Great Village
Retired schoolteacher Flossy OʼReilly of Great Village, Nova Scotia, well into her eighties, inhabits a quiet world surrounded by piles of books, among them her most-beloved
writers, Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bishop. With worsening chest pains, exacerbated by the arrival of an unwelcome teenager, she fully expects her life is ebbing away.

With the whisper of death at her back, details of the distant past return to Flossy with startling clarity, such as her fatherʼs tragic drowning on Cobequid Bay. By necessity, her
delicate older brother Thomas was compelled to take over the farm but within two years misfortune will visit again. After a morning spent cutting hay along the south dyke,
Thomas brings the team back to the barn, returns to the house and slips quietly upstairs to his bed where he will stay for over twenty years.

Though most of her life is now simplified and predictable, nothing can shield Flossy from the blow from nowhere that shatters all that was known and understood. Such ripples as
a drowning man makes do not stop at the shore as she must finally confront the deceptions and shame of the long-hidden past.   -Cormorant Books 2011


Great Village brings us the smell of the ocean, the richness of friendships and the numbing horror brought by the secrets of the past. [complete review]
Sheila Eastman for, July 2012


Mary Rose Donnelly, author of Great Village (Cormorant Books, 2011), has crafted a poetic and, at times, surprisingly pithy first novel that will transport you to the shores of Cobequid Bay, N.S. [complete review]
Doug OʼNeill, Canadian Living, Feb. 2012


Great Village (Cormorant) is the short and simple title of a rich, resonating and melancholy narrative that copies the local tides in its ebb and flow. [complete review]
Rosalie MacEachern, Truro Daily News, September 2011


"Life and the memory of it so compressed theyʼve turned into each other," is a line by poet Elizabeth Bishop that beautifully describes Great Village, Mary Rose Donnellyʼs first novel. [complete review]
Laurie Glenn Norris, Saint John Telegraph Journal, July 2011


"Great Village" by Mary Rose Donnelly is an exquisite gift of such ruddy delicacy that it has left me breathless. [complete review]
David Hallman, Goodreads, July 2011


Full Reviews:

Flossy OʼReilly is an aging retired school teacher living in a small town in Nova Scotia. We meet her as she is looking back on her life while feeling threatened by a death she feels is imminent.

The story opens with a gripping flashback to Flossyʼs youth when her older brother came in from his field work one day, went directly up to his bed and stayed there for 24 years. With the unfolding of her memories we begin to understand what brought about his breakdown just as we learn of the pressures it brought to the family.

Donnellyʼs characters are richly and convincingly painted. Flossyʼs brother Jimmy is a bit of a hayseed with tatty birdʼs nest hair and crooked Onassis glasses. The ocean itself is a character, presented as a living and vibrant friend. But it brings death, with sucking red mud edges, and the huge tides of the Bay of Fundy.

Flossyʼs lifelong friend and larger than life artist Mealie moves hugely through the kitchen and in fact throughout the whole story. She is a wonderful source of humour as the two women chat over their morning coffee, the interchange often making us laugh out loud. As warm and intelligent as this friendship is, silence pervades as well, each of the women holding their secrets too close to their chests.

Into this morass of silence drops Ruth, a sullen teenager, who is reluctantly staying with Flossy for a few weeks while her mother is off to a church conference. By this point in the novel, Ruth is just what we all need. Vibrant, lovely and full of energy, she is easily won over by the calm humour of Flossy and Mealie, and the hidden opportunities of small town life – a baseball team which desperately needs her skills, and of course an attractive boy.

The language of the book is a tapestry of vivid imagery, dripping with metaphors and similes. We hear the language of the Maritimes, where every little town has its own peculiar idioms and accent. Flossyʼs ideas are "Tangled like a fishing line." Images frequently draw on farm life: "As routinized as a Holstein cow," "Iʼm sweatinʼ like a hen hauling hay." We move from saccharinely cute little teddy bears hanging from purses to the gruesome slaughter of a pig.

Donnellyʼs observations of human nature make the characters as vivid as if they are in the room with you; unsettled, Marjory sits shredding an orange peel into the tiniest pieces possible. Her brother Jimmy chews the inside of his cheek. Her mother feels for a coat button that isnʼt there.

Throughout, echoes of death are reinforced by Flossyʼs interest in Virginia Woolf. As she comes near the end of reading Woolfʼs diaries, our sense of doom heightens. We are with Flossy as she imagines herself walking into the river with stones in her pockets just as Virginia did.

Another source of sadness is reflection on the poet Elizabeth Bishop, whose life was full of mental illness and loss. Bishop lived in Great Village at one time, and the formation of The Elizabeth Bishop Society is currently the focus of local activity. Her poems connect us to the ocean, and to the contrast of change and constancy in Flossy, who learned to accept the things in her life that had broken others.

I have only two small issues with the book. First, even though much of the language and focus is local, there are leaps into the literary world that left me behind. I found myself looking up references to Roger Fry and the Bloomsbury Group (which I thought was perhaps a comic strip). Donnelly assumes I am more widely read than I can claim.

Second, how did Flossy evolve? She has appeared to us as a woman well read, deep and wise but we have no idea of how she became the woman that she is. But when it comes down to it, at the end we donʼt care, it is such a warm pleasure to meet her. I came away from this book feeling a gentle reassuring hand on my back, feeling hope even in the face of death. I was enriched by Flossyʼs friendships with Mealie and with Virginia Woolf, in fact more than a little envious of both.
Sheila Eastman for
Sheila Eastman for, July 2012


Mary Rose Donnelly, author of Great Village (Cormorant Books, 2011), has crafted a poetic and, at times, surprisingly pithy first novel that will transport you to the shores of Cobequid Bay, N.S. There youʼll meet unforgettable characters whose lives are marked by the ebb and flow of the ocean tides, and visit the modest country kitchen of Flossy OʼReilly, where recollection and reality collide, baring a chest full of long-simmering secrets. The best (and last) line of the book: ". . .she could see only one beleaguered ribbon of blue far out in the middle of the saddest wasteland of red muck; still the most godforsaken beautiful place she knew."
Doug OʼNeill, Canadian Living, Feb. 2012


Great Village (Cormorant) is the short and simple title of a rich, resonating and melancholy narrative that copies the local tides in its ebb and flow. Author Mary Rose Donnelly bases Great Village on Colchester County stories that have come down to her through the ages. A few of her characters, most notably the poet Elizabeth Bishop, are real and the rest, though fictitious, come to life in her expertly crafted small rural village setting.

Overall the book is engaging and in places it is brilliant.

"It was an ordinary day set out between two wars and he was doing the same work heʼd done each summer for two years. Sometime before noon he drove the team back to the stable, unhitched the horses and hung the harness in the usual place on a peg inside the barn door. He gave the animals water and turned them outside, then came to the house, slipped quietly from those books and went upstairs to bed where heʼd stay for twenty-four years," she writes in the opening pages.

Eighty-two year-old Flossy OʼReilly, retired school teacher, finds herself being visited by the dead. She wakes with them on her mind, they confront her in her kitchen even when she has company. She wonders if this onslaught of memories somehow foreshadows her own death. Perhaps this is a common experience in the face of approaching demise, she would not know, not coming from a culture of talkers.

The OʼReilly family has been in Great Village a long time and has had more than its share of tragedy. The loss of a father and a brother inevitably marked the lives of Flossy and her brother. They shouldered heavy burdens to keep their farm through tough times while their mother sold ladiesʼ hats to pay for what they could not raise. There is not much chitchat when survival is the goal and old habits become ingrained.

Flossy taught generations of Great Village residents but most days now she would like to be left alone, save for the company of her next door neighbor artist Mealie Marsh and a professor friend who shares her love of Elizabeth Bishop and literature. The prospect of sharing her orderly house with a teenager, the granddaughter of a childhood friend, for three weeks, is almost more than she can bear. She wonders what to do with a teenager in a place where most of the young are gone, the post office is boarded up and there is no need for any sort of rush because sooner or later everyone hears everyoneʼs business.

If the end is coming, Flossy needs to talk to her brother. She recognizes the necessity but lacks the energy or the will to change the habits of a lifetime. Reflecting back over her own life, she identifies the junctures where a timely, well-placed question might have served everyone but even now she struggles to find the words. When she finally speaks, she and Jimmy reveal their distinctly separate interpretations of a horrifying childhood moment.

Great Village has a depth that is revealed only in the reading. It is a capable and artistic portrayal of the smaller details of life in a Nova Scotia village and the inexplicable intricacies of family. It also unveils the excruciating realities of mental illness in a time when it was not spoken of, much less understood. Beyond all this, in its final pages, Great Village depicts the soul-crushing sorrow and small insights that come when a weary woman, already struggling with the systematic losses of aging, must carry on without her greatest support.
Rosalie MacEachern, Truro Daily News, September 2011


"Life and the memory of it so compressed theyʼve turned into each other," is a line by poet Elizabeth Bishop that beautifully describes Great Village, Mary Rose Donnellyʼs first novel.

This perfect summertime book transports the reader to Great Village, N.S., the childhood home of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bishop. There, with narrator Flossy
OʼReilly, we walk along dusty country roads, scan the horizon of Cobequid Bay and deadhead flowers in the white heat of August. Flossy, a retired school teacher "well inside the door of her eighties," believes she will soon die. Persistent memories of her long-forgotten past have been creeping up of late, convincing her that the end is nigh.

Life, however, still holds some important lessons.

In the midst of Flossyʼs reminiscence, her best friendʼs 16-year-old granddaughter comes for a visit, forcing Flossy to engage with both the momentous and the minutiae of todayʼs world, all of which she has been hoping to avoid. She doesnʼt understand modern life, even in sleepy Great Village, and is content to stay oblivious to it all, enmeshed in the worlds of her favourite writers, William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Bishop and Virginia Woolf.

The memories that keep folding over into Flossyʼs daily life concern her abusive father and timid older brother. Both inhabit the same darkness, a darkness spawning secrets among the OʼReilly family. Flossy comes to recognize secrets, and the withholding they inspire, create distance, stifle growth and break hearts. But it is her obsession with her own secrets preventing her from realizing others harbour them as well.

Mental illness, suicide and sorrow have advanced and receded in Flossyʼs life, the lives of those she loves and of those she reads, like the endless back and forth of the tides. In her attempt to come to terms with her past, she ponders the differences between "the plodding practicals" who can withstand painful reality and go on and those who, in the face of mere imagination, falter.

Donnelly, a journalist, editor and gardener, has a wonderful sense of Maritime life and voice. She is also a master storyteller who, in Great Village, weaves effortlessly, to and fro, across the 20th century, binding art, literature, the natural world and human nature together into a tale that sparkles like sunlight on the waves of Cobequid Bay.

While Great Village moves steadily towards its climax, its last 20 pages or so feel rushed, its pace and tension slightly off. This aside, it is a classic in the vein of Bucklerʼs The Mountain and the Valley. My advice to those planning to read it: travel to Great Village, N.S., take Great Village under your arm and walk around the community. Read it while leaning over the bridge, sitting on the steps of St. James United Church or lying on the beach. Visit the Elizabeth Bishop House and the Mahon Cemetery. Compress your experience of place and of book into one, rendering them, like life and memory, irrevocably linked.
Laurie Glenn Norris, Saint John Telegraph Journal, July 2011


"Great Village" by Mary Rose Donnelly is an exquisite gift of such ruddy delicacy that it has left me breathless.

Donnelly has given me and everyone else whom I can persuade to pick it up, an experience of literary joy.

In this her first novel, she has crafted a story in which, through the internal monologues of a most lovable character, we are privy to astute observations on life, friendship, family, despair, creative genius, and death. Flossy OʼReilly is the aunt we all would loved to have had. Sheʼs witty and pithy. She is a key observer of those around her and the struggles that make up their lives. Even more so her own. She sees all this not so much with her eyes as with a finely balanced sensitivity that is equal parts distressed heart and keen intellect.

But it is not the story that I want to celebrate as much as the writing itself--the images, the metaphors, the cadences, the lyricism:

"She thrust her voice into her sentences as if she were wading through hip-deep water." "And sadness was demanding. Its own kind of grief, it drained the colour from everything in every direction."

"Was it a perspective to love a day folding down tidily on itself, another one finished? Perhaps it was a late-life infatuation, some aging resonance with the dying of the light."

Be sure that you read the book when you are not in a rush. Actually, thatʼs not really a necessary caution. I venture that you will find, as you move into Flossyʼs world, that you cannot help but walk through it at a measured pace. You will luxuriate in every paragraph of "Great Village". I certainly did.
David Hallman, Goodreads, July 2011




"The life so short, the craft so long to learn"
- Geoff Chaucer