Sunday, December 1, 2019

Literary Wives #42

The Home-Maker
by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Actually, one of my favorite reads for this year!
This is one of my classic literary favorites! 
I had never read any of this writer's works before, but I will definitely read more!
I love the cover image depicted here. This is a Persephone reprint I ordered months ago. 
If you are not familiar with this UK company, please follow the link to learn more.
I love their books: the paper used, the cover formatting, etc. 
I find their pricing reasonable considering the quality of materials and their purpose--
Per The Guardian: "A unique publishing house that champions forgotten female authors."
I'm not sure exactly how "forgotten" Fisher may have been since there is the 
Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award selected by 4th - 8th graders each year.
Though I admit I was unfamiliar with her.

Welcome to the 42nd "wifely" book review for the Literary Wives online discussion group!

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Naomi of Consumed by Ink

This book was released in 1924, but the issues depicted are still relevant in today's society. 
Which is sad...just plain sad. 
Although overall I believe U.S. society is becoming much more accepting of 
non-traditional roles, especially within families, the stigma still exists very strongly.
Whether we are discussing two same-sex partners or a heterosexual couple who play 'reverse roles' within the family, or single parents, anything other than a "traditional" arrangement (male father, female mother), there are still way too many people in this country who view such family units as "unnatural," even "immoral." 
Each person and each partnership is unique. My recommendation? Live and let live. 
It makes for a much happier, more contented life.
But, back to this book!

According to Karen Knox in the preface, 
Dorothy Canfield Fisher published eleven novels between 1907 and 1939: 
all of them illustrate her conviction that it is inner, personal change that makes the most difference in the lives of human beings rather than changes in external circumstances. (viii)
And it is exactly this that I most appreciated about this book! Especially with regard to Stephen, the youngest and most ill-behaved of the three Knapp children. Though we also get 'inside the heads' of the other two older children, Henry and Helen, it is Stephen of whom we learn the most. 

In Part One we learn of the wife, Evangeline's/Eva's, thoughts and behaviors during daily life. It is not good! I could connect directly with Eva in several ways... As the one person in the family to be relied upon...seemingly for everything! It was that way for me when raising children. Though at least Lester worked! Not so with the father of my children... She suffered from eczema, just as I did from ages 6-9. For me, it was simply a result of my mother's own anxious behaviors and actions toward me inducing these symptoms. It was quite unpleasant. I realized from the beginning Eva was inadvertently/unconsciously doing this to herself. And finally how I, like her, did everything 'from scratch' to save money and make a healthier home environment for the family. Though obviously it wasn't healthier for her. Unfortunately, Eva shared many personality characteristics with my own mother: perfectionism, anxiety over every little detail...of everything, and constant worry of what others thought...of both herself and me. Though my mother also excelled in criticizing every-body for every-thing, making for a very negative environment--I didn't get the impression Eva did that as she was too busy criticizing each and every little move her children and husband did or did not make! 

Lester's personality is also depicted in Part One. We learn he is suffering from constant indigestion, especially intense immediately after eating. I recognized this as a result Eva's constant 'vigilance'/criticism, although she made it a point to "never criticize their father before the children." Her silences made her disapproval quite clear to everyone, especially to Lester. They weren't even allowed to eat supper in peace but Eva was salting Helen's potatoes right on her plate until they suited Eva, and Stephen was told to take smaller mouthfuls, until eventually Eva states
I know I keep at the children all the time! But how can I help it? 
They've got to learn, haven't they? It certainly is no pleasure to me to do it!
Somebody's got to bring them up! (22)
After supper one night she congratulates herself on never making "scenes" and never having "lost her self-control" until a "terrifying but really unavoidable breakdown" one night. Eva complains to herself that there were
...moments in a mother's life about which nobody ever warned you,...moments of arid clear sight when you saw helplessly that your children would never measure up to your standard, 
never would be really close to you, because they were not your kind of human beings,...but 
merely other human beings for whom you were responsible. How solitary it made you feel! (36)

Henry suffers from nausea and vomiting, which bouts appear to be a direct result of Eva's anger regarding anything that messes up her perfectly clean house! We learn that Helen is rather puny, often suffering from a cold. Eva actually corrects Helen's wringing out of the wash rags by redoing it and rehanging them in a 'perfect' fashion to dry. She constantly corrects and reminds the children how to do every single little thing in their life! How to walk. How to take off their shoes. How to place their shoes on the floor. They can't get more than a few feet into the house without being told how to do 3-4 different things! It's a wonder these people are still functioning at all. Though we can see they are about at a breaking point. Especially poor little Stephen who is still a preschooler and under his mother's thumb each and every minute of each and every day. Poor little guy...

As the book opens we see Eva scrubbing away all afternoon on the grease spots Henry has left on the kitchen floor by tipping the meat tray as he brought it into the kitchen from the dining room after supper the evening before. She is angry as hell about this! Then she notices Stephen is missing. She begins to hunt for him, getting angrier all the time, as the bucket of cleaning water in the kitchen cools while she hunts in every imaginable spot for her youngest child, who, we learn, is purposefully hiding from her! It's due to his Teddy-bear, which he has just discovered poorly hidden in a drawer in his/his parents' bedroom. (Due to limited space in their house, Stephen sleeps on a cot in Eva and Lester's bedroom.) Eva had confiscated it during the night until she had the opportunity to wash it. But Stephen had seen the results of a 'washed' Teddy-bear and it wasn't good... To Stephen 
...Teddy meant quiet and rest and safety...and Stephen needed all he could get of those elements 
in his stormy little life, made up, so much of it, 
of fierce struggles against forces stronger than he. (11)

He would hold Teddy in his arms as long as he could, and hide, and let Mother call to him all she wanted to, while he braced himself to endure with courage the tortures that would inevitably follow...the scolding which mother called 'talking to him', the beating invisible waves of fury flaming at him from all over Mother, which made Stephen suffer more than 
the physical blows which always ended things, for by the time they arrived 
he was usually so rigid with hysteria himself that he did not feel them much.
Under the stairs...she would not think of that for a long time. 
He crept in over the immaculately clean floor, drew the curtains back of him, sat upright, 
cross-legged, holding Teddy to his breast with all his might, dry-eyed, scowling, 
a magnificent sulphurous conflagration of Promethean flames blazing in his little heart. (14-15)
This passage! Those descriptors! I read that passage several times just was so powerful! I could easily picture Stephen...

As Stephen walks about the bedroom "drawing long breaths" he notes that 
The bed, the floor, the bureau, everything looked different to you in the times when 
Mother forgot about you for a minute. It occurred to Stephen that maybe it was a rest to them, 
too, to have Mother forget about them and stop dusting and polishing and pushing them around. They looked sort of peaceful, the way he felt. 
He nodded his head to the bed and looked with sympathy at the bureau. (11)
Eva created so much tension that nobody could be healthy in the environment she created! It struck me yet again that if my mother and I had not lived with my grandmother so that she was my main caregiver, my daily life would have been so much worse! My mother would have been just as bad (or maybe even worse?) than Eva. I had been lucky in that regard. Not so for Stephen! Until...

Lester despairs after having been fired from his job at the local department store and purposefully throws himself off his neighbor's icy roof as he ostensibly hauls water to try to extinguish a fire. His thought was to provide for Eva and the children via the life insurance money they would have as a result of his death. But as he later bemoans, he can't even cause his own death, but rather simply causes his legs to be useless in the aftermath. The medical prognosis is that he may be able to regain use with time, but there are no guarantees. 

Part Two depicts Jerome and Nell Willing, the two new co-owners of the local department store, inherited from Jerome's uncle who owned and managed it for many years. They are both college-educated with experience working in retail institutions and are determined to build this small-town store into a much more economically efficient machine. All for the good of the local/rural folks, of course! [Wink! Wink!] The fact that they would have more money is viewed simply as a bonus to the changes and expansion they have planned. They debate the need for a store manager to free Jerome to complete buying trips. If only they knew someone who would be capable and yet personable with customers... 

And you guessed it! Three weeks after returning the Willings' check for $100 sent to her immediately following Lester's accident, Eva enters the store to ask for a job. Jerome has a practiced interviewing technique and recognizes what he feels is her natural affinity, knowledge, and pertinent skills set to work in retail. After all, her father owned and managed his own store in which she worked as a child/teen, so she also has on-the-job experience. It is many of those same skills that have worked to drive her children and husband to physical ailments as well as create an environment of nearly unbearable  psychological stress for them. It isn't that Eva isn't a devoted "home-maker" or that she doesn't love each member of her family, it is just her emphasis on perfection with no regard for others' feelings or respect in the wake of her unrealistic expectations. 

As you might well have also guessed, Eva excels at the store and is immediately promoted from stock girl to seller. She even takes notes in the evenings of her ideas/plans for work. Eva actually learns to overlook a 'less than perfectly' clean house when she is home. Her earnings allow them to hire a housekeeper who cleans once a week to prevent Eva from spending her leisure time working constantly in the house. (Per doctor's orders.) And then Miss Flynn, the department manager resigns and Eva is promoted and earning even more money than Lester ever made or ever thought he would be capable of making at the same store. Of course, Jerome and Nell plan to groom Eva to become the store manager they had foreseen needing. She fits in beautifully with their own management philosophy.

This book has prompted me to relate plot details to a much greater degree than I usually do, but I feel it is very important to truly understanding the ramifications to each character in the book. Part Three depicts the astounding affect that Lester has on his children as he takes over as a true "home-maker" (not just "housekeeper") by cooking and caring for the children. Due to his physical limitations he is unable to accomplish much cleaning, but the children pitch in as they can. Friends and neighbors help as well. We learn Lester had befriended and helped quite a few people in town who were more than happy to return the favor in his hour of need. Lester provides to the children what Eva was unable to provide: patience, caring, and respect. She was very efficient in the pragmatic tasks of "house-keeping," but quite lacking in creating a nurturing, gentle, and kind environment. It is this section I liked best. Fisher does a very believable job of recreating how I would imagine these children might feel as they are freed to become themselves and develop their own interests and skills while experiencing a supportive relationship with their father. 
And now for the Literary Wives portion 
of the review! 

What does this book say about wives or 
about the experience of being a wife?

One of my first observations is that finally we have 
a book which does not have a philandering male 
as the "husband." I appreciate that! 

I admit that I was disappointed in all these 
characters in Part Four which deals with the 
fact that Eva and Lester both realize he has 
regained control of his legs and 
could walk if he chose to do so. 
However, rather than creating joy, 
this realization creates much more stress
for each of them as they consider the ramifications.
An able-bodied male remaining at home as a "home-maker" while his wife works to provide income to support the family was just not feasible, according to Eva. She refuses to even consider this due to the social stigma of such an arrangement. Lester's refusal is based upon the benefits he now realizes he provides to his children, and the fact that Eva is much happier and more fulfilled by working outside the home than she ever was being a "home-maker." Though I would argue she was a "house-keeper" much more than a "home-maker," as distinguished by the title, which, according to Elaine Showalter's afterword, 
...clearly signaled [Dorothy Canfield Fisher's] subject and her educational mission...
Calling someone a "home-maker" rather than a 'house-keeper' 
implies more importance, authority, and creativity. (269)
Although I had never thought of these two words in this way, I can recognize the underlying logic. It is stated multiple times in the book that being a wife instantly meant you were the home-maker, the patient caregiver, the nurturer. 
That complacent unquestioned generalisation, 'The mother is the natural home-maker' (257)
Proved to not always be true! Just being born 'female' or just being in the designated 'working-at-home' role doesn't automatically mean you have these skills. I knew a woman who was a "stay-at-home" mom but her children literally lived with her parents until they started school and since her parents' home lay outside their home school district, they would stay with their parents Monday-Friday and spend weekends and all vacations at their grandparents' house. So just being at home all the time doesn't mean you are parenting, or necessarily an effective parent. Each of us is different, regardless of our role or gender. 

Likewise, Lester feels himself to be a complete and total failure since 
he had long ago seen that he was incapable of giving to Eva and the children anything that anybody in the world would consider worth having. The only thing he was supposed 
to give them was money, and he couldn't make that. (68)
So we see very distinct roles set by society for a woman as a wife and a man as a husband. One is to be at home caring for the house and children and the other is to earn sufficient income to support them all. However, if it weren't for Lester becoming the "home-maker," no one would have realized the trauma Stephen underwent regarding his Teddy-bear. 
What was terrifying to Lester was the thought that the conception of 
trying to understand Stephen's point of view had been 
as remote from their minds as the existence of the fourth dimension. (145)
I can understand being so busy as a parent that you overlook and/or are oblivious to some aspects of your children's psychological needs. It is sad when that happens. It was this realization that awoke in him a "desire to get well, to live again."

Fisher addresses the issue of consumerism as she describes Jerome Willing's "notion of being a good business-man" was to exploit women by "play[ing] for his own purposes on a weakness of theirs only too tragically exaggerated already, their love for buying things." (That stereotype of a women always shopping/buying things!) He tried to ignore the fact that, in his opinion, Eva was doing the exact same thing. And although there is a strong emphasis on the rights of children to have love, security, and unconditional positive regard/respect, Fisher also points out that with the extra income from Eva's work, they would be able to save for their children's college education and provide more for their children. As Eva states,
She felt an impulsive longing to share her emotion with Lester, to put her arms 
about his neck and let him know that she did not take his loyalty, his gentleness, 
his faithfulness, his fineness, so coldly for granted as she had seemed.
She had been unhappy about their hideous poverty. That was all. It was abominable to be poor! 
It brought out the worst in everyone. When you were distracted with worry about money, 
you simply weren't yourself. (236)
I do believe finances are at the heart of many relationship break-ups. Statistics do prove that out. 

As Lester considers the possibility of both he and Eva working he muses over the possibility of hiring someone to care for the children: was conceivable that by paying a high cash price you might be able to hire a little intelligence, 
enough intelligence to give them good material care. 
But you could never hire intelligence sharpened by love. 
In other words, you could not hire a parent.
And children without parents were orphans. (255)
As Lester contemplates the possibility of him being able-bodied once again, 
...the fanatic feminists were right, after all. Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, 
society is really based on a contempt for women's work in the home. 
The only women who were paid, either in human respect or money, 
were women who gave up their traditional job of creating harmony out of human relationships 
and did something really useful, bought or sold or created material objects. (260)
It is true. You are paid nothing to be a full-time parent. But there is great satisfaction in knowing that you gave it 1000% when they were young and dependent. My finances as an older adult reflect the fact that I did not work outside my home for 13 years while raising my children, but I wouldn't trade the experiences with and insights into my children gained over those years for anything. 

I can imagine this was quite a groundbreaking work when released in 1924. 
Unfortunately, I fear we still have a long way to go before this changes significantly. 
But I do believe progress has been made and more and more people are learning to 
not only accept and respect, but also appreciate alternative family units to the 
"traditional" male-income-earner-husband and female-"home-maker'-mother model. 

Up next for Literary Wives:

The War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen

Join us March 2, 2020