Heroic protagonists of large epics have their place in historical fiction, and it’s pretty much at the top of the pantheon for many. For me, however, small stories about regular people who live their lives in their own quiet way depict heroism more accurately and reflect history more clearly. And that’s exactly what Ada and Cam do in The Ada Decades, a lean-yet-meaty series of interconnected short stories brilliantly rendered by Paula Martinac.
Ada Shook is a librarian new to the Charlotte, NC public school system, which is suffering from the growing pains of integration in the 1950’s. Being from a mill family, Ada has seen this racial divide up close, but nothing prepares her for her experiences in education or for Cam Lively, a girls’ P.E. teacher, with whom she falls in love. The ensuing eleven stories follow their courtship, careers, relationship, friends, and history as the area changes and life happens over seven decades.
Not a great deal of time is given to either Ada or Cam’s coming out, which I found refreshing. We all have coming out stories, of course, but while each is unique, they follow along some pretty similar paths. Instead, Martinac chooses to create a textual photo album, freezing episodes in time with the same cast of characters in different poses. You can almost see the sepia creeping up the page in as your mental camera dollies in on a snapshot of Cam’s friend, Lu, who begins “The Book Club, 1958”:
“Everybody calls me Lu,” the woman in a pearl necklace and flowered sheath said. Ada recognized her immediately; she’d seen her at the movies with Cam. Lu was dressed for a garden party, even though Cam had assured Ada the get-together at her apartment was “casual.” Ada tugged at her simple pleated skirt, wishing she had worn her go-to-church dress instead.
The book club, of course, is a ruse by Cam to get to meet Ada. Sweet, yes. Cloying, never. Ada is tart and never hesitates to say what she thinks. But with a few deft strokes, Martinac sets a scene, seeds a conflict, and drags you inside that Kodak moment glued on heavy stock and pressed in plastic. Her prose, much like I picture Ada, is without frills, substituting simple grace for flair. And the same atmosphere carries over to the cover, which I found particularly apt.
But it’s what’s inside that counts, and you get not only Ada and Cam, but a solid cast of supporting characters who accompany them. My favorite of these is Twig, an indomitably faithful guy whose partner, Auggie, loses his way early in the story, leaving Twig the survivor. Lu also becomes important as Ada and Cam deepen their relationship.
The Ada Decades is a beautifully written account of extraordinary people satisfied with living ordinary lives. Quiet and unassuming, it’s a lovely read.
© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler