I fear my review won’t possibly do justice to this wonderful ‘ahead of its time’ novel but I shall give it a go. The Home Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher is published by the rather wonderful Persephone Books. The setting is small town America the year is 1924 and this is the story of the Knapp Family, Eva, Lester, and their children Henry, Helen and Stephen.
They are an unhealthy, unhappy family. Lester works in the office of large store in a position that makes him miserable whilst Eva’s obsessive home making fills her with frustrated resentment. The tension between them is palpable early on and when Lester fails to achieve a promotion at work the disappointment is clear and their unhappiness compounded.
“She made no comment on the news. She made it a point never to criticise their father before the children”
Despite her outward appearance Eva cannot contain her self and an uncharacteristic bout of crying and loss of control follows. The next morning, things continue as before with Eva’s competence increasing Lester’s sense of failure.
” ‘Here are your gloves’ said his wife, holding them out to him. ‘There was a hole in the finger. I’ve just mended it.’
”Oh thats awfully good of you, Evie,’ said Lester, kissing her cheek and feeling another ton of never-to-be-redeemed-undeptedness flung on his shoulders. He felt them bend weakly under it like a candle in an over-heated room’ “
Whilst Eva continues to clean the house in her misguided attempts to make a perfect home, her children become increasingly unhappy and Lester’s despair and utter lack of self worth increases.
“His after breakfast dyspepsia began to roll crushingly over his personality as it always did for a couple of hours after each meal. His vitality began to ebb. He felt the familiar draining out of his will-to-live. At the thought of enduring the demoralising torment that morning and that afternoon, and the day after that and the day after that he felt like flinging himself on the ground, rolling and shrieking”
That night an accident occurs that leaves Lester wheel chair bound and unable to go out to work. In a typical Eva like response she herself decides to find work and immediately secures herself a position at the store where Lester previously works. She has a natural flair for selling and immerses her self into a world that thrills her and gives ample outlets for her many skills . Lester now unable to work has to ‘keep home’. He finds he a flair for child care and home making and as a family they quickly settle into this new happy life. The children thrive, their physical health restored and Stephens unruly behaviour much tempered. Lester and Eva rediscover themselves and each other and realise they actually like what they have become.
Others cannot comprehend how a family can exist in such a way. When Mattie a family friend visits she is appalled to find Lester darning socks. He response to her is a confident challenge and acknowledgement of the important role of the home maker .
“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.”
When Mattie does respond it is with ‘heartfelt, personal conviction’
“Home-making is the noblest work anybody can do!”
The most touching relationship in the novel is between Lester and Stephen. There is such a tender scene towards the end when Lester tells Stephen how he will miss him when he goes to school. Three year old Stephen finally understands with childlike innocence what it is to love and to be loved.
” ‘Well, sir’, he exclaimed to the child, ‘I certainly will hate to have you begin going to school!’…………..the little voice asked ‘What will you hate to have me going to school for?’ Lester had to think for a moment before he could remember what he had said. Then, ‘Great Scott, Stevie, why wouldn’t I? I’ll miss you- what do you think? I’ll be lonesome without my funny, nice, little boy to keep me company’…..Stephen felt very queer inside, sort of shaky and trembly. He had never felt like that before. And the queerness went all over him……And now nothing hurt Stephen at all. There was no ache anywhere, not even the old one, so old he had almost forgotten about it.”
Although fictitious, this novel is a fascinating example of the gender stereotypes that existed at that time and the lengths women had to go to, to find a way around those. Having finished reading this I found myself wanting to go right back to the beginning and start again. This would be an excellent book club choice, there are numerous fascinating discussion points, and I suspect it’s a novel I will want to re-read many times in years to come.