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The Featherbed

by John L. Miller

“Objects hold meaning,” Rebecca tells her daughter Anna from her deathbed, “an object might reveal a person’s hopes and dreams.” That object, Anna soon discovers, is her mother’s diary dating back to 1909. The revelations in those volumes form the backbone of John Miller’s first novel, The Featherbed.

Anna and her sister Sadie, reunited after being estranged for 50 years, are drawn together as they read the diary. Their mother’s most private thoughts begin innocently enough. Rebecca is only 16 and resists the marriage her father has arranged. She is hungry to explore the wider world of New York City. Miller deftly captures the flavour of the period, the struggling masses of immigrants, the sweatshops, the union unrest. There are moments reminiscent of Malamud’s The Fixer and John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy.

But those moments are not sustained. The diary device is tired, and the overworked featherbed – where babies are born and people die – soon wears thin like an old duvet. The main problem here is an excess of plot. Mama marries Isaac, who becomes physically abusive for no apparent reason. She takes in a lodger, Sylvia, a prostitute who needs a place to stay during her pregnancy. But all that is born is melodrama as the diaries heap one startling revelation upon another.

The most well-rounded character here is Rebecca, but she provides little insight into the characters surrounding her. Anna has lived her life in her mother’s shadow, a fact borne out by the diaries crowding out any character development she might have received in the novel. Her marriage and the passing mention of her son’s death in Korea are glossed over, and her sister Sadie is little more than a sketch. In the end, the musty diaries in The Featherbed become a Procrustean bed, squeezing characters into a space too narrow for them to breathe.