Book Review--The Home-Maker By Dorothy Canfield Fisher


The Home-Maker is the story of the Knapp family. Evangeline Knapp is determined to do right by her family; to keep a clean house, feed the family well, and carefully care for her children. She is admired in the neighborhood and held up as an example of a perfect homemaker. The problem is she hates it.

What was her life? A hateful round of housework, which, hurry as she might, was never done. How she loathed housework! The sight of a dishpan full of dishes made her feel like screamng out. And what else did she have? Loneliness; never-ending monotony; blank, gray days, one after another, full of drudgery. No rest from the constant friction over the children's carelessness and forgetfulness and childishness! How she hated childishness! And she must try to endure it patiently or at least with the appearance of patience.

Her husband, Lester, is just as unsuited to his life. He is a dreamer who frequently gets lost in his thoughts to the detriment of his job. He is also painfully sensitive to the feelings and emotions of his children.

All the swelling fabric of his thoughts fell in a sodden heap, amounting to nothing at all, as usual. He hung up his coat and hat and sat down on the same old stool. He was no good; that was the matter with him-the whole matter. He was just no good at all-for anything. What right had he to criticize anybody at all when anybody at all amounted to more than he! He was a man who couldn't get on in business, who couldn't even get to his work on time. He must have been standing on the sidewalk outside, not knowing where he was, lost in that hot sympathy with childhoood. But nine o'clock is not the time to feel sympathy with anything. Nine o'clock is sacred to the manipulation of a card catalogue of customer's bills.

One day, Lester has a near-fatal accident and is no longer able to work. He becomes the home-maker and Evangeline goes out to work. Their lives completely change for the better. Finally, each is doing the work for which they are best suited and all the family benefits. The changes in the roles are tolerated by society because they are so obviously necessary. Even then, many are bothered by the idea of Lester doing a "woman's work." When a neighbor sees Lester darning stockings she protests, shocked at the sight, saying, "Oh, Lester, let me do that! The idea of your darning stockings! It's dreadful enough your having to do the housework!" Lester replies;

Eva darned them a good many years...and did the housework. Why shouldn't I?" He looked at her hard and went on, "Do you know what you are saying to me, Mattie Farnham? You are telling me that you really think that home-making is a poor mean, cheap job beneath the dignity of anybody who can do anything else."

Eventually, the peace and contentment are threatened when there is the possibility of a cure for Lester. What will they do? Will they go back to their old, unhappy roles? What will society think if they don't?

I found this book to be fascinating. It was written years and years ago and yet, it still has so much to say about our attitudes towards the roles men and women play in the world and whether or not we really respect the work they do. I appreciated that both of the main characters were presented as good, loving people who were stuck in lives that did not suit them. It would have been easy to present Evangeline as a bad mother since she did not enjoy being home with her children but this wasn't done. Instead, Evangeline is shown to be a loving mother who is torn between her love for her children and the fact that her life with them is not fulfilling her emotional and mental needs.

Her children! She must live for her children. And she loved them, she did live for them! What were those little passing moments of exasperation! Nothing, compared to the passion for them which shook her like a great wind, whenever they were sick, whenever she felt how greatly they needed her. And how they did need her! 

Lester is unsuccessful in business but is a loving and understanding father. And he is happy staying home and being that father. Dorothy Canfield Fisher said a lot about letting people do what they are suited for and what suits them as a family and not worrying about the expectations of society around them. She wrote an introduction to this book in which she said;

We could let them alone; we could let them, without comment or blame, construct the sort of marriage which fits their particular case, rather than the sort which fits our ideas. We could leave them to struggle with a problem which, under the best circumstances, requires all their intelligence to solve, without crushing them under the weight of half-baked certainties and misquotations, such as: "No woman can be self-respecting if she is not a wage-earner." ... "A woman's place is the home or there is no home." ... "No one can take the mother's place with children."... "The care and education of children should be in the hands of experts, not of untrained girls who happen to be mothers."

The thing I found so interesting is that society today still has very strong opinions about how families should be managed. There are opinions about paternity leave and maternity leave and working after children and when you should go back to work. There are opinions about the value of staying home with children and the legitimacy of the work involved. All of this made me think of a post I wrote months ago and never published. I am posting it here since, to me, there is a clear connection between the post I wrote and the book I just read.

I was a stay-at-home mom for years.

I was a stay-at-home mom of school-aged children for a lot of those years.

In the USA often the first question you are asked after you meet someone is about what you do for work.  If you tell them you stay home but your kids are in school you immediately see a judgmental reaction.  There is a strangely common belief that if you do not work outside the home then you do not work at all. Most people understand staying home with small children but once they are in school you are expected to get a real job. When did this viewpoint come into being?  Imagine telling your mother or grandmother that they never worked and watch them laugh at you.

My husband and I chose to have me stay home.  I am well aware that this is not a choice available to all.  We are not wealthy, we made financial sacrifices at times to make it work. I could go into detail about why we made that choice but I am not going to.  I am not going to because it doesn't matter and because I do not want to sound as if I am judging people who make other choices or who don't have a choice.

What I find ironic is that women have fought for equal rights.  They have fought for the ability to work where they want, to earn the same amount as men, to be on equal footing.  But somehow, in the midst of that fight, the traditional role of women has been denigrated.  Isn't that wrong?  Equality does not mean equality only in the workforce, it means being allowed to make a choice in the first place and that choice being respected and valued.

The implication from many people is that a housewife is lazy, that she sits on the couch eating candy and watching soap operas all day.  A side point here, my own kids used to think I spent the day sitting on the couch.  When they left in the morning I would be sitting there drinking tea and when they came home I would be in the same spot still drinking tea.  What they did not realize was that I was sitting there waiting for their bus and that in the hours between I had been busy doing other things.  Kids, you just can't win.  Anyway, yes, sometimes I  would sit on the couch and sometimes my life would probably be easier than yours.  What of it?  Sometimes your life is probably easier than mine.  Do we decide a job is only real if it is miserable all the time?  If you have a friend who loves and enjoys her job does that mean she doesn't really work?  I didn't think so. That is really the problem.  Why should I have to justify what I do?  Why would my life not be viewed as adequate or real if  I do not sit in an office all day?  Some women work outside the home, some women don't.  Some days are easy, some days are hard.  In the process of valuing the opportunities women now have, we do not want to forget to value the things women have done through the centuries.

I also find it interesting that many of the things I do as a mom and housewife are careers in and of themselves.  Nanny, cook, housekeeper, accountant, the list goes on.  If I do these things for another family I have a job, because I do them for my own family I am lazy.

I understand that a working woman (aren't we all working women, but you know what I mean) juggles a lot of responsibilities.  She might feel that she works at her place of employment and then comes home and does all the same things the stay-at-home mom does.  That is a bit naive.  She doesn't have the time or energy to do all the same things.  That doesn't make her better or worse, just in different circumstances.  I am sure she sometimes wishes she could stay home with her kids just as much as the mom spooning and re-spooning applesauce into her baby's mouth sometimes wishes she could get dressed up and go to a nice quiet office.

My point is a job is a job and a life is a life.  Maybe I have kids at home, maybe I don't.  Maybe I work in an office, maybe I don't.  Maybe my life is hard, maybe it is sometimes easy.  But my life and my choices have just as much worth as any other woman's choices.

I spent years as a stay-at-home mom.

I spent years as a stay-at-home mom of school-aged children.

And that deserves respect.

Local Discoveries--Pulaski State Park in Rhode Island

pulaski state park

Celia has been feeling a bit neglected this summer. My schedule is much busier than it has been in previous years so I have not had the freedom to go off on fun adventures whenever she wants.  All in all, she needed a fun day so last week that is what we did. Well, we had a fun afternoon but that seemed to fit the bill. We went to the library and checked out stacks of books. Then we went to the local dog pound and looked at the dogs. Celia is on a years-long quest to convince us that she needs a dog and part of that quest involves regularly checking the pound for a dog that fits her perception of what would work for us. Only time will tell if her quest is successful. She does seem to be wearing her father down. After that, we went to Pulaski State Park in Rhode Island. The town we live in borders Rhode Island so it is much closer than it might sound, only about 20 minutes from our house.

pulaski state park

We have lived in this part of the state for eight years and have never been able to find a swimming spot that works for us. This looks like it has possibilities. It is close to home and not horribly crowded. That being said, Celia took one look at the kids playing in the water and promptly headed in the opposite direction. She said there were too many kids and it was too noisy and that if we wanted to swim we should go back in the evening when everyone would have gone home. I didn't know whether to laugh because she is so much like her parents or cry for the same reason. We ended up going for a walk around the pond. This did give her the perfect opportunity to lecture me on how much better the walk would be if we were accompanied by a dog. Celia is never one to miss an opportunity.

pulaski state park

lily pads

The water by the little swimming beach was clear but the rest of the pond was covered with lily pads. They were so pretty but most of the blooms were too far out to photograph properly.

pulaski state park

pulaski state park

pulaski state park

The little pond above was interesting. I am not sure what it was. A cistern, maybe? I don't think you can really tell from the photo but it is encircled with stones, just like a typical New England stone wall but around this little pond instead. There are a lot of stone walls going through the woods so I know at one point this was all cleared and settled land. It would be so interesting to see what it looked like back then.

pulaski state park

pulaski state park

The little stream was Celia's favorite part of our walk. She loved the bridge and all the rocks and ferns. She has decided we need to go back with books, Nancy Drew is her choice, and snacks and then we can spend the day there. I think that sounds like a good idea though we probably should bring bug spray too. The mosquitos were out in force.

pulaski state park

We ended our day by heading home with our stacks of library books and curling up on the couch. I am sure it won't surprise you to hear that most of Celia's books feature dogs.

A Serendipitous Find

Book--Merry Hall

My local library has a small shelf of free books in the lobby. Usually, this shelf is full of Harlequin romances and out-dated children's nonfiction books. However, since I live in a constant state of hope, I always check the shelf. Yesterday, my optimism paid off. There was a lovely hardback copy of Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols. In my pre-blogging days, this would have meant absolutely nothing to me. I had never heard of Beverley Nichols. However, several bloggers I follow are very fond of Nichols' books and I have been wanting to try one. He was best known for his gardening books which, apparently, are charming and gently humorous. Merry Hall is the first in a trilogy about his renovating of a Georgian manor house. I was very pleased to stumble across it and it brightened a rainy day. Look at the lovely endpapers. Don't you want to dive right in and live there? Though the more I look at it the more unsure I am about the faces on the vase. They are a bit disturbing, aren't they?

Merry Hall--endpapers

There was also a copy of Don't Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford on the shelf. I already own that so I left it for someone else. It was hard though. What if it languishes there while all the Harlequin romances are chosen? That would be so sad. If it is still there the next time I visit the library you know I am going to have to bring it home. Some people feel impelled to provide a good home to all the stray animals they encounter. I house all the stray books.

Have you read anything by Beverley Nichols?

Life Currently

Currently, I am sitting in bed in a mediocre motel room. I am over-tired, slightly stressed, and determined to stop Googling all my ridiculous worries that rise to the surface when life gets to be a bit too much. Really, life was more peaceful when I didn't have the answer to things right at my fingertips. Does anyone else occasionally feel nostalgic for the days when you had to go to the library to look something up? By the time you got there you frequently forgot what you were worried about and ended up researching some random bit of fascination like the weather in the Himalayas or the possibilities of a cross-Europe train journey. Now we have answers so quickly we don't have time to stop being worried, we just cascade into the next worry. And no, I have nothing really to worry about. But try telling that to my over-tired brain.

Currently, I am reading The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. I can tell already that I am going to have a lot of thoughts about this book. I actually set it aside for tonight because I want to really concentrate on it and did I mention the over-tired thing I have going on? So for the rest of this evening, I am reading 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. I haven't read it in ages and there are few things as soothing as reading about someone who loves books. I bought this copy online and I am a little annoyed that someone wrote their name right across the top and that the seller stuck a sticker right on top of the author's name but for the price I paid I guess I can't complain too much.

Currently, (well, not right this moment. I am in a motel but you know what I mean.) I am eating endless slices of toast and countless biscuits. I can't eat American wheat without getting migraines and digestive issues but I can eat wheat in the UK. I have no idea why. So the obvious thing to do was find a way to have UK wheat products delivered to me. Through the wonders of the internet, I now have five loaves of bread, sixteen packages of biscuits, more scones than any sane person needs, and bag after bag of flour. Not to mention the tea, chocolate, and Elderflower cordial I added to the order just because I could. You should have seen me when my very large parcel arrived. Now I just have to decide what to bake when I get back home. Victoria Sponge Cake maybe? It seems only appropriate to bake a quintessentially British cake with my British flour.

Currently, I am very happy to have a new phone. My old one was getting a bit glitchy. I was content to put up with it until last week when the camera stopped working. That I am not willing to put up with. While I have a very nice fancy camera, I depend quite a bit on my phone for quick snaps while I am out and about. It was messing with my world not to have a camera on my phone. The kind man at the store took my old phone in trade, and I was able to get a new phone for me and a phone for my daughter without having to sell either of my children. Plus, I am now my daughter's favorite parent since she was convinced she was the only almost-twelve-year-old on earth who still didn't have a phone.

Currently, I am feeling grateful that almost-twelve-year-olds seem to be basically indestructible. Celia was at a friend's house and didn't know that the bike she was using had faulty brakes. She lost control going down a hill, crossed a road, and went over the handlebars face first into a tree. She is banged up a bit and looks like she has been in a fight but is otherwise fine. It could have been much worse. The hysterical phone call I received, however, probably aged me ten years.

Currently, I am wondering why everyone who walks through the corridor of this motel has to speak at the top of their voice. Didn't their mothers' ever teach them about indoor voices?

Currently, I am thinking I might be slightly grumpy and that it is time to read 84, Charing Cross Road and dream of having my own Marks & Co. to fulfill all my bookish desires.

So what is currently happening in your life?