Partly based on the author’s childhood memories, this somber novel chronicles a family’s difficulties during the Great Depression from the alternating perspectives of a mother and daughter.
Jenny is crushed when her husband Jonathan abruptly tells her in 1930 that he’s lost his job and they are moving to Duluth. A year later, Jonathan is in jail for failing to report a subordinate at his bank who embezzled money. When a cousin invites Jenny to Milwaukee, where she has a better chance of finding a job, she must leave her three children with separate sets of relatives in Duluth.
Eight-year-old Maggie, living with Jenny’s strict sister Marie, is painfully confused by the family’s changed circumstances. Her account of gradually learning to accommodate her aunt’s parenting style, and even to benefit from it, complements the story of her mother’s experiences in Milwaukee. Jenny works in a variety of jobs and sees people afflicted by the Depression in different ways. She also finds herself attracted to Jonathan’s lawyer Paul, a kinder, more thoughtful man than her intimidating, bad-tempered husband.
That relationship doesn’t end well, nor does the author gloss over the tensions created among her children by being separated for several years. Jenny and Jonathan reconcile, but suffer many more tribulations before the novel closes with a chastened Jenny doggedly asserting, “With everyone working together, giving love and appreciating one another, we can be a terrific family.”
As this quote suggests, Foss’s dialogue can be stilted. Her inexperience also shows in the handling of subordinate characters, which are described rather than brought to life. Although commendably unsentimental and reflective, The Greatest of These is often rather awkward in tone and slightly obvious in content. Nonetheless, many readers will find themselves engaged by its strong family drama.
Blue Ink Heads-Up: This book is valuable for anyone looking for personal stories about the impact of the Great Depression.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.