By JESSICA DILLON
PUBLISHED: FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2019 AT 1:58 AM
UPDATED: FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2019 AT 9:09 AM
VARYSBURG — Do what you love, they say.
And so it was that Maureen Reid, who worked for decades managing colleges, international law firms and corporations before retiring just a few years ago, knew just what she’d make of her encore career.
She would write, not just what she loved, but about who she loved, too. And, of course, she’d do it all from the feminist perspective.
Reid was born in Batavia — her mother had grown up in Sheldon, and her father? Right here in the city, where he’d owned a restaurant called Mooney’s.
No, she’d chuckle, it had no relation to the former Le Roy restaurant of the same name.
“That,” she said, “is purely coincidental.”
And though Reid, in her life, went off to bigger and busier places — some much busier, and much, much bigger — it was here, in Western New York, that she found her first home.
So when it came time to pen her debut novel, “Becoming Herself,” it proved just where her heart was, too.
The story, a historical piece rife with local truths and well-researched accuracies, makes use of rich and visceral language to transport readers to something old and familiar — a yellowed vignette of a time come to pass, but of a place that, still today, very much remains.
In its first pages, it offers this descriptor: “Two churches, a school house, a gray shingled store marking the crossroads.”
This, Reid says, is Sheldon, at least as it exists when her protagonist comes to know it.
It is the sparse, mostly vacant Sheldon of the early 20th century. And those who frequent it today know too that, save for the wind turbines — towering, whirring, jutting out with blinking lights against the star-spattered sky — and the golf course — its LED sign advertising live music, wing specials and motel room deals — much of it has remained the same, even after all these years.
And so it is that the ambitious, righteous woman once known as Maggie Clancy — inspired by Reid’s real-life grandmother — but forced to change her voice and change her name, so used to the cramped quarters and coal-dust air of Ireland, and similar situations in Buffalo, later on, comes to feel suffocated in the small, small town.
And not just by the corset she must wear, but by the way of the world at that time and in that space — where everyone, and everything, has its place. Where Margaret’s was to keep house, and be married, and mother children, and that was all.
Though for Margaret, that could never be enough.
“There are pieces of the story that are true,” Reid said, referencing the oft-asked questions relating to her grandmother, Margaret George, who is the namesake of the story. “This was inspired by my grandmother, but it is not a memoir. Margaret’s mother died on the voyage over from Ireland. She married Eli George, of Sheldon. She had a beautiful voice — and that’s true. The tragic death in the story? That’s also true.”
But what Reid assures is that this story is no plain, cut-and-dry historical account. Rather, it is an exploratory piece — a careful examination into the circumstances of the time, where much of the fiction presents itself as an inspiring reality where Reid’s grandmother “gave up the corset” and found her voice, instead.
“The story takes place at a time when women didn’t have the vote,” Reid explains. “Women really struggled to be heard. I think we sometimes forget about all the things they weren’t allowed to do. All of these things that are absurd, but true.”
“Through Margaret,” Reid continued, “I explore: What is it like to be a woman who wants to do more and be more in a world where that’s not what’s expected?”
Dripping with colorful imagery, the mentions of that painful and familiar longing for spring that emerges during the last few weeks of a bitter and bone-chilling Wyoming County winter — “Today, I reach out to the sun, and he reaches back,” — and full of love for the land, Reid’s story is laid out for all to see in first-person diary entries penned by Margaret many years ago.
But the entries address far more than just the weather, drawing on important historical events of the time — the burning of German books sent up into flame at the height of World War I, and the “No Irish Need Apply,” signs plaguing storefronts and factories.
They detail Margaret’s most personal thoughts — caught in the midst of both struggles, and battling to embrace her own identity — and collectively weave a compelling story, one full to the brim with poignancy, pain, and, despite everything: hope.
“There’s a line, it’s one of my favorites,” Reid said. ‘When I’m with these women, I can breathe.”
Those women, they gave Margaret a voice.
And that made all the difference.
Today, there are more “wonderful, wonderful women,” — real ones who, in offering their hearts to the project, critiquing, editing and rereading, helped to give Reid a voice, too.
“Becoming Herself” is available on Amazon.com, where it is rated 4.8 out of 5 stars.
And it is not, Reid said, the last you’ll hear from her.