Seven for a Secret

by Mary C. Sheppard
189 pages,
ISBN: 0888994389

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Children's Books
by Lena Coakley

Mary C. Sheppard's first novel, Seven for a Secret, is a rich and evocative immersion into the daily life of an isolated Newfoundland town. We spend the summer of 1960 with three cousins, bookish Kate, Rebecca the creative beauty, and our loquacious narrator, the sexy, spunky Melinda. But the novel's main character is really Cook's Cove itself, an inaccessible community with no electricity and no road connecting it to the outside world. Here cherries are an exotic treat and clothes are either homemade or ordered from the Eaton's catalogue. Newfoundlanders and come-from-away's like will appreciate the details of Sheppard's lovingly created microcosm. There are mouth-watering descriptions of foodłfish stew, blueberry grunt and homemade sarsaparilla. She carefully uses few words to suggest a much bigger picturełan apron made of four sacks, but embroidered with tiny pink roses, speak of a character's life of frugality and hard work. Sheppard doesn't shy away from showing us the dark side of Cook's Cove. We see alcoholism and family violence. Teen pregnancy is rampant, and with the only hospital hours away by boat, pregnancy can be life threatening. Most importantly, we are shown the unexpected but insidious double edge of living in a community where everyone watches everyone else. Gossip can ruin lives in Cook's Cove. Residents rush to get their wash on the line by 9 AM or they will be "the talk of the Cove for laziness." Those with more serious flaws bury their secrets carefully. One of these buried secrets bubbles up to threaten our three protagonists, and here Sheppard takes a few false steps. Early in the story we learn that Rebecca has a "sacred" wish to go to art school, but her mother is unaccountably reluctant to discuss a mysterious stranger's offer to pay Rebecca's way to a summer program in Boston. Readers are promised from this beginning a rollicking tale about three smart girls who solve a problem and uncover a secret. What they get is both less and more. More because of Sheppard's marvelous digressionsłin the course of the novel we're treated to a teenaged girl's baby shower, a kitchen party and a rescue at seałall of which are wonderfully evoked by Sheppard's writing. Less because the story's ending is far more sobering than the tone of the book leads us to expect. Many of the hopes set out in previous chapters remain unachieved. At the close of the novel, when the road connecting Cook's Cove to the outside world is finally complete, we know that it comes too late not only for Rebecca, but for Melinda as well. This ending, which Sheppard leads us to believe should be bittersweet, instead leaves the reader annoyed and disappointed. Mary C. Sheppard has made an impressive debut with Seven for a Secret, but an ending that does not quite satisfy unravels some of what she has achieved.

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