Bowlaway (McCracken)

Elizabeth McCracken, 2019
384 pp.

A sweeping and enchanting new novel from the widely beloved, award-winning author Elizabeth McCracken about three generations of an unconventional New England family who own and operate a candlepin bowling alley

From the day she is discovered unconscious in a New England cemetery at the turn of the twentieth century—nothing but a bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold on her person—Bertha Truitt is an enigma to everyone in Salford, Massachusetts.

She has no past to speak of, or at least none she is willing to reveal, and her mysterious origin scandalizes and intrigues the townspeople, as does her choice to marry and start a family with Leviticus Sprague, the doctor who revived her.

But Bertha is plucky, tenacious, and entrepreneurial, and the bowling alley she opens quickly becomes Salford’s most defining landmark—with Bertha its most notable resident.

When Bertha dies in a freak accident, her past resurfaces in the form of a heretofore-unheard-of son, who arrives in Salford claiming he is heir apparent to Truitt Alleys.

Soon it becomes clear that, even in her death, Bertha’s defining spirit and the implications of her obfuscations live on, infecting and affecting future generations through inheritance battles, murky paternities, and hidden wills.

In a voice laced with insight and her signature sharp humor, Elizabeth McCracken has written an epic family saga set against the backdrop of twentieth-century America.

Bowlaway is both a stunning feat of language and a brilliant unraveling of a family’s myths and secrets, its passions and betrayals, and the ties that bind and the rifts that divide. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Raised—Newton, Massachusetts, USA
Education—B.A., M.A., Boston University; M.F.A., Iowa Writers' Workshop; M.S.L., Drexel University
Awards—L.L. Winship/PEN-New England Award; finalist, National Book Award
Currently—lives in Austin, Texas

Elizabeth McCracken, an author and academic, was born in Boston and raised in Newton, Massachusetts. She earned her B.A. and M.A. from Boston University, an M.F.A. from the Writers' Workshop of Iowa, and an M.S. in Library Science from Drexel University. McCracken's brother is Harry McCracken, former PC World magazine editor-in-chief and founder of

McCracken's first novel, The Giant's House, was released in 1996 and was a finalist for The National Book Awards. She has several other novels and short story collections to her name. Most recently she published the novel Bowlaway (2019) to wide acclaim.

In 2014, McCracken published her second collection of stories: Thunderstruck & Other Stories. "Hungry", one among the nine stories, won the 2015 Sunday Times (U.K.) EFG Private Bank Short Story Award—the richest prize in the world for a single short story—$20,000. The complete volume of Thunderstruck also won the U.S. Story Prize and was longlisted for the U.S. National Book Award.

Currently, McCracken holds the James Michener Chair of Fiction at the University of Texas-Austin. She and her husband, novelist Edward Carey, have two daughters and live in Austin.

Fun fact
Ann Patchett mentions in an interview for Blackbird at Virginia Commonwealth University, that Elizabeth McCracken is her "editor" and the only person to read her manuscripts as she is writing. (Adapted from the publisher and Wikipedia. Retrieved 2/6/2019.)

Book Reviews
[The novel] sometimes seems to want to drift off, like a hot-air balloon, into an ionospheric layer of pure twinkle and whimsy.… McCracken in Bowlaway comes close to writing caricatures instead of characters. That this ambitious novel nearly works is a testament to her considerable gifts as a novelist, her instinctive access to the most intricate threads of human thought and feeling.
Dwight Garner - New York Times

Death and life, frosted with macabre comedy.… [McCracken] lures us in with her witty voice and oddball characters but then kicks the wind out of us. She never misses the infamous 7-10 split, managing to hit Annie Proulx and Anne Tyler with the same ball.… Endlessly surprising.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

Reading Elizabeth McCracken—the gorgeously-put-together sentences parading the pages like models on a Paris runway; the crazy, original insights; the definitive, wholly fictional pronouncements—is like going on an automotive safari.… I could not stop reading.

Loss and love revolve around a bowling alley established at the turn of the 20th century in a Massachusetts village by a woman who seems to have fallen from the sky in this quirky epic about family and fate.
Boston Globe

Elizabeth McCracken is just a delicious writer. This is a book that’s quirky, it’s a book that’s heartfelt.… She’s able to come up with these outlandishly wonderful situations and make it seem not only real, but that you’re going through these experiences with them.

At the turn of the 20th century a woman is discovered unconscious and nearly frozen in a New England cemetery with only a bowling ball, a candlepin, and 15 pounds of gold on her. The National Book Award finalist’s exuberantly weird and wonderful book unravels the mystery.
Oprah Magazine

The brilliantly witty writer returns with her first novel in 18 years, an incisive and generous portrait of a New England clan who operate a candlepin bowling alley.
Entertainment Weekly

In an enthralling, magical story that spans generations, award-winning writer McCracken imbues a candlepin alley with the ability to bowl over sexism.
Ms. Magazine

(Starred review) [S]tellar…. McCracken writes with a natural lyricism that sports vivid imagery and delightful turns of phrase. Her distinct humor enlivens the many plot twists that propel the narrative, making for a novel readers will sink into and savor.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) McCracken has one of the more distinctive literary sensibilities readers will likely encounter; playful, inventive, and fearless, she's drawn to oddball characters and the eccentric fringes of American family life. —Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT
Library Journal

(Starred review) McCracken writes with exuberant precision, ingenious lyricism, satirical humor, and warmhearted mischief and delight.… [A]compassionate and rambunctious saga about love, grief, prejudice, and the courage to be one’s self.

(Starred review) Parents and children, lovers, brothers and sisters, estranged spouses, work friends and teammates all slam themselves together and fling themselves apart across the decades in the glorious clatter of McCracken's unconventional storytelling.
Kirkus Reviews

(Starred review) To tell a good tale, you need drama—and in this area, Bowlaway spares no expense.… McCracken’s prose is well-tooled, hilarious and tender, thoughtful and jocular. Her characters inhabit their world so completely, so bodily, that they could’ve truly existed.

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers Book Club Resources. They can help with discussions for any book:

1. Bowlaway's narrator describes Bertha as "the oddest combination of the future and the past anyone had ever met." What does it mean to be both future and past? What is your reaction to Bertha—how would you describe her?

2. An undercurrent of sadness exists in midst of the novel's humor and wackiness. More than one woman has lost a child, an echo from Elizabeth McCracken's own life, about which she has written in her 2008 memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.

    In this novel, LuEtta Mood, a Truitt's Alleys' patron, mourns a child: in the presence of another's baby, she is "a combustible gas, [and] the baby is a match… best to keep them apart." LuEtta fears she appears "dangerous and might never be allowed to hold anyone's baby again." Does McCracken's writing have resonance when it comes to someone you know (or yourself) who has experienced a tragedy of this magnitude?

3. LuEtta's own tragedy allows her to view Bertha's gaiety as "trained on a trellis of sorrow." What does she mean? Does her observation suggest that Bertha's exuberance is forced or inauthentic? Or does it mean that Bertha is truly able to live with joy, by somehow learning to put aside her sorrow?

4. Bertha bowls "because the earth was an ocean and you had to learn to roll upon it." Consider that winsome observation as, perhaps, an overriding theme of the novel. How, then, does that concept play out in the novel through various of its multitude of characters and events?

5. In what way does Bowlaway suggest that there is a great deal of mystery in peoples' lives? Ultimately, what do the many characters in the novel seek… and what does Truitt's Alleys provide them?

6. Talk about Joe Wear and his surprising life trajectory. What do you think of the description of Joe as "an elbow"?

7. Of all the characters, do you have a few select favorites, or one in particular?

8. In what ways do Bertha's views on issues of race, class, and gender seem more in tune with the 21st century than the early 20th. Does that anomaly trouble you: in some way detract from your reading? Or does Bertha's progressiveness enhance your reading experience? What were the prevailing attitudes toward African Americans and women 100 years ago?

9. Talk about the way the author foreshadows characters' fates long before they play out in the novel. In what way does this foreshadowing suggest the role of destiny in our lives… or exude a mysterious presence in life, or lend the novel an epic-like quality?

10. What insights did you come across, or what struck you most about this novel? What about children and love, yoga as laundry, dark thoughts (everybody needs them), and spiral staircases?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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