Skip to content

BOOK REVIEW: Augusta, by Celia Ryker

This plain-spoken tale is about a woman born into an Ozark poverty more profound than you probably could imagine.

Augusta and her friend “had worn sacks of some sort for most of their lives. Flour sacks were softer and prettier than feed sacks. The girls and their mothers looked for sacks with interesting designs or pretty lettering. They were adept at cutting sleeve holes to look like cups, and if there was extra thread, they’d create a collar of sorts and sew on pockets cut from their worn-out sack dresses.”

 Mama knows that Bella the cow is going to give birth within a day because there’s wax on her teats. The reader follows Mama and Augusta into Bella’s’s stall and learns how to help a cow give birth.

Having empathized with the itchy feed bag dress and the barnyard Augusta grew up in, I was hooked on her. How in tarnation was she going to make it through?

This kind of poverty, the kind you can almost smell, is the background of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante and The Grapes of Wrath. All three novels tell us that poverty has to do with a lot more than money. Self worth is measured differently by the poor, so are luxury, duty, comfort, and success. The poor are snared by forces outside their control, such as a child protective agency and a corporation’s greed and are powerless to resist them.

Some readers might find this a heroic story, but there were millions of farm folk like Augusta at the beginning of the 20th century. They did what they needed to do to survive. Men were sheared of their dignity when they lost the farm or lost a job, and couldn’t support their families. Like Augusta’s two husbands, they often turned to alcohol in their shame. The women made do, taking responsibility for the children.

Her particular struggle was common a long time ago: marriage at thirteen, children born as they came, a move from the farm to the grinding, dirty, dangerous city, meeting new immigrants who had fled similar hardships.

Details carry the story and are constantly surprising. The reader learns how the first washing machines worked, how unwelcome a hospital birth was after knowing the intimacy and convenience of having your baby at home, and what tenements were like.

The story itself has little filigree. It is a rags-to-relative-comfort story, with a fairytale ending. Fairy godmothers and also fairy godfathers swoop in at Augusta’s lowest moments to take care of her and her children. They aren’t her parents, who are too poor and exhausted to help­; they are fellow workers and friends.

The miraculous ending is too magical to include in a book review. But you’ll learn it soon enough because this is a swift and interesting read.