In her newly published novel, Gina Kutchins, a West Marin resident, tells the heart-wrenching story of her grandmother. Rich with detail and sensitivity, “Jessie” is a wonderful tribute to all women who have strived to preserve their families and protect their children under difficult circumstances during the early 20th century. It serves as a reminder that even today, many women still are engaged in the same struggle.
Jessie is a single mother who struggled against poverty to care for her three young daughters in the tumultuous period framed by the aftermath of World War I, the Depression and the rise of labor unions. The author’s beautifully crafted, polished sentences describe how Jessie lost her ranch in rural Missouri when her husband died in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. In an effort to support herself and her daughters, 5-year-old Lily, 3-year-old Rebecca and 18-month-old Pauline, she moves to St. Louis and takes a job at a shoe factory, where she is attacked by a drunken anti-unionist bruiser.
After she stabs her assailant in self-defense, Jessie goes on the run, placing her daughters in an orphanage for the children of Christian women of good virtue, and finds refuge in an unsavory waterfront saloon. There, she meets and falls in love with Rex Valentine, a handsome gambler. Because she is unable to persuade him to take in her children, the girls remain in the orphanage for eight years while Jessie travels the country with the high-roller. She cuts off all contact with her daughters, fearing that if her liaison with Rex is exposed, they could be moved to a county home for indigents. Meanwhile, she is unaware that the now 8-year-old Becca has become gravely ill.
When Jessie is told of Becca’s illness by an old friend from St. Louis, she seeks the support of her wealthy sister Maude. During a dramatic reunion with her daughters, Jessie accepts Maude’s offer to live with her family in Taft, California. For two years, Lily, Becca and Pauline flourish in their new environment and the anger they feel toward their mother for abandoning them is mitigated by their new affluence. But Maude’s husband had invested heavily in the stock market and their world is shattered in 1929. The collapse of the financial world extracts a devastating toll on the family.
What happens next, as Jessie gathers her daughters and moves the family from Taft to San Francisco, is adeptly portrayed against the backdrop of that city’s rich history. Speakeasies, political corruption scandals and the building of two bridges that span the storied San Francisco Bay to Oakland and Marin County all play a role as the family lives hand-to-mouth during the Depression and the tumultuous rise of the waterfront labor unions. Lily, the oldest of Jessie’s daughters, having given up her dream to be a writer, impulsively marries and is soon abandoned by a man old enough to be her father after she has a baby. Becca, whose health has improved, meets a former soldier, Vincent, stationed at the Presidio, and falls in love as he begins work on the waterfront.
Through Vincent, Jessie’s family is drawn into the traumatic dock strikes in San Francisco and the push by Harry Bridges, a leading figure in America’s 20th-century labor movement, to organize the West Coast longshoremen in the 1930s.
In an unexpected turn of events, Rex reappears. Jessie succumbs to his charms and accepts his offer to help support the family with gambling winnings in exchange for a place to stay.
But Rex, deeply in debt to gangsters with ties to anti-union shipping companies, betrays union secrets he overhears from Vincent and his longshoreman coworkers. As a result of Rex’s treachery, Vincent and his friends are targeted during an uprising on the picket line at the San Francisco waterfront. Jessie is devastated when she learns that it was Rex who had informed on Vince and his pro-union friends to shipping company insiders.
In the aftermath of a successful strike and Rex’s subsequent disappearance, Jessie is evicted. She vows to do anything to never again be separated from her daughters, and joins the long lines of those on the dole. As the years pass and her grown daughters all have families of their own, Jessie, not wanting to be a burden, makes a desperate move. She marries Caleb, a man she does not love in the hopes that he will take care of her. On a ranch in remote Trinity County, she spends the years during World War II toiling with Caleb until his soldier son returns and takes his rightful place on the farm. Jessie seizes the opportunity to end the marriage and returns to the Bay Area to live with Pauline.
Based on family memories, anecdotes and actual history, Ms. Kutchins has given us thoughts to ponder about the struggle many women have faced in difficult times.
Gina Kutchins will read from “Jessie” and sign copies at 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 19 at the Dance Palace, in Point Reyes Station. The event is sponsored by Point Reyes Books. For more information, visit reginakutchins.com.
Martha Proctor is a Mainstreet Mom and Marin Master Gardener. She lives in