“South Station” by Alice Barton: A review

A co-worker recently loaned me South Station, a 2005 novel by Alice Barton who the book jacket describes as a “poet and longtime teacher of writing at the University of Massachusetts at Boston [who] lives on Cape Cod.” This book broke into my usual stream of nonfiction because it is set in Lowell during and after the Second World War. Readers are ushered into a universe that revolves around daily mass at the Immaculate, groceries from Brockelman’s and soft drinks at the Epicure Tea Room. The main character is teenager Honey Lee Murphy who comes to Lowell to live with her Nana on Concord Street. Although the book is set nearly two decades before my memories of Lowell kick in, the author must have lived in the city herself for more than a short period of time because the “local color” is so exact.

So if you’re looking for a quick read, a “coming of age” story as one reviewer called it, that has the added benefit of being set in our city, check out South Station. If there’s any chance you are going to read the book, stop reading this now, because from here on I’m going to give a summary of the book including the ending (spoiler alert!).

The book opens with 13 year old Honey Lee Murphy and her mother Savannah traveling by train from Georgia to Lowell (by way of Boston’s South Station – hence the novel’s title) to Lowell because their father/husband, Tom Murphy is a soldier who is shipping out for the invasion of North Africa. Honey and Savannah are going to Lowell to live with Tom’s mother, Nana Murphy. Although Honey is old enough to be in high school, she is instead enrolled by Nana in the 8th grade at the Immaculate School because, as the nuns quickly discovered, Honey has never even seen a Baltimore Catechism, much less memorized it. After a rocky start, Honey excels at school and becomes good friends with Ellen Flynn who lives on High Street and Jimmy Jackson who lives on Fayette.

When a telegram arrives with news that Tom was killed in action, Savannah flees Lowell and isn’t really heard from again. Honey is distraught by the loss of her father but eventually rebounds, growing closer to her grandmother and her friends. Although Honey was offered a full high school scholarship to Notre Dame, she opts instead to go to Lowell High so she can stay with Ellen (Jimmy Jackson goes to Keith Academy). One summer, Ellen’s family invite Honey to join them for a week at their vacation cottage at Lake Winnipesaukee. While there, Jack Flynn, the older brother of Ellen and a freshman at Dartmouth, pursues Honey who reciprocates.

The war soon ends and service members begin returning. Some adjust well but others, particularly those who had been in the worst situations, suffer from severe mental distress, conditions that no one knows quite how to deal with. One of the returning veterans is Jimmy Jackson’s older brother Danny, whose ship was sunk and who survived adrift in a life boat for a week before being rescued. Finally Danny arrives in Lowell, meets Honey who is six years his junior, and begins flirting with her. She is immediately smitten. After much back and forth (and advice from her grandmother to stay away from him because once a man has seen war “he’s marked in a bad way”), Honey agrees to marry Danny.

But Honey’s world is turned upside down once again when she discovers that Danny had already married once, early in the war, to a woman who divorced him after only a month. She abandons Danny but then goes back to him, knowing that if she marries a divorced man she will be forever shunned by the Catholic Church and by everyone in Lowell (because, as the book puts it, Lowell is a “Catholic city”). Honey opts to marry Danny and only informs her grandmother after the wedding (performed at the Chelsea Naval Hospital where Danny was a patient due to a relapse of his war injuries) when she returns to Lowell to pick up her things. A sympathetic medical officer had arranged a trasfer of Danny to a VA hospital in Virginia and an apartment in a veterans’ housing complex for his new wife, Honey. The book ends with Honey boarding the train to Virginia at Boston’s South Station.

3 Responses to “South Station” by Alice Barton: A review

  1. Bob Forrant says:

    Read this a while ago and really enjoyed it and ESP the ways it describes womens roles and what was proper in the 40s and 50s.