Reading books from Carol Ervin’s Mountain Women Series is like going back to a childhood home after a long absence. In this case, I am sure to have a place to stay. The Boardinghouse is book five in this series. Readers should not be discouraged by the bewildering number of characters, each with their own backstory because Ervin helpfully provides a guide in the front of the novel which lists all the characters the reader will meet. Each introduction has a few keywords indicating what the backstory will contain. Reading all the books in the six-novel collection is a good idea for fans of TV series such as Dallas.
Although the overall experience is that of coming home to a welcoming family with a strong matriarch, May Rose Percy, this does not mean there won’t be problems. That is why the novel is interesting. Ervin has May Rose narrate family problems on the very personal family level, a level with which many of us are familiar. May Rose lets boarders in the rooming house present their own stories. Luzanna is a friend and works at the house but she does not always agree with May Rose and she is not afraid to speak up. Wanda is a married stepdaughter, respectful of May Rose but also strong in her opinions. Because this is a boardinghouse, there are occasionally unpleasant guests. Readers may find it difficult to like Irene Herff or Milton Chapman but they will enjoy the discourse the two have with May Rose as she deals with unwelcome clients.
It should be apparent that this is a novel about strong women. They had to be strong because the geographical setting is frontier like settings where coal is king and when it goes well, families are secure. When the volatile coal-based economy sinks, so does the quality of life for all. For this novel, the time is the early 1900s, important because although women had to be strong, they had no legal rights. The second theme of Ervin’s novel examines comprehensive problems outside the control of the family. Women did not have the right to vote; they did not have the right to own property. How could they then demonstrate their strength? Many times they were forced to do so, as when May Rose had to manage absolutely everything when husband Barlow became sick and had to go to a spa for an attempted cure that would restore his ability to walk.
There are depictions of women’s increasing attempts to get legal standing. There is a section where women gather at a meeting to discuss the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. A lead speaker is a man discussing why women should be content with their lot of ruling the home but be sure to not worry about anything outside it. At the end of the meeting participants sign petitions, one will have men’s signatures and one will contain women’s signatures. Only the one with the men’s signatures will count since women can’t …
There is a third part, not actually a theme, in which Ervin informs readers of history not only concerned with social issues. The great amount of time spent in communication, when people happening to go in the desired direction volunteer to carry letters, is looked at. There are many difficulties in transportation. If I don’t have a horse, it will take me these many days to walk. Cattle were an important asset, it was good to have many. But what about the logistical problem of feeding them? May Rose worries about all these things daily but even more so in the context of a disaster such as an uncontrollable wildfire.
Ervin writes of the importance of a strong family whose members are loyal to each other. If they are not loyal, they should at least, like son-in-law Dr. Will, do no harm. When harm occurs, it offends May Rose’s sense of propriety. This last is the strong overriding theme of the novels in this series. There is a correct standard of social behavior, propriety. It rules all things from the dinner table and acceptable conversation to social behavior outside the home. May Rose illustrates this with her concern over the possible damage her reputation may sustain if a certain rumored action in her past becomes publicly acknowledged and advertised. That event occurred a few novels prior but is a driving force for all actions by May Rose.
I highly recommend this novel as one of my “comfort” reads. I like to read such novels when I want to immerse myself in a time that, although there were problems, I thought I had a chance of working the problems out. All the reader should do is pay careful attention to character names. They are essential to the story. Names change because women marry and take the name of (get ready for it) … the man.