Saturday, June 16, 2012

A mother at work, a father at home

The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield Fisher

I've come across several reviews of this, but it was Claire's post over on The Captive Reader that put it on my TBR list. I knew nothing about the author, not even that she was an American. I've since learned about her impressive literary career, with 40 books published, both fiction and non-fiction. In addition to her own writing, she served for 25 years on the editorial board of the Book of the Month Club, which played a big part in how and what Americans read in the 20th century. I can't imagine that anything they chose was better than The Home-Maker.

The plot of the story, published in 1924, can be simply told. A father is injured, and a mother has to leave the home, to find work to support their family. But Fisher does something amazing with this story. Lester Knapp works in the business office of Willing's Emporium, a department store in their small town, where he is quietly miserable, constantly aware of his inadequacies as a provider. He left college after his junior year to find work so that he and Evangeline could marry. They are now raising three children on his small salary in a tiny house. Though she loves her children fiercely, Evangeline cannot help hating the work of caring for them and the house, and her unvoiced despair and anger are poisoning their home. When Lester suffers an accident that leaves him unable to walk, Evangeline in her turn finds work at the Emporium, and finds life opening out before her. Meanwhile, in the their home, Lester discovers his vocation in caring for the children, not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. He grows particularly close to Stephen, the youngest, whom the neighbors generally consider a budding juvenile delinquent. With this unconventional reversal of parental roles, each member of the family settles into place, into loving relationships and growth. But it is only the family's outwardly tragic circumstances that allow a man and a woman, a mother and a father, to switch roles. What will happen as Lester recovers from the accident? Will he and Evangeline have to return to their traditional roles, and their old way of living, filled as it was with such pain and despair?

In telling this story, Fisher moves from character to character, taking us into their minds and hearts, showing us events through their eyes. As the story shifted, I found myself empathizing with each one, even Evangeline in her struggles and her misery - except for Mrs. Anderson, a witchy old neighbor who torments Stephen, the one completely unsympathetic and unredeemed character. Yet while we see from the perspective of the different characters, we also see beyond, see what they don't or can't, which gives us an understanding that they sometimes lack.

Through this story Fisher explores some of the major questions facing American society in the 1920s. One is the roles of men and women, of husbands and wives, changing in the wake of the Great War and with the political gains of the woman's suffrage movement. A second major topic is the education and care of children. Lester comes to see that his role as a parent is watch and guide his children, to give them the space and freedom that allow "the slow unfolding from within of a child's nature." The theories of child-raising that he puts into practice with such success reminded me of the Montessori method, which I later learned Fisher was also very familiar with.

Another topic that Fisher addresses is the commercialization of America. The Emporium has just come under new management, as old Mr. Willing's nephew and his college-educated wife take over the business. They have a vision of building their business, but even more of raising the town's quality of life. "'My idea of good merchandise, Mrs. Knapp,' said Mr. Willing seriously, 'is that it shall be a liberal education in taste." Access to good merchandise will give people in small towns the confidence of city-dwellers, while buying will build the American economy. Evangeline shares that vision, it's part of what makes her such a valuable employee. This view of business grates on Lester:

"Jerome Willing's business ideal, as Lester saw it, was to seize on one of the lower human instincts, the desire for material possessions, to feed it, to inflame it, to stimulate it til it should take on the the monstrous proportions of a universal monomania. A city full of women whose daily occupation would be buying things, and things, and more things yet . . ."

Yet there is also a poignancy to the Willings' hopes and dreams. They see it as their life's work, its success not just for themselves but for their children. The store is in a small town, and to succeed they must draw in the country folk as well as the local people. They know they are competing against "the mail-order houses and the ten-cent stores" that "steal the business of country people away from where it belongs." What the Willings don't know is that first the highways, and then the mega-stores along the highways, and finally the internet, will all but erase family businesses like Willing's Emporium.

These topics seem so relevant to the world today, almost 90 years after this book was published. But Fisher's story isn't just about sociology or economics, it is first and foremost about people, about whom I came to care very much. I am still thinking about them, especially Stephen, finding with his father the love and security that he so desperately needed. I want to believe that the rather ambiguous ending Fisher gives them is a happy one, for everyone. I can't wait to see what else Dorothy Canfield Fisher has written, and I'd love to hear suggestions about what to read next.


  1. This was an excellent book and one that I still think about. What struck me about it is how *compassionate* it is to everyone concerned and also how relevant it still is.

  2. I really liked this book -- the change in the role reversal was really interesting. However, I was completely frustrated when I read it because a page was missing, right before the ending! It had been completely cut out of the book. It was an inter-library loan and I was left hanging for a few days until I was able to find it online. So annoying though.

    I'd like to read something else by Fisher, after this I was intrigued.

  3. i just bought a copy of this from Persephone last month after someone (I think it was Karen above!) suggested it as an excellent American novel written by a woman.
    I have heard so many wonderful things about it and I am very glad to hear that the characters are the heart of the novel and not the ideas. Now I can't wait to read it!

  4. Isn't this a fantastic book? Fisher's ability to make the reader care equally for each member of the family is extraordinary. I know so little about Fisher and her other works but, like you, I can't wait to read more!

  5. I would never have found this book on my own, and I can't believe I missed it all these years.

    Teresa, "compassion" is the perfect word, even for the Willings, whom I was prepared to dislike for their treatment of Lester (I pre-judged them).

    Karen, that missing page would have driven me crazy. To my mind the ending is ambiguous enough, without losing two whole pages of the story.

    Anbolyn, these characters have such a rich life. I can't think when I've read such a heart-breaking portrait of children, in suffering and in joy.

    Claire, yes, every member of the family - even Henry, whose story is just like himself, quiet and almost overlooked. And I can't believe I could care so much about the fate of a teddy bear.

  6. I haven't read a bad word about this book and I really must pick up my copy soon. Not sure about her other books, but they were reissued by Virago so they shouldn't be too difficult to find and, from what you say about this book, I'd definitely give them the benefit of the doubt.

  7. I'm glad to hear that Virago republished so many of them. I don't come across too many in the bookstores around here, sadly, though I always keep an eye out for those green spines. But I'll definitely be looking for more of her books.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!