The Spoon Stealer

My grandma had this habit. Before buying a book or taking one from the library, she would read the first and last page. Every book, without exception. Her reason: “I don’t want to invest my time if I don’t like the ending.”

This habit annoyed me on a level that I’m not sure I can explain. Yet, it was her. One of the many idiosyncrasies that added up to a whole person. Maybe my own habits are no less strange. I almost never read the back of a book. Maybe the first sentence, a quick check to see if the author has a fanbase, and the first page or two. Sure, this results in a lot of experiences I don’t enjoy, but I still find value in it. If nothing else, I get to go into works with no expectations.

The people of Truro (Truroites?) made that impossible with today’s subject. Since my first day at NovelTea, people asked if we had Lesley Crewe. I think I’ve heard her name more than often than my own since I moved here. A full conversation became part of the daily atmosphere: “Have you read Lesley Crewe? You haven’t! You must. Start with The Spoon Stealer. At first, you’ll wonder what you’re reading, but before you know it, you won’t be able to put it down.”

As the days continued, Truroites (Truronians?) kept on asking about her. When her work hit our shelves, people devoured it, especially Spoon Stealer. People love that novel, and they make their love known.

It would have been an easy choice for the first blog here if Nimbus hadn’t provided a copy of The Last Time I Saw Her. Not only was Spoon Stealer a clear choice from a reader interest perspective, but it would provide me a start into the Atlantic Canadian literary scene. So, obviously I wanted to read Quiet Time instead, but Spoon Stealer ended up being so popular that I had to buy one from our shelves just to ensure I’d have a copy to read.

What was this novel? I had to wonder. Why did Truronian (Truroese?) readers identify so much with this work?

With these thoughts in mind, I opened the book. Around the third sentence, I realized that nobody had told me the plot or genre. Page one dropped me into the life of Emmeline Darling, a seventy-four-year-old Nova Scotian woman in the U.K. A slice-of-life unfolds. Emmeline bids farewell to Vera, her best friend, and prepares to go to a memoir writing class. She arrives at the class to be harangued by the leader and defended by some of her classmates. Here, we see our first hint of Emmeline’s depth of character. Unlike the rest of the class, she’s finished her memoir.

Though some people are annoyed, most are curious. Emmeline Darling reads us a few pages of her life, beginning with her unexpected birth into a basket of fresh linens in 1894.

This, I believe, is the moment that those Truroese (Truropolitan?) people mentioned. From the start of our book-within-the-book, Lesley demanded my attention. In that first section, two lines stood out. Both are about her mother:

“My four older brothers were a piece of cake, according to her.”

“It’s a very odd feeling to know that your mother doesn’t like you very much.”

My fascination grew deeper as someone from the class interrupted Emmeline. The questions and commentary played out like a positive counterpart to the “what kind of pie-eating contest?” moment in Stephen King’s The Body. That’s Stand by Me for movie fans.

Emmeline finishes the first part of her tale. To her surprise, her classmates are (mostly) interested. They look forward to seeing her again. There are people who want to know her story. At first, she doesn’t know what to do with that. She seems most comfortable with the confrontational or direct members of the class.

From there, she goes home, greets Vera, and the chapter ends. By this point, I was fascinated, but the next chapter added the detail which sealed my obsession. Vera is a dog. Emmeline is far lonelier than she wants to admit.

So, by the beginning of the second chapter, Spoon Stealer promised a lot of things.

Period piece? Intergenerational drama? International travel? Cute animal friend? Slice-of-life? Older protagonist? Oh, and by my math, those four brothers are going to be drafting age by 1914.

Miss Crewe, you’ve promised me quite the time. Do go on.

The rest of Emmeline’s story unfolded. The more I read, the more I understood the hype. Everyone was right. Make room around the maypole.

Before I say any more about the plot, I want to appreciate how Crewe set up the writing class. It could have easily fallen into a trap that I loathe in fiction: authorial self-praise. You’ve seen it before: monologues that go on uninterrupted, other characters being overwhelmed by the Rightness of the speaker, and retreating before such superior thought.

I hate it. But what do I know? Aaron Sorkin did that exact thing for seven seasons and people call it a classic.

The Spoon Stealer never feels aggrandizing. Even though most of Emmeline’s listeners weep at her story, they’re invested in her, not her writing. Crucially, they are never ‘the writing class’. These are people: Sybil, Joyce, Una, Mrs. Tucker. They all react differently to Emmeline. They have baggage and feelings and lives.

Those lives have experienced a lot. This is a memoir writing class, after all. Beyond that, look at the timeline. Emmeline is seventy-four, born in 1894.  That’s a lot of life. The world went to war twice. Generations came and passed. A plague. Weddings and funerals. Births and deaths.

The deeper we get into the story, the more Lesley presents the Darling family. By the end, we see at least a glimpse of five generations. No connection of parents, siblings, cousins, or grandparents is neglected. With a cast that large, it would have been easy to reduce characters to themes or archetypes.

The true purpose of the novel comes here. More than anything else, it’s a family drama.

While there are a lot of things going on, everything comes back to family. In my view, three elements take Spoon Stealer from good to great: sincerity, empathy, and framing.

We’ve already talked about that last one. We first learn about Emmeline’s life story through her memoir. This was something she wrote for herself, while she was lonely. When people ask her to read it to them, doubt and emotional exhaustion set in. With these come questions. What details did she leave out? What happens in those final chapters she refuses to read aloud?

Let’s talk about that, actually. Emmeline stops reading her memoir about halfway into the novel. That’s right, Emmeline’s (official) life story only makes up the first act.

Side note: at time of editing I read the back of the book for the first time. Why did they mention this on the back? The major moment that launches us from the individual to the familial is written plainly there, as if it’s the initial hook. I guess I don’t need to put a spoiler warning on it: Emmeline inherits her family farm.

She’s spent decades in the U.K. Those bridges were burnt and the ashes swept away long ago. By the time you read Emmeline’s story, you will know why she left, and why she hasn’t kept in touch with the other Darlings. Now, she needs to do something. Whatever she does will affect multiple generations.

If nothing else, it’s the best opportunity for her to try to see home one last time.

Here, once again, the story becomes more compelling. There is no safety of a memoir. Emmeline must speak to these people in real time, with the spectres of the past hanging over them.

Plus, we get to see a lot of 1960s Nova Scotia. I’m sure that made a lot of Truropolitans (Trurfolk?) happy.

Back on the serious side, now is a weird time for stories about families. The Norman Rockwell model of the nuclear family is as mythical as it’s ever been. Pop culture seems to hold a doublethink on the theme. Family is the group you love without judgment; relatives are the people you dread at holidays.

At the same time, we have found families. These are the Vin Diesel Fast and Furious groups. The people you meet whom you want and choose to be with, because they want and choose to be with you. You find a community that accepts you, and you share your life with them. Think of Anne’s adoptive family in Green Gables, the main cast of One Last Stop, the Band of the Hawk in Berserk, or the lead trio in Tokyo Godfathers.

Watch Tokyo Godfathers.

‘Family is complicated’ is about the biggest understatement I could offer. Some people – many of my dearest friends – have needed to either cut themselves off from their families or distance themselves in some way. Sometimes, sadly often, that is the healthiest case.

I bring all this up to stress that storytellers cannot escape the theme. Even stories which spotlight other themes show facets of familial bond. Sisterhood and parental expectations lay the backbone of Pride and Prejudice. Paternal legacy sits in every page of Dune. The cast of Lord of the Flies constantly remind others of their parents’ rank and status. The spectrum of families in literature is massive. It encompasses everything between and beyond Little Women, Coraline, The Shining, Swiss Family Robinson, The Road, Raybearer, The Sisters Brothers, and Flowers in the Attic.

Do not look up Flowers in the Attic.

I mention all this to showcase the sympathy element I mentioned earlier. Emmeline Darling could be forgiven for hating certain members of her family. Yet, through the wisdom of age and an inspiring degree of emotional intelligence, she does not. Circumstances and hard lives built up and shaped these people. Emmeline chooses to see the best in people, willing to distance herself for personal boundaries but unwilling to consider anyone hopeless.

More than once, Spoon Stealer made me feel like guilty for judging a character. Emmeline’s mother is the perfect example: an emotionally unstable woman with a lashing tongue, prone to taking out her aggression on her only daughter. She was a mentally ill woman in pain who didn’t get the help she needed, aggressively trying to survive in a world which did not recognize her sufferings.

That does not excuse any of the cruelty she inflicted on her family. Nothing excuses cruelty. That’s why I applaud the recognition of the humanity behind the behaviour.

To paraphrase Alex Steed from the You Are Good podcast: “a lot of people’s toxic behaviour is them aggressively surviving at you.”

In other words, people form survival mechanisms. Often, those are faulty at best or harmful at worst.

Imagine that applied to several generations, complete with cousins, siblings, parents, cousins, grandparents, and in-laws. Emmeline’s memoir did more than give us her story. It provided context for why the Darling family is in its current situation.

Despite how massive this sounds, the novel is not long. Months can go by in a paragraph, or a single fish and chips lunch can last for pages. Lesley Crewe understands the economy of words, and she uses it well. We see the whole family. We see it through Emmeline.

Most importantly, Emmeline is sincere. I believe that the author is, too. Crewe cares about these characters the same way that Emmeline does. The conversations between Emmeline and her family are direct, poignant, and emotional. These people say heartfelt and ruthless things to each other.

Some might argue that the level of emotional intelligence is unrealistic, as are certain reactions to Emmeline’s life talks. I disagree. The life talks are dramatic, yes, and she speaks directly to the heart of people’s issues. At the same time, we see Emmeline in her private moments, hoping that she said the right things. Vera reminds her of the emotional and financial gamble she makes on her family. 

Importantly, she leaves an impression on the new generations. The nephews and grandnieces will know and remember her.

I want to end by touching on the final words in the Author’s Note. “I hope you are collecting and recording your own family’s stories. They are the most precious inheritance you can pass down.”

I share a similar sentiment. The idea of family is useless unless we see each other as people. ‘Parent’, ‘sibling’, and ‘cousin’ are just words. The people make give them value. Their stories help you know them.

I’ve been collecting stories for a while. The time my dad snuck my mom from her strict parents to watch Rocky. The day my grandfather hid in a barn for fear of the people who wanted to kill his father. The year my great grandfather spent hiding in a cave.

These stories are worth preserving. They prevent ‘family’ from becoming an empty word. Lesley Crewe presented that in a way I’ve long wished I could.

In other words, congratulations Truro. You were right. Spoon Stealer is as good as the hype. I’m excited for more.

Happy reading, everybody.

(Purchase the Spoon Stealer online here)

January 28, 2023 — Vonda Hazzard

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