Sunday, May 16, 2010

I Missed Persephone Reading Week #2

At the beginning of May two book bloggers, Verity and Claire, hosted the Second Persephone Reading Week in which readers were supposed to read at least one book published by Persephone Books.  As luck would have it, I happened to have a Persephone Book on hand:  The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.  My sister had ordered a few books off of the Persephone Books web site and had lent this one to me.   She had also managed to fit in a visit to the actual Persephone Books Store when she was in England a few weeks ago where she bought a few more books.  Time got away from me and I didn’t finish the book until a week after the Reading Week ended.  Next year I’ll have to plan better.

If you’ve never heard of Persephone Books here’s what they are about:

Persephone prints mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women. The titles are chosen to appeal to busy women who rarely have time to spend in ever-larger bookshops and who would like to have access to a list of books designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial. The books are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget. We sell mainly through mail order, through selected shops and we have our own shops.

When I picked up The Homemaker I had never heard of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, which seems strange now that I know she was a best selling American author of the early 20’th Century. Perhaps if I had children, I would have heard of the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award, which is voted on by students.  But I hadn’t. Eleanor Roosevelt named her one of the ten most influential women in the United States.  She was a vocal advocate of the Montessori style of teaching. She published eleven novels between 1907 and 1939.  Her 1921 novel, The Brimming Cup, was the second best-selling novel of the year behind Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street

The Homemaker was published in 1924 and is the story of the Knapp Family who live in an average town in America.  It is the sort of town that has one department store and everyone knows everyone else. Mr. Knapp works at the store in the bookkeeping department where he is unhappy in his job and not very good at it.  He is much more interested poetry and literature.  He probably should have been a college teacher but it is too late for that.  Mrs. Knapp stays at home to keep house and bring up the children.  She is the model wife: her house is always clean, her children are well behaved.  She volunteers for community activities and is admired for her organizational skills.   She gives the world the impression of having a perfect family.  She never criticizes her husband in front of the children. And yet she is unhappy. Mrs. Knapp bring joyless perfection to all of her tasks and she suffers from severe eczema that will not clear up.  The two older children, Helen and Henry, live in fear of doing anything that is not perfect – Henry has stomach problems that are certainly brought on by his nervousness.  The youngest child, Stephen, is engaged in a battle of wills with his mother and the only reason she is likely to win is because she is bigger than he is.    

One day a catastrophic event occurs (it isn’t completely clear from the novel if it happened intentionally or not but it certainly was catastrophic), the type of occurrence that should have pushed the family over the edge.  But, instead, it forces Mrs. Knapp out of the house in search of a job and leaves Mr. Knapp home to tend the house and children.  And instead of being a catastrophe, the event turns out to be the turning point that allows everyone in the family to begin to live a happier life.   The tension comes when all the characters realize that this better life could be taken away from them by societal expectations.

This would be a perfect book club book because all the themes are still relevant plus it would be fun to try to figure out how people in the 1920’s would have viewed it.   The subjects can be somewhat controversial. I’ve found it difficult, in the past, to have reasonable conversations with some people about the risk that a parent simply would not like one of their own children.  Love them, maybe;  like them, maybe not.   Mrs. Knapp thinks about this;

A profound depression came upon her.  These were the moments in a mother’s life about which nobody ever warned, you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence, the fine books and speakers who had so much to say about the sacredness of maternity.  They never told you that there were 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, because they were not your children, but merely other human beings for whom you were responsible.  How solitary it made you feel!

One of the things that Fisher captures perfectly is the terrible powerlessness that children have over their own lives.   She uses a simple situation to illustrate it – the youngest child, Stephen, is very attached to his Teddy Bear.  He fears that his mother is going to wash his Teddy Bear and ruin it (he has seen the result of washing on another Teddy Bear).   This causes him to act up in ways that no one understands.  His moods are black and there is talk that maybe he is just a child who is going to grow up to be bad.  At last, more than half way in the novel, he is able to confess this fear to his father, Lester.   And Lester, when he suddenly sees Stephen’s point of view, is shaken by a moment of enlightenment:

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.

And even now that the violent shock of this little scene with Stephen had put the conception into his brain, how under the sun could you ever find out what was felt by a child who shut himself up so blackly in his stronghold of repellent silence. 

Why had Stephen so shut himself up?

The question was as new to Lester as a question of the cause of the law of gravity.  It had never occurred to him that perhaps Stephen had not been born that way.

The style of this novel is old fashioned, filled with “gee” and “swell” and words out of 1930’s black and white movies.  Sentences start with “Say …”.  But the themes of this novel are still issues today.  Who is the better person in a couple to stay home with children?  What if both parents work, how do you find someone to take care of your children who won’t harm them physically or mentally?  Why is there a stigma if it is the man who takes care of the home and the children?

Although the language is old fashioned, Fisher’s use of words is clever.  For instance when the busybody next door, Mrs. Anderson, warns Mr. Knapp that Stephen needs an iron hand and a spanking:

To illustrate her point she now addressed Stephen’s listening, stubborn back in a reproving tone of virtue, “Stephen, you mustn’t kick your blocks like that.  It’s naughty to.”

Stephen instantly kicked them harder than ever and continued to present a provocatively rebellious back to the visitor.

Mrs. Anderson turned to his father with the gratified look traditionally ascribed to the Teutonic warlords when they forced Serbia into a corner.

And sometimes it is easy to forget that Fisher is writing a story that took place 100 years ago.   For instance, the local department store is as worried by competition from the mail-order houses as today’s stores are worried by competition from the internet.   And Lester Knapp is turned off by the gross commercialization of the day in which the desire is to sell people (mostly women) things that they don’t need. 

I really enjoyed this little novel.  It is the first Persephone Book that I’ve ever read and it was a good one to start with.