Memoir, social history, meditation: Nance Van Winckel’s Ever Yrs

A curious bargain hunter picks up a dusty album filled with yellowing photographs, captions sparse and fading, and proceeds to build an imaginary family history out of myriad disjointed clues. It happens at yard sales, antique stores, and flea markets every day.

Nance Van Winckel does exactly this in Ever Yrs, an epistolary novel populated by a cast of long-dead characters identified as the Stanley clan, whose marriages, childbirths, and dreams fulfilled or otherwise are retold in a series of photographs and letters from a nursing home resident to her great grandson. The last living remnant of the family album, her questionable memory gives life to their legacy as she dictates the letters to a nurse’s aid named Jasmine.

The setting is Butte, Montana, then a small town whose economy depends on the area’s copper mines. The men of the Stanley clan are employed by Anaconda Copper, owners of the Berkeley Pit. Our narrator hints at her involvement in an environmental disaster when the pit overflows with acidic water. The mines are no longer running at the time of writing and the town has fallen into poverty. You can buy a house in the area for dirt cheap, she advises her great grandson, but adds that “you wouldn’t want to go into its basement.”

Interspersed between photographs and reminiscences are vintage ads altered by the narrator’s sister Nettie. Some are lighthearted and amusing while others take a detour into the surreal. The new Ford V-8 is said to have a “darlingest set of wings” while the mother in a Krispy Crackers ad urges her daughter to eat one and “follow the blood and the body bravely from one cave into the next.”

Ever Yrs is at turns memoir, social history, and meditation on the aging process. Van Winckel invites us to imagine we have stumbled across a life story encapsulated in a junk store box. Paired with a cup of tea, a blanket, and a rainy afternoon, it gives the reader the delighted sensation that she is snooping through something previously unseen and surprisingly wonderful.

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Van Winckel, Nance, Ever Yrs, Twisted Road Publications, 2014.

Isobel O’Hare is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Numero Cinq, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and Cease, Cows. She is an MFA in Writing candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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