Some books seem to get all the attention when they are released while others sit quietly on the shelves at bookstores or lurk on Amazon's virtual pages waiting to be discovered, which is how I came across Rebecca Chace's Leaving Rock Harbor, a historical novel about America's Lost Generation that tried to find its way after WWI. This is a fairly slight novel that follows three close friends as they come of age in the tumultuous early decades of modern America. Although domestic and world events move swiftly in the background, they're less a backdrop than a force that shapes Frankie Ross and the two young men who will influence and impact her life.
"I thought Rock Harbor was the place to be in 1916, and I wasn't the only one. Everyone was making money in the war years."
Rock Harbor, Massachusetts is meant to provide the Ross family a new start after Frankie's father slits his wrists in the bath and nearly dies. An engraver by profession, the family moves from Poughkeepsie where he can find good work in one of the town's booming cotton mills. At fifteen Frankie is thrust into a new school filled with the children of immigrants who come and go as quickly as their parents' jobs last in the mills, and where she feels like an outsider. But she is befriended by Joe Barros, whose Portuguese ancestry is overlooked thanks to his abilities on the basketball court, and Winslow Curtis, the son of a wealthy politician. The two are unlikely friends as Joe works in the mill owned by Winslow's family, but they're inseparable and Frankie becomes wrapped up in their friendship acting as a balance as well as a diversion.
For Frankie her relationship with Joe and Winslow is freeing as she is exposed to lifestyles and social classes well outside her own conservative and somewhat oppressive middle class family nucleus. The corset comes off, her hair is let down and then cut off as the country moves toward the inevitability of war. Joe ships off for France but Winslow is rejected for his flat feet. And as Joe sends Frankie soul searching letters that she responds to with an equal passion, she falls in love with Winslow.
The lives of the three friends don't always run parallel, mostly they diverge and cross at unexpected moments. An unconventional beginning for Frankie turns into a commonplace life where she is left wondering what she is supposed to be doing and who she is supposed to be. A wife and mother she becomes, but she is also disillusioned and and feels ineffectual and wonders if she chose the right path in life when it seemed so clear in her youth. The war ends but it doesn't bring peace and prosperity to the residents of Rock Harbor, or to Frankie. On the contrary, Rock Harbor and Frankie's life are both thrown into an upheaval and fortunes that were made are now lost. However, Frankie paves her own path to happiness and fulfillment breaking the rules along the way.
I quite enjoyed Leaving Rock Harbor and am happy to have come upon it even if only by accident. The characters seemed very natural in their setting, none of which felt forced, and the descriptions were tantalizing with the story's coastal setting. Frankie is an entirely likable, if flawed, character who you can't help but root for. Chace does a marvelous job evoking the pains and pleasures of the era and the sense of loss and disenchantment with life after the war. If I had one quibble it is only that I wish the story had been longer.