If you're a fan of Jan Karon's "Mitford" series and are looking for some of the same sort of novels to fill the time between installments, Traci DePree's warm, sweet and humorous tales of small town Minnesota farm life will fit the bill. In her third saga, APRONS ON A CLOTHESLINE, she continues the enjoyable stories begun in her debut novel, A CAN OF PEAS, and its follow-up, DANDELIONS IN A JELLY JAR.
What's not to like about the characters who populate Lake Emily? Like most small towns, its inhabitants are a hodge-podge of the young and the aging, the slightly bad and the just plain quirky, and the kind and the loveable. As happens in the best novels, you come to care about the characters (who, rather than the plot, keep the pages turning).
Readers of the earlier books will recognize Peter Morgan and his wife Mae, now settled into farming and up nights with a much-loved new baby. Complicating things for the couple is caring for Peter's aged grandmother, Virginia, who suffers a stroke while on an outing to the SPAM Museum, and now battles suicidal depression. Her stalwart group of women friends, the Suzy Q Extension Group, works hard to get Virginia engaged with life again.
Meanwhile, Trudy and Bert Biddle tie the knot, and she finds navigating the ins and outs of being a farmer's wife --- and having the demanding Lillian for a mother-in-law --- is more than she bargained for. Further difficulties arise as Trudy finds herself jealous of Mae's preoccupation with the new baby and the demands it places on her sister's life.
Things come to a climax as Lillian and Willie Biddle decide to deed over the farm to Bert, cutting his twin brother Fred out of the family inheritance. Fred shows up on the scene just before things are finalized, with his new Russian wife Svetlana on his arm. As relationships go from frayed to broken within the Biddle family, Trudy takes Svetlana under her wing. As she teaches Svetlana how to drive and coaches her on becoming more independent, it provides some of the best moments in the book.
Meanwhile, Virginia slowly comes to terms with her disabilities with the help of a charming elderly widower, August Cleworth. But when her newly protective grown son David returns home to help her recover, her relationship with August becomes problematic. She's also trying to repair things with ten-year-old Jessie Wise, who through a series of misunderstandings feels Virginia doesn't want to see her anymore. Jessie turns to Virginia's physical therapist, Anna Eastman, and soon begins to dream of her becoming the mother she so desperately needs. Jessie's father, however, is still tempted by the bottle, and Jessie's dreams seem a long way from ever coming true.
Readers may find the abundance of plot threads, points of view, and flashbacks to earlier times in the lives of the characters that begin every new chapter a lot to juggle. To her credit, DePree does a good job keeping all the balls in the air. Rather than reading APRONS ON A CLOTHESLINE as a stand-alone novel, most readers will find it beneficial to begin with A CAN OF PEAS followed by DANDELIONS IN A JELLY JAR. Be prepared for some gentle and entertaining fiction.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on May 17, 2005