Buttons, button jars and sewing notions: the heirlooms of Viola Shipman

Author Wade Rouse spent most of his childhood in the Missouri Ozarks watching his grandma sew.

She was working poor, a seamstress who worked at an overalls factory and never finished high school or learned how to drive.

“Both sides of my grandparents just didn’t really have two nickels to rub together,” Rouse says.

Still, she saved what coins she could in an old crock in the garage and started a college fund for Rouse’s mom so her family could have a better life than she did.

“I’d always look up at her sewing after a hard day’s work and see her smiling down at me, and I would always wonder how my grandma got to be where she was,” says Rouse, who writes using his grandmother’s name – Viola Shipman—to honor all of her sacrifices.

“I was fascinated by her past,” Rouse says, but he adds, “A lot of the stories about how she grew up, maybe what she endured, she was reluctant to share.”

This childhood yearning to know more about his roots deeply influenced Rouse’s latest novel, “The Edge of Summer,” about a grieving woman whose secretive late mother leaves her with many unanswered questions about their past.

Wade Rouse AKA Viola Shipman

Reeling from the sudden loss of her mother — a quiet, loving but intensely private seamstress everyone called Miss Mabel — Sutton Douglas decides to head north to a Michigan resort town named on one of her mother’s sewing cards, where she hopes to find out more about who her mother was and where she came from.

“Her mother, like my grandmother, is working poor, is a seamstress, and really the only things of value that she leaves her daughter are her buttons, button jars and sewing notions,” Rouse says.

These are objects that Rouse remembers his own grandmother having. Heirlooms like buttons, button jars and charm bracelets figure prominently in all of his novels by him, he explains. (“The Edge of Summer,” out July 12, is Rouse’s eighth.)

Rouse, who went to journalism school and worked for several alternative papers, started his career as a nonfiction writer of humorous memoirs. When his mother died in 2009, Rouse went back to the Ozarks to help move his dad out of their childhood home. It was a difficult time in Rouse’s life, but there was one bright spot: In the attic, Rouse found all of his grandparent’s heirlooms, safely stored and boxed away. There were his grandmothers’ charm bracelets, his mother’s charm bracelet, all of their recipe boxes and recipe cards, their quilts and their hope chests.

Rouse was suddenly overwhelmed by memories.

“So I started writing my first novel on top of a cardboard box in the attic that day,” he says. “I thought these heirlooms were just a beautiful way to weave family history into current stories.”

Rouse’s debut novel as Viola Shipman was called “The Charm Bracelet.” Published in 2016, it was a Michigan Notable Book of the Year and has sold in 15 countries. Others in the series include “The Hope Chest,” “The Recipe Box” and “The Heirloom Garden.”

“I’ve loved every minute of writing these books,” Rouse says.

Join Rouse for a “Books Over Drinks” event 7:30-9:30 pm July 14 at M. Judson Booksellers in downtown Greenville. Tickets to the event are $35, which includes admission, a cocktail and a copy of “The Edge of Simmer.” Visit mjudson.com/events for more information.

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