The Meaning of Us by Carol Ervin is Book Eight of the Mountain Woman Series. It is not necessary to read the books in order but it would make life easier. First, there is a cast of characters with such a great number of characters spread over at least three generations. This will challenge even those with a hobby of genealogical tracing. Carol Ervin precedes her books with a helpful list of characters who appear in the book readers are currently reading and, after Book One, a list of character names which appear in the book only as a reference to characters in previous novels. If readers are reading on Kindle with X-ray enabled, it is easy to keep track of the complex relationships that come about due to multiple marriages, common law marriages, adoptions, placing of children with more competent relatives, and death. This is one of the reasons the series is very entertaining. It feels like my family. Your family may be different.
A second reason for reading the novels in order is to get a sense of history in the correct order. This series is a look at the development of US society, the way a culture attempted or did not attempt to deal with its problems. One genre that fits is historical fiction. The issues exist, that is history. The way May Rose, a principal narrator, dealt with problems, is fiction. The combination of the two makes for a very interesting series. All books in the series are five-star Amazon reads if one considers the genre or intended niche market. The novels should not be compared to action novels or mystery thrillers. I didn’t find any surprise endings although it was clearly apparent that the story could go on. That includes this novel, Book Eight, although whether to continue or not is up to the author. I believe those reviewers who try to compare these novels with those outside the intended genre should look at the quality of the author’s writing. Ervin weaves multiple threads skillfully as characters are directed to show, not tell, the complexity of social issues. Subtract the absence of a “Wow” factor and all novels deserve at least four Amazon stars. I’ll go for the five-star rating.
A main theme of The Meaning of Us is racial tension and conflict. Reader attention will center on Franklin, a Black miner who lives at a boardinghouse, the Eat and Sleep, managed by Minnie, a White female manager. There are several White miners living at the boardinghouse; it was unusual for Franklin to be living there. He should have been living in Pleasant Grove, a settlement referred to by several White town residents as “Colored Town.” See the problem already? Franklin was accepted by the White miners up to the time he sat at the breakfast table for a cup of coffee with Minnie. That just wasn’t done, a fight resulted, and our story begins. The struggles of Franklin will occupy readers throughout as Franklin sometimes, not always, runs into problems not of his own making. He did not vie for the position of store manager at Barlow’s store, a position that made him the boss of longer serving white employees. Inevitably, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) will make an appearance.
Several racial issues surface in this novel. Can Black and White citizens receive equal medical treatment? Can they attend the same social events? The setting of this novel is at the time of Prohibition, introducing yet another, but subordinate theme, of this novel. What happens when criminal activity (liquor sales and consumption) is de facto allowed in many areas by corrupt politicians and law enforcement officials? There are other subplots but I will stop with these two to comment on the real and most important theme of the novel. How do everyday people, those not in power, deal with easily observed criminal activities and unjust social conditions all around them and still maintain a moral compass that sets an example for children and family members? That challenge faces almost every character in this novel and those before. May Rose and husband Barlow just try to get through the day as they try to raise their children. They try to influence behavior change when they can but seek ways to live with objectionable behavior on the part of others when they face resistance. It is real life.
Finally, a note I have made before on other Carol Ervin books. For me, reading this novel is like going home. The scenes of Prohibition-era West Virginia were scenes I saw in 1950s Indiana. We had the KKK and the obvious accompanying racial bigotry. We even had moonshine, despite the fact that Prohibition was long gone. Families depended on themselves. We canned goods in the summer for consumption in the winter. There were more cars than in this novel but most people living in the countryside could not afford them. We walked, or hitchhiked, between towns. Ervin’s novels evoke many of my early memories. I identify with one of her characters but I won’t reveal which one. I am sure this personalization has something to do with my rating but … I could write a much longer review with dispassionate details of why these novels are good but such a collection would have to include spoilers.
Read this one or read the whole series. I feel the eight novels are great, I highly recommend this one as well as all novels in this series.