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

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.


  1. Fisher's "Understood Betsy" was a beloved book of my childhood. She seems like a sensible woman, free from societal restrictions.

    1. I loved "Understood Betsy." I never knew she wrote novels for adults as well. Sensible seems like a good word to describe her.

  2. Our values are out of whack! We seem to undervalue work that actually has to do with caring for others and the earth (farming, teaching, homemaking), and over-value work that doesn't lead to health and well-being, but to injustice and imbalance (high finance, entertainment, law). Is this not bizarre??

    I found this book fascinating too. In some ways we've come a long way, but we still judge each other in ways that don't support individual freedom and choice - as you point out in your commentary.

    1. It is bizarre. There are so many societal expectations and that makes it hard for people to do what is right for them, as is pointed out in this book.