In a Scottish mill town purged of men by war, four unforgettable women navigate a treacherous time, guided only by the bonds of family and their bold dreams of escape.
In 1918, rainy Dundee is nearly emptied of men. The Great War has left the town’s women both newfound freedom and servitude. They toil in the deadly jute mills, taking in the children of perished family members and praying their own bodies – and spirits – do not fail them too.
A grateful widow of the war, Morag shelters her daughters as best she can: beautiful Caro schemes to escape the working class with well-calculated seduction, while Wallis works in the mill alongside her mother, slowly fortifying both spirit and pocketbook for a more radical departure. Morag’s orphaned niece, Imogen, seeks to understand her fragile mother’s death, and the return of the father who abandoned them.
Infused with the longing, courage and passion of its indelible cast of characters, and steeped in the faith and terrors of its time – from the suffragettes and the Easter Uprising to the influenza pandemic and the Tay Bridge disaster – Beyond the Blue is a lyrical, reflective novel about finding purpose and freedom in a place without hope.
About the author
Andrea MacPherson is the author of six books: three novels, What We Once Believed, Beyond the Blue, and When She Was Electric, and three poetry collections, Ellipses, Away, and Natural Disasters. When She Was Electric placed number 6 on CBC Canada Reads: People’s Choice, and Natural Disasters was longlisted for the ReLit Awards.
Her poetry was anthologized in the UK publication, How the Light Gets In, and she has been a runner up in both Grain Magazine’s Short Grain Award, and Prism International’s Poetry Award.
Born in Vancouver, Andrea was raised in the lower mainland. Andrea holds an MFA from the Creative Writing Department at the University of British Columbia, where she was Editor of Prism International. She has also acted as the Reviews Editor for Event Magazine. Currently an Associate Professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, Andrea teaches creative writing and literature.
Excerpt: Beyond the Blue (by (author) Andrea MacPherson)
Before the Time of Birds
“Dundee was known as a woman’s town or she town due to the dominance of women in the labour market. In the jute mills, women outnumbered men by three to one. A unique breed of women evolved from the hardship of life in the mills and the responsibility of being the main provider for the family. Dundee women gained the freedom to act in ways which often ignored convention. They were overdressed, loud, bold-eyed girls and the sight of a woman being roarin’ fou or drunk as a man was commonplace. Despite the hardships, many former mill girls recall their working days with fondness.”
–from Dundee Heritage Trust, Verdant Works
A light so shifting, so grey and wavering, they might be figments. Their figures are dark, shadowy in the morning light. A steady stream of the dim bodies come up Caldrum Street, past Murphy’s restaurant on the corner and the tenements toward the Bowbridge Jute Works entrance; some may speak to one another, but most are quiet, still reminiscing about the warmth of their beds. Morag might see them from the window of the tenement flat if she was inclined to look in the moments before she leaves.
It is early morning in the early spring of 1918. Imogen and Caro are still asleep. Wallis has lit the stove and makes strong tea. Women walk by the tenements, their shoes loud on cobblestones, their coats like the long tail of a kite. As if they are all one, indistinguishable and vague.
The four women live at 96 Caldrum Street, behind the chimney stacks, the blocks of stone and brick, the huge expanses of mills. Close to the heady nature of Hilltown, close enough that they must continually pass the Hilltown clock that never keeps time. A few blocks from Clepington Church, where they have always gone to worship. The women cluster in a city populated by mills and their thick smoke, pubs where the remaining men drink away their wages, churches and boats rolling into harbour heavy with jute or whales. Dundee.
The four women in the small tenement flat on Caldrum Street are no different than the other women in the town: women left abandoned, forgotten, freed. They keep their anger and secrets close as bone. The scent of tea and smoke fills their lungs and infiltrates their dreams. To dream of smokestacks, to wake with the scent of ash in your hair.
Morag and Wallis walk across Caldrum Street and into the grounds of the Bowbridge Jute Works. Always, there is the camel with its hump, its downward gaze, its hard eyes: the suggestion of something exotic as they all slip into the dullness, the boiled-down necessity and daily cruelty of the Works.
This morning, Morag walks under the high arch with the large, gloomy camel and sags just a little. Another reminder for her that there is only this town, only the plethora of mills and smoke and women learning disappointment. Morag steels herself to another long day with the incessant noise, the looms that need constant tending, the sight of children working through the complicated territory of exhaustion.
Wallis says, “Another day.”
Morag looks at her youngest daughter with a mix of recognition and shallow guilt. Wallis walking with her under the arch, into the fumes and danger of the Works. Morag feels she has failed; she never wished this fate on her children, but now, here Wallis is, stoic as ever, walking in her black boots into the grounds of the Bowbridge Works.
Morag and Wallis part ways quickly once they enter the grounds; Wallis turns toward the carding room, and Morag disappears into the weaving warehouse, where she will tend her two looms for the next fourteen hours. Wallis, however, will have a more difficult day; she will be bent over a carding machine where she will pull the loose fibre until the jute is an even colour. Morag imagines Wallis watching the jute fade in her hands until it is paler, even, than dreams.
Morag turns before she enters the warehouse and looks for Wallis, her dark coat in a sea of dark coats and long skirts. She sees her, finally, as she hesitates next to the lacklustre beige stone of the Works; she watches her daughter cross the threshold into the carding room, taking one sure step into the building.
Wallis pulls at the thick, dull jute, lets it fall into the large barrels. The rollers revolve at various speeds, fleecing the jute with metal pins before it is condensed into the fibre they call silver. Silver, as if there might be something beautiful, something breathtaking about it all. Instead, there is this: women crammed into small, close rooms; heat, dust and fumes of grease and oil; noisy machinery that makes ears ache and heads throb with the constant whir and din.
Wallis looks down the row of girls at their carding machines, each surrounded by barrels quickly filling with the silver; she has learned enough about them in her years at the Works to feel that she knows each of them as she might know a friend, a sister. Lottie Duncan with her three small children and absent husband; Elsie McRae with her hard, difficult mother and her ailing grandmother; Jean Grant, another young Union member; Mae Abernathy with her lost fiancée, her unending, unflinching hope. Wallis does not need to be clairvoyant to know how all their lives will end. They will stay, work, and find themselves slowly, painfully dying from bronchitis, pneumonia or some other respiratory disease. She holds a hand to her chest, as if she might be able to feel the rumblings of disease there. Mill fever.
God help me.
Wallis tugs at the jute and lets it fall through her fingers. The jute might be something else, something kind and lovely, if she were only able to shut herself off to the carding room, the gossip between the women around her, the whine of the machines.
“Riveting. . . . MacPherson is a great writer of luminous, haunting moments and scenes.”
–The Vancouver Sun
“Written in succinct, lucid prose . . . MacPherson aptly delineates the circumscribed lives of the characters with sensitivity and grace. . . . Beyond the Blue is a thought-provoking novel.”
–Winnipeg Free Press
“An intimate portrait of four women at very different stages of their lives.”
“Beyond the Blue is both redemptive and unique, a sensual story about secrets women keep and the lives they live.”
–The Sun Times (Owen Sound)
"A compelling and important story of First Word War Scotland, a time when women redefined the word hope as the world was losing its innocence. Andrea MacPherson writes beautifully, balancing the lives of her characters between history and the poetry of gesture, secrets and love."
–Ami McKay, author of The Birth House
"Andrea MacPherson writes with compassion and honesty of women working in the jute factories of Dundee during WWI, who toil beneath ‘the foolish secrets of women.’ This beautiful novel, written in lyrical, strong prose, is a compelling, clear-eyed account of what constitutes hope and bravery, not only in the lives of mill workers, but in any life distorted by false memories and illusory dreams."
–Beth Powning, author of The Hatbox Letters
Praise for When She Was Electric:
"Spare, elegant. . . . [MacPherson’s] assured, sensual debut reveals much about the secrets women keep and the hidden desires that propel us to action and stop us in our tracks."
"A delightful, poetic novel. . . . The language is beautiful and the complicated emotions of three generations of women are delicately portrayed."
–W.P. Kinsella, Books in Canada