of the last wishes your mother made me make before she died, God rest her soul, was to make sure you girls [Mary has three sisters] married good Catholic men...'

A short and loving and completely heartfelt objection from the elderly Irishman; but it contains a great deal in its attempt to give the young girl pause: practical objections jostle with the theological and, finally, a dying mother's final wish. Certainly, in the case of Mary in the New World, it is very prophetic! It is in fact very easy to feel an empathy with these struggling and star struck lovers from over a century ago. Much of the book alternates between charting the personal fortunes of each individual and their progress together over their first thirteen years together. This is in fact a period when they initially spend quite lengthy periods of time apart from each other, though their love and devotion to each other remains touchingly very strong. From the relative comfort of the early twenty first century one can only be impressed by their simple strength of purpose and tenacity in the face of what can only be described as austere conditions in Mary's town of Dundee and William's mother's home in Brechin on the east coast of Scotland, separated by approximately forty miles. One is struck, for example, of a diet that seems to consist almost entirely of bread and jam, to the extent that when Mary finally comes into possession of her own stove in the American mining settlement of Lead and a very lonely phase, for her, of their life together [William works a hard ten hour day seven days a week as a miner] she is completely nonplussed by the mechanics of it or, indeed, how to cook! Their pleasures are simple and always there is the constant presence of a religious divide. In Dundee William experiences his first Catholic Mass, the Midnight Christmas Mass; an impressive and overwhelming event for a boy raised in more austere and low key religious observances. Naturally, and quite predictably, Mary's father Patrick, refuses to consent to a marriage, even though William agrees to become a Catholic. He has given this conversion much thought:

...''If I got married in a Catholic Church, would that make me a Catholic? When I was growing up, Irish Catholics were not thought of highly and Catholic Scots were treated only marginally better. I'm already causing a rift in Mary's family so refusing to marry in a Catholic Church is probably out of the question. But maybe none of this matters in America. Well, I'll have to hope none of it matters in America....''

The situation is further complicated by William's admission that he is in fact illegitimate and his father, whom he has never met, has funded a one way ticket to America to seek and find his fortune the following May of 1896. Mary and her father quarrel bitterly and she leaves home to stay with William's mother and brother Alexander in their more congenial home in Brechin. Denied a Catholic marriage, William and Mary conduct a 'handfast' marriage witnessed by her sisters. They swear everlasting love and that Mary will join him in America as soon as time and money permits. The following phase of the book, quite justifiably, is called 'The Great Divide'. William's search for his errant and mysterious father, whom he has never met, is fraught with difficulties for, owing to a set of unforeseen circumstances, his father is always one step ahead of him. Beginning in the Dakotas, he follows his father for hundreds of miles in his attempt to catch up with him, following a long series of highly convoluted and complicated railway connections. In his quest, he is greatly struck by the sheer immensity of the country he finds himself:

''Scotland had seemed like a large, spacious country to William prior to coming to America....looking at the rail map, he reckoned Illinois alone would hold two Scotlands. The concept of the vastness of this country settled into his brain as the train moved across Nebraska in hour upon hour of continuous movement. The fields, prairies and grasslands seemed to stretch into infinity....And this was just one state in a country with large cities and vast farmlands and mining operations. He began to believe America was indeed a place of opportunities, far more opportunities than Scotland.....''

In the course of this lengthy and protracted Odyssey across America, William is informed in a letter from Mary that he is to become a father. In all this confusion and anxiety he finally comes face to face with his father Jack, in a hotel room in Seattle in the far north west. Jack proves to be a highly excitable and unpredictable man, fizzing with energy; enthusiastic and full of exciting plans for the future! His current vision is to earn their fortune by prospecting for gold in the Klondike. This is at the height of the Gold Fever, and, accordingly, he sets about fitting the two of them out with copious and expensive supplies and provisions and they optimistically set off on an expedition that will prove to be a costly and tragic failure that will separate father and son forever. Frustrated in his dreams and desires, William returns to Scotland and to Mary. To William, his conviction that America will be their salvation is unassailable. Back home, their life is as bleak and austere as ever. Still the deep love underlaying their deep devotion remains. When he returns and meets his baby daughter Annie for the first time late in the year 1898 it is to discover that Mary has been injured very badly in an accident and is in the Infirmary. The accident has brought Mary's father into a reconciliation and during Mary's long convalescence they are at last married, in the Catholic faith.

Mary experiences two further tragedies in her life with the loss of a sister and her father. She is once more expecting a child. In April a boy, Patrick, is born and William is more determined than ever to create a happy life for Mary and the children and decides to return to America once more; the plan being for Mary and the children and her two sisters to travel out to him once they have raised sufficient money for the fares, her father having left some funds. So it is that William finds himself once more in the new settlement of Lead in the summer of 1903 and where the mine has expanded in its size since when first he saw it. He takes on the intensely hard job as a miner for the princely sum of three dollars and fifty cents a day! In December of that year Mary and the two young children arrive in New York, the next stage of their long journey and reunion in Lead. When, finally, they arrive William is still at work. The only day he ever gets off is Christmas Day! His working days are long and arduous and she hardly ever sees him. This adds to her sense of isolation and unhappiness in her strange house with an intimidating and potentially hostile stove in a bleak and cold winter, She is twenty two years of age [as is William], lonely and alienated in a steadfastly staunch Protestant community. The booming sound of the stamp mill is loud, constant and all pervading and little Annie has constant nightmares. Clearly, this is not the America of Mary's dreams! A Catholic woman she meets at the local Catholic Church is able to bring a little friendship and solace, encouraging a love of nature in the little girl on their long walks in the nearby countryside. At last, in the late Spring of the following year, she is joined by one of her sisters, Maggie, and her new [Protestant] husband and their daughter. Mary is pregnant once more and the two children start school. They, like their mother, are now naturalised Americans. The remaining sister Katie arrives in June of 1906 and her family is complete. A fourth child, a boy, is born and followed by a fifth child, another daughter. Mary is still unhappy with her life in Lead and the constant undercurrent of anti Catholic prejudice that leads her sister to be sacked from her job at a local store. Maggie has moved to Denver, where there are excellent opportunities for her stonemason husband and Mary feels that she can tolerate Lead no longer. William has in fact been putting out feelers with an old friend of his father's in a place called Ely in Nevada where mining conditions and prospects are seemingly far superior. The move is finally decided upon when a serious and seemingly endless fire breakout in the mine in Lead and William is laid off.

At the new place of work at Ely near KImberley in Nevada, Mary settles down once more to the life of a miner's wife, one filled with a natural anxiety for the safety of her husband and bread earner, given the very nature of the miner's highly perilous working life. In the case of Mary and William, this anxiety and fear is to be wholly justified, At the head of every new chapter Gail S. Fraser has selected a very appropriate and sensitively chosen extract, usually from a then current verse or ballad. At the head of the Chapter entitled 'KImberley' she has placed a highly apposite extract from a poem called 'The Miner's wife'.

He came not, though she waited still

Beside her dear loved hearth,

Regardless of external things,

Their baby's mirth;

Regardless of the rushing storm

That o'er the mountains came

She sat with eyes intently fix'd

Upon the flickering flame......

At this point, very near to the conclusion of the book and the next phase of the young family's life, it would perhaps be good to pause and reflect for a moment on the length and breadth of Gail S. Fraser's account and recreation of the lives of her forbears. This is surely an achievement that most of us may have wished to achieve at some point in our lives and the author has settled down and achieved this with care and love and great dexterity, summing up the lives of her great- grand parents deftly and with great sweeps of sensitivity and imagination. She has also, clearly, combed the actual few remaining facts attentively; as evidenced by the extensive bibliography at the end of the book. This remains a truly great achievement that should fill the reader with awe at this account of two young immigrants who are both so human and humane. Two simple young people and their six children who are intensely likeable in the face of great adversities and in harsh conditions. The book is a remarkable achievement. Gail S. Fraser freely admits that when she embarked upon this task she knew very little of her great-grandparents and so she is to be congratulated for her imaginative skills, as well as her ability in fleshing out two biographies from the limited information available.


“Song for the Widowmaker” by Gail Fraser receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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