Camp ToB 2019

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Week One: Bowlaway

Start swapping those friendship bracelets—it’s the first week of Camp ToB 2019! This time around, we’re discussing the first half of Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel.

Welcome to Camp ToB 2019, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books! All summer long, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2019—two books per month, two weeks per book—that you chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel, then meet here on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress through each book. At the end of each month you decide which of the two books we just read advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you make the ultimate call on which of our three finalists wins an automatic berth in the 2020 Tournament of Books.

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Rosecrans Baldwin: Everyone, please meet our first Activity Leader of the summer: Kim MacQueen from Vermont. Kim, please introduce yourself to the Camp!

Kim MacQueen: I’m from Florida originally but I have lived in Vermont for the last seven years. I teach magazine publishing at Champlain College. My typical day involves staring at too many screens for too long and never enough time for books. Also feeding pets. Many pets. I’ve watched ToB from the sidelines for years but never felt like I had the time to devote to participating (until now, for some reason).

Rosecrans: This week we’re talking about the first half of Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken. Bowlaway is a turn-of-the-century family saga about candlepin bowling in which a “prophet of bowling” named Bertha Truitt appears one day in a cemetery outside Boston and sets the story in motion. Kim, had you read McCracken before, and had you heard about Bowlaway? What were you expecting?

Kim: I started following McCracken on Twitter a few years ago because she’s funny. I had heard about Bowlaway and was looking forward to checking it out. I was expecting the same sort of wry tone that I love from her tweets and I wasn’t disappointed—even though Bowlaway has absolutely zero in common with Twitter, which, thank goodness.

Rosecrans: One thing I noticed off the bat was the brio. There’s so much confidence in the manner this story is laid out. Right away Truitt opens a bowling alley, grabs a husband, builds a house. We’re almost dared not to keep up with the pace of events—not to mention the cleverness and heavy style of the language—but I also didn’t worry about getting lost. Joan Didion once said that writing can be hostile “in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture.” To my ear, Bowlaway isn’t imposing so much as persuading—in a single paragraph setting out detail, motivation, tenor, an image, a joke, an observation, all in service to the last sentence so that I exit with a near-complete understanding of some side to the character we’re focused on.

Kim: Yes, there’s a musicality to it, right? In the way of a song that starts and ends and is a complete thing that doesn’t wait for the listener to catch up. There are no hints or pauses for the reader to get their bearings; everything just moves right along. It’s un-self-conscious in a way. And I think it’s that feeling of cutesiness—of self-consciousness—that has kept me from enjoying fiction like this for so long. Bowlaway really walks that line, but is never cutesy IMO. It just is what it is.


Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken

From the day she is discovered unconscious in a cemetery at the turn of the 20th century—nothing but a bowling ball, a candlepin, and 15 pounds of gold on her person—Bertha Truitt is an enigma to everyone, and her mysterious origin scandalizes and intrigues the locals. But when Bertha dies in a freak accident, her past resurfaces in the form of a heretofore-unheard-of son. Soon it becomes clear that Bertha’s defining spirit and her obfuscations live on, affecting future generations through inheritance battles, murky paternities, and hidden wills. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)

Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.


Rosecrans: Certainly a lot of the story, setting, and writing here is heavily stylized in a fairy tale-esque way—sort of post-Victorian, Yankee twee? I mean, when we read, “Oh, Bertha: wedged in the aperture of a belvedere,” are you rolling your eyes? I’d call the author the Cormac McCarthy of twee, and I normally can’t stand twee, except I’m really enjoying myself.

Kim: Exactly. Me too. Initially I was disappointed to open the book and find it was set so far in the past and starts in a graveyard. I was thinking, Here we go. Twee is a perfect word for what I thought I might be getting into. But that was over for me by about page four. The characters gather around Bertha there in the graveyard and everybody starts talking and they’re all so beautifully drawn and the story starts moving so fast that I thought Oh wait, I like this. This can work.

Rosecrans: Right. And Bertha’s central role becomes really useful for understanding all of these important people in the story: the other bowlers, the men who work the alley, Bertha’s husband Leviticus Sprague. But then Bertha dies by molasses about a quarter through the book; oh, the tweeness of it all. This is a fact that’s advertised on the jacket flap, but it still surprised me, and I felt like it improved the book, seeing how many pages were left, or at least heightened the game.

Kim: I must have not read the jacket flap or remembered that I’d read it, because the molasses surprised me and I actually totally bought in. Normally I hate that kind of stuff in fiction—I’m a super-realist as a writer and a reader. But it works somehow. Maybe because Bowlaway sets us up to expect the slightly magical early on. They find Bertha in a graveyard and she gets stuck on the stairs with her head in the belvedere. She delivers the baby there. So when she dies the way she does, I thought, Oh of course.

Rosecrans: That delivery scene was bizarre and spot-on for Bertha and pretty terrific. Which characters are speaking to you the most?

Kim: This might sound twee in itself but my favorite thing about the book is the relationship between Bertha and Sprague. It just sort of drives everything else, even though he’s not into candlepin bowling at all.

Rosecrans: What about the relationship works for you exactly?

Kim: I was really struck by how she just chooses him there in the graveyard and says nothing about it at the time, but then keeps going back to the cemetery because she knows he’ll be back there eventually, and she’s right. And they get together in exactly one scene, and they’re devoted to each other until the end of their lives. It’s perfect.

Rosecrans: As to the bowling, as someone from New England, who grew up near a candlepin bowling alley, the novel is absolutely right, it’s a lot harder than regular bowling. The pins are basically thin wooden dowels and the balls are smaller; it’s like rolling a wooden softball at a bunch of upright pencils. Have you played?

Kim: I’d heard of candlepin bowling but really have no reference point for it. But I totally get the story as one that showcases women’s power.

Rosecrans: Good point. What do you think of bowling as a nexus here, as a way to think about women’s rights and power, and themes like devotion or ambition?

Kim: The women’s characters are really built out before those of the men, for the most part, and so I was wondering if the male characters might get short shrift, but they don’t. Bowlaway builds them out a little later in the narrative but they’re just as deep and well-drawn. Ladies first.

Leviticus Sprague is probably the most important man in the book so far, and we meet him briefly early on, but we don’t really get to know him until after we’ve met the bowling ladies: LuEtta Mood, Hazel Forest, Mary Gearheart, Nora Riker. Mood we know the most about and her story is heartbreaking, and then we watch her just become a badass. And we learn she really always was a badass. She’s probably my favorite character in the first part of the book. I also love Mary Gearheart; she’s not as well drawn but she’s so negative that it’s really amusing.

Rosecrans: Final question: What’s next? Do you foresee the return of Joe Wear? Does Jeptha die setting pins? Does a Truitt descendant start a Belle & Sebastian cover band in 2020?

Kim: I totally have no idea, and I love that. The mark of a great narrative.

Rosecrans: Big thanks to Kim! Everyone, join us down below in the comments and let us know what you think—are you all twee’d out? Twigging on Bertha? Molasses-mad?—then come back here next Wednesday when we reach the last page of Bowlaway!


The Camp ToB 2019 Calendar

  • June 5: Bowlaway through page 172
  • June 12: Bowlaway to the end
  • June 19: Daisy Jones & the Six through page 151 (finish “The Numbers Tour” section)
  • June 26: Daisy Jones & the Six to the end
  • July 3: VACATION
  • July 10: Lost Children Archive through page 186 (finish part 1, or chapter 11 on audio)
  • July 17: Lost Children Archive to the end
  • July 24: Trust Exercise through page 131 (finish part 1, or chapter 5 on audio)
  • July 31: Trust Exercise to the end
  • Aug. 7: American Spy through page 141 (finish chapter 12)
  • Aug. 14: American Spy to the end
  • Aug. 21: Black Leopard, Red Wolf through page 243 (finish chapter 2)
  • Aug. 28: Black Leopard, Red Wolf to the end
  • Sept. 4: Announce summer champion

The Tournament of Books’ organizers Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin are TMN’s co-founders. Baldwin’s most recent book is Everything Now, winner of the 2022 California Book Award. For his other books, try More by The Tournament of Books Staff

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