The actual Oysterville Sewing Circle

The Real Oysterville Sewing Circle, 1907. Among the women pictured here are Kate Wichser Espy (“Aunt Kate”) seated in the middle of the group and wearing a dark blouse. In the back row, second and fourth from left are Minette Phillips Espy and Ruth Richardson, great aunts of the author and, next to Ruth is Helen Espy, the author’s grandmother.

By the beginning of August, I was receiving emails and text messages almost every day.

“Have you heard…” or “Is it really about…” or “Do you know…” It seemed that everyone who knew of me and my association with Oysterville was eager to break the news of a new romance novel by best-selling author Susan Wiggs. It was scheduled to launch on Aug. 13 and its name was “The Oysterville Sewing Circle.”

To say I was intrigued is to understate by quite a bit. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine that this book could, in fact, be about the Peninsula’s Oysterville. For starters, there isn’t another town named Oysterville anywhere else in the United States these days. Osterville (no ‘y’) on Cape Cod, yes. But the only other Oysterville (near Yaquina Bay in Oregon) fell in long ago.

As for the “Sewing Circle” part of the title — we did, indeed, have a sewing circle here. In the 1890s and into the 20th century, the women of Oysterville, calling themselves “The Sewing Circle,” or sometimes “The Sewing Bee,” met on an irregular basis in one another’s homes to work on the mending, darning, or other needs of the hosting household. Female visitors in the village were included at the get-togethers. Each session concluded with refreshments provided by the hostess.

There is a picture of the group dated 1907 on display in the Oysterville Schoolhouse. It includes Aunt Kate, R.H. Espy’s third wife, as well as my grandmother and two great aunts. Another, taken in 1932 shows my mother and the women of Oysterville of that era — mothers, aunts, cousins of my friends. I must say, I feel a little protective (or maybe possessive) of the real Oysterville Sewing Circle. Never mind that it was long ago and all the members in those early pictures are long gone. At the very least, a story about them should be written by a local writer, which Susan Wiggs is not.

Romantic fiction

It’s been almost 20 years since Nyel and I owned the BookVendor in Long Beach, but I still remember the author’s name. We sold a fair number of her books, most often categorized as “romance” or “romantic fiction.” Not my cup of tea. I also had a vague recollection that Ms. Wiggs lives on an island in Puget Sound — maybe Bainbridge. She certainly lives close enough to be familiar our little village.

There weren’t many clues in the online blurb about the book: Stitched together with love, this is a story just waiting for your favorite reading chair. With her signature style and skill, Susan Wiggs delivers an intricate patchwork of old wounds and new beginnings, romance and the healing power of friendship, wrapped in a lovely little community that’s hiding a few secrets of its own. The “secrets” part was intriguing. I’d never thought of Oysterville as having any. Everyone always seems to know everything about everybody — even if they don’t talk about it. What was on Ms. Wiggs’ romantic mind, I wondered. I bought myself a copy and prepared to hate it. “I’ll read a few pages just to satisfy my curiosity.”

By page two my very strong Cannot-Continue gene was kicking in. And then on page three my own family’s name popped out at me. Mr. Espy, the owner of the shop, used to claim he was part vampire, manning the register every night for decades. Every hackle I possess was suddenly on full alert. It’s not that Espy is a particularly unusual name. It’s just that Espy and Oysterville in real life — at least for the last 165 years — have been practically synonymous. And here was my family name in a story involving a town with the same name as the one my Great-Grandfather Espy co-founded!

I flipped back to the front of the book and read the disclaimer that all publishers of such books place on the copyright page: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Meeting myself?

“In a pig’s eye!” thought I.

It stretched credulity to think that the names “Oysterville,” “Oysterville Sewing Circle.” and “Espy” used in the same novel are simply “products of the author’s imagination” or are “entirely coincidental.” Though I was tempted to put aside the book as another one of life’s wastes of money, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d meet a Sydney Stevens before the book’s end. So, I pressed onward.

Amazingly, I enjoyed the book! It wasn’t particularly gripping or even thought-provoking — at least not in the usual way. The Oysterville Sewing Circle turned out to be the name of a group created to help women victims of domestic violence. Just as the heroine couldn’t imagine there was such a “problem” in her Oysterville, I couldn’t imagine any correlation between the real Oysterville Sewing Circle and Ms. Wiggs’ fictional one.

But, still… I paused more than once to think about my grandmother’s generation and my mother’s women friends. I thought about their personalities and quirky habits, and what we know these days about survival, both emotional and physical. And, I wondered.

Against all odds, and in spite of the romance thread which ran throughout, the book dealt with current issues, not long-ago themes. In addition to high-end design theft, immigration law, undocumented children, bullying and the #MeToo movement were woven into the story in ways that could never have happened in 19th or 20th century Oysterville.

I can’t say I’ve become a Susan Wiggs fan or even a romantic fiction aficionado, but I’m glad I did my “homework.”

More importantly, I am content in the belief that there was no besmirching — not of Oysterville or of our Sewing Circle or even of the Espy name. Good to know.

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