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South Surrey author’s historical saga confronts a real life family mystery

‘When The Bough Breaks’ is debut novel for Elizabeth Glass
Elizabeth D. Glass, author of When The Bough Breaks, with writing companion Riley. Contributed photo

South Surrey resident Elizabeth D. Glass’ debut novel, When The Bough Breaks, is a sensitively written, generation-spanning tear-jerker.

A fictionalized version of the true story of her own family, it tells the tale of a young lass, Hattie O’Dell, from Dalkeith in Scotland, who finds herself in an age-old dilemma.

At age 19, in the midst of the First World War, she finds herself expecting a child. For complicated reasons, ultimately explained towards the end of the novel, she finds herself unable to marry the father, or even name him.

Such a situation might be problematic and stigmatized enough in 2022 – in 1917, with British society still firmly in the grip of Victorian hypocrisy, it was a crippling source of shame.

Many young girls in such a plight at the time – with the child’s father unwilling or unable to take his share of responsibility for the child – were forced into disgraced poverty, prostitution, or various forms of ‘charity’ that were little more than imprisoned servitude.

But although Hattie is buffeted by various storms of fate, including the disapproval of her parents – and her own sense of guilt – she is also imbued with a deep faith.

And it is that – and the help of Rebecca and Fanny, some dear, progressive friends in the Orkney Islands – which enables her to reclaim her life, and become the loving mother of a daughter, Lizzie.

The story travels from the Orkneys, back to Dalkeith and ultimately Edinburgh, through the ’20s and ’30s and the dark days of the Second World War up until the early 1960s.

Through it, we learn how Hattie finds love and second chances in her life, and how she manages to raise the independent-minded Lizzie – later called Betty – and her son, Alexander, to adulthood, eventually becoming a grandmother.

Even decades later, however, unresolved issues still hang over Hattie, threatening the happiness of herself, her daughter Betty, and Hattie’s volatile older sister, Abigail.

Written simply, but with a strong, evocative sense of visual imagery, it’s a compelling and touching tale – with more than a few surprises, especially when Harriet and Abigail, now in their 60s, must finally revisit long-buried secrets, and lay to rest the ghosts of their past, before being able to move ahead with the remainder of their lives.

When The Bough Breaks succeeds in evoking its eras through some solid, but not intrusive, historical detail, and its geographic locations through just enough reference to regional dialects.

Not in any sense a polemic, it nonetheless offers a subtle critique on many of the narrow-minded attitudes of the past – and a suggestion of how attitudes were gradually changed by unsung pioneers of feminist thought.

Glass told Peace Arch News she has found – through conversations with people she has met over the years – that lives are still scarred by the past stigma of ‘illegitimacy’, which led to many cover-ups and people growing up with little or no knowledge of their true parentage.

The impact on mothers, while not as devastating as in the past, is still felt, she said.

“I still think they feel lonely – that they are ostracized,” she said.

“One of the main things I wanted to get across is to encourage other people to write their stories, or their family’s story.”

READ ALSO: Fantasy novel a learning experience for first-time author from White Rock

For Glass, who retired after a lengthy career in home decor design – the last 20 years of it with Hillcrest Decorating in White Rock – writing the book has been a seven-year journey of self-discovery, in which she credits the help and support of her husband Gilbert, daughter Rosalind and son Rob.

“Rosalind has been a godsend – she helped edit the book and Gilbert has been a great help with some of the old sayings,” she said, adding that Rob encouraged her with the all-important step of finally “letting go” of the project and publishing it.

Designer William Glasgow and illustrator Linda Cross, who painted the cover watercolour to Glass’ specifications, also helped bring the project to fruition, she said.

Readers may be surprised to learn that so much of the book is true, Glass said.

“My grandmother was actually Hetty, and her sister was Agnes, not Abigail, and my mum was Betty,” she said. “My grandmother lived to be 103 years old and did many of the things that Hattie does in the novel, including owning her own home.”

Many of the settings are also drawn from life; researched thoroughly when Glass and her husband revisited their native Scotland some years ago, she said.

But Glass admits that she has used her own imagination in heightening the drama of the story; embroidering some events and introducing some idyllic interludes that didn’t necessarily happen that way.

“That’s where fiction is so wonderful – you can let your imagination go wild,” she said, while noting that most of her interpolations are inspired by fact, and family stories her mother used to tell her.

In one area she has been able to improve on life significantly, however – the mystery lurking behind the events in When The Bough Breaks has a satisfyingly positive resolution, based on some best guesses, and some heirlooms given to Glass’ mom by her aunt.

Sadly, there was no such resolution in reality, she said.

“All her life my mother (the Betty of the novel) never knew who her father was. She died six months after my grandmother, still not knowing the truth.”

Glass is currently at work on a follow-up novel that brings the story further into her own lifetime, she said. There are still some family mysteries left to uncover, and several of the original characters will be revisited, she promises.

Readers won’t have to wait another seven years for the sequel, she adds.

“Writing a novel for the first time, there’s a lot to learn,” she said. “But I think I’ve got the hang of it now!”

Copies of When The Bough Breaks are currently available at The Handpicked Home gift and decor shop, at 1406 Johnston Rd. (Saltaire building), 778-291-4663.

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About the Author: Alex Browne

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