31 March 2015

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

This story, first published in 1924, flew in the face of convention by extolling the virtues of role reversal within the marital home.  How could any decent housewife and mother abandon her post at the kitchen hob, the mangle, and clothesline for a paying job while her husband stayed home with the children?  Because it was necessary and made them happy.  Apparently, society had a problem with that.

Evangeline Knapp scrubbed, toiled, dusted, and polished her way to misery, a nasty case of eczema and a very nearly broken spirit.  Being responsible for the running of a home and three children doesn't allow much time for relaxation; there is always something that needs doing.   Evangeline is also aware that many people in the community see her as the perfect housewife with excellent taste.  Those same people have plenty to say about Mr. Knapp's shortcomings in providing for his family.

"'Well, I'd have something worse than eczema if I had three delicate children to bring up and only that broken reed of a Lester Knapp to lean on,' said Mrs. Pouty with energy."'  
  
The delicate children are Helen with weak lungs, Henry who throws up when he eats certain foods, and little Stephen who rants, constantly makes a mess, and is simply a rambunctious little boy.  His special misfortune is being a third-born child when his weary mother has had about all she can take of cleaning up after everyone.  And this is where the story began to bother me.

Evangeline is a martyr to housework and everyone else's expectations.  No sooner did I start to think that the moment she finds something in her life to spark an interest she might scale back on the obsessive cleaning, her husband has an accident that results in a life-changing disability.  Their dire financial situation must be faced so Evangeline presents her best-dressed self to Lester's former boss, Jerome Willing, and asks for a job on the sales floor.

'He looked at her keenly to see the effect of his announcement.  'I believe the thing for you, 'he said, 'is the Ladies' Cloak-and-Suit department.  I can put you right in as a stock-girl till you get the hang of things.  I always think stock-girl work is the finest sort of training for salesmanship.'

Evangeline not only blossoms, she explodes with enthusiasm for her work.  She nails the trends and has an inherent gift for steering customers towards clothing which will compliment them in the best way possible.  Meanwhile at home...Lester has the chance to enjoy his children.  He plays games with them and reads stories to little Stephen and in doing so, falls in love with his offspring.  He couldn't have managed any of this after work or on weekends?

The notion that the children's ailments disappear because Mum is no longer a shrew down to long hours spent performing domestic chores and Dad spends time with them is a bit unfair.  That inference places a lot of guilt on the shoulders of parents simply trying to do their best.  Also, there doesn't seem to be a lot of communicating going on between Evangeline and her husband.  Was marriage so horribly rigid in 1920 that a woman couldn't tell (or at least ask) her husband to dry while she washed?  Oh, I do realize that expressing wants and needs can be a problem but I refuse to believe that the majority of households had husbands sitting on the sofa while their wives did absolutely everything as they whimpered into their dishcloth.  Or that a man who loved and cared for his wife would sit and think 'I would like to help my wife but society wouldn't like it'.

I completely understand the point that Canfield Fisher was trying to make; why shouldn't women work while men care for children if both are happy with the situation, but the way it's written felt quite heavy-handed and obvious.  And then there is a schmaltzy ending that rang as so untrue to be ridiculous.

There are dozens of wonderful reviews to recommend The Home-Maker as a very good read and I am definitely happy to have finally read it.  While I can't say this is a favourite of mine it would make a fantastic book club read as there are more than enough issues to wade through and debate.


7 comments:

  1. I'm sorry this was disappointing when it had so much premise (and promise!)

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    1. That's the way it goes sometimes, doesn't it. But at least I don't feel like the last person in the blogsphere to know what this book is about!

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  2. Ridiculous ending, I agree!

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    1. As if...who would give themselves a sentence like that? I ask you...

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  3. Oh, too bad about the ending. It sounds like there were many things to admire up until then. Speaking of older books, I'm just starting "Pomfret Towers" by Angela Thirkell and enjoying the humor so far.

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    1. Wonderful! I haven't tried anything by Thirkell yet but someone from the library did pop a discard by her (not sure of the title) into my locker. She seems to be a polarizing author but it seems as though you're enjoying her! Something to look forward to...

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  4. I think I AM the last person in the blogosphere to know this book. It's still on my to-do list that dates back to 2010! Enjoyed your review, though!

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