Worlds Apart, Together

A first novel goes upstairs and down in 1940s and ’50s Boston.

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The Red Coat by Dolley Carlson

Published by Lettermullen Press, 480 pages, $17

Brahmin employers and their immigrant servants are connected by this book’s title garment. The patrician Mrs. Parker gives her daughter’s coat to her scrub-woman, Norah. Norah’s big Irish family is portrayed as full of boisterous energy, but also lace-curtain-seeking propriety, an almost childlike devotion to the Catholic Church and a closeness heightened by her husband’s drinking. Their distance from the parallel world of the worthy but chillier Beacon Hill family is starkly conveyed through language, possessions and everyday family interactions.

But Norah’s children rise in the world. One marries across social lines and enters the class whose floors her mother washed. Another ascends from the projects to home ownership and sees her policeman husband promoted to detective. Still, a shotgun wedding and an abortion receive Old World shaming.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Parker’s daughter Cordelia works in a fancy linen shop, where she fatefully reconnects with her long-lost red coat. Her life on Mt. Vernon Street is a lonely one—until her tenant, a Jewish dentist, falls for her, sparking a relationship that requires unexpected accommodations. But like her former servants, she embraces change. Carlson, herself a third-generation Irish American whose father served in the BPD, colorfully paints these different but connected worlds, rich in Boston details.

 

From page 53: “The lady of that grand house on Beacon Hill gave you this coat…. Her name is Mrs. Caroline Parker, and I’m sure you’ll want to be askin’ our Lord to give her a blessin’ or two for the kindness of it all.”

Rosemary took the coat in her hands, twirled, and placed it gently on a nearby chair, as if it were a child sitting alone for the first time.

 

 


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