Tinkers follows the intertwined lives of three New England generations: son, father and grandfather. It is also a meditation on time and memory, families and human frailty, and the struggle to find order in a chaotic universe.
The story begins in 1972, during the last eight days of George Washington Crosby’s life. As he lies dying in his home, surrounded by family, George's memory slips nearly 70 years back in time to his own childhood, and to his father, Howard Aaron Crosby, an itinerant tinker, poet and epileptic, estranged from his son and family. Time folds in on itself, further back to Howard's memories of his father – a Methodist preacher; a "strange and gentle man", whose passionate sermons invoked the wonders of all of God's creatures, and exasperated his parishioners.
George has grown up in West Cove, a small, remote mill town in northern Maine in the 1920s. Howard, his father, is often absent, traveling the countryside selling housewares. He is a kind man, but his unpredictable seizures are frightening and confusing to George and his three siblings. His mother, Kathleen, nurtures a deep anger with her circumstances, providing no comfort for her children. When George is twelve, his father’s grand mal seizure at the family dinner table becomes a turning point in his life; George runs away from home, and doesn’t look back for many years. He becomes a physics instructor and a mender of clocks; and builds a “wonderful life together” – a predictable and orderly life – with his wife and children.
Howard’s childhood, in late 19th century rural Maine, is equally unsettled. His father was more mystic than minister, increasingly out of touch with the world. Shortly after Howard’s mother arranges to have his father committed to a sanitarium, Howard experiences his first epileptic seizure. As a young man he marries Kathleen. They have four children: George, the eldest, Marjorie, Darla and Joe. After his son George leaves home, Howard discovers Kathleen’s plans to have him committed. He leaves his family, moves to Philadelphia and marries Megan Finn, a good-hearted woman who takes George’s seizures in her stride. Only much later in life does Howard attempt to reconnect with his son, when he very briefly visits George and his grown family at Christmastime in Massachusetts.
Harding has remarked that George’s remembrances represent his attempt, as a dying man, to “reassemble his father – his best and only way of reconciliation” (Porter Square Books lecture, Cambridge MA, January 25, 2011).