The very, very best novels leave me struggling for words, quite unable to capture what it is that makes them so extraordinary.
The Home-Maker is one of those novels. It was published in the 1920s, it is set in small town American, and yet it feels extraordinarily relevant.
It is the story of the Knapp family – Evangeline, Lester and their children, Helen, Henry and Stephen. A family that was unhappy, because both parents were trapped in the roles that society dictated a mother and a father should play.
The word saw Evangeline as the perfect wife and mother. Her house was always immaculate, she was a capable cook, her needlework was flawless, and she had the gift of being to make lovely clothes, and wonderful things for the home, from the simplest materials.
The members of the Ladies’ Guild were in awe of her, and they knew that, whatever question they had, Evangeline would have the answer. But they didn’t understand why her husband was so down-trodden, why Helen was so shy, why Henry has ‘a nervous stomach’, or why Stephen was so very naughty.
But, if Evangeline’s quest for perfection was unsettling for them it was hell for her family. They had to live with her high standards, her quest for perfection, and she was desperately unhappy at the prospect of endless days of drudgery.
“Henry had held the platter tilted as he carried the steak in yesterday. And yet if she had warned him once about that, she had a thousand times! Warned him, and begged of him, and implored him to be careful. The children simply paid no attention to what she said. None. She might as well talk to the wind. Hot grease too! That soaked into the wood so, She would never get it clean.”
And Lester was no happier. He hated his job in the account office of a department store, that kept him away from his children, that pinned him down, that stole the time he desperately wanted to think and create.
Now I may make that sound horribly dark and depressing. But it isn’t, because Dorothy Canfield Fisher makes her characters live and breathe, makes their situation utterly real, and pulls her readers into the lives of the Knapp family.
Something had to change, or something was going to break.
Something changed; Lester lost his job. He contemplated suicide, believing that his family would be better off without him, but fate had something else in store. He saw a fire at a neighbour’s house; he rushed in to help, unconcerned for his own safety; and then he fell from their roof as he tried to extinguish the flames.
Lester survived, but he was confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk or work.
Evangeline realised that she has to keep the family going. She applied for a job at the store where her husband had worked and the owners, sympathetic to the family’s situation and aware of Evangeline’s reputation, decided to give her a chance.
They didn’t regret it: Evangeline’s organisational skills, her attention to detail, her determination to find a solution to every problem, had found the right home. She was promoted and very soon she was earning more than her husband ever had. She came home at the end of the day tired, but happy and fulfilled.
Meanwhile, Lester stayed at home with the children and took on the role of home-maker. His talents found their natural home too, and housework and thinking went together in a way that thinking and book-keeping never had. He worked with his children to manage the cooking and the cleaning.
“The attic was piled to the eaves with old newspapers. Every day Helen or Henry brings down a fresh supply. We spread them around two or three thick , drop our grease on the with all the peace of mind in the world, whisk them up at night before Eva comes in, and have a spotless floor to show her.”
And he found time to talk to them, to draw them together as a family, to understand their concerns, to make them feel loved and valued. He talked to Helen about her hopes and dreams; he learned that Henry has a dog, kept at a friend’s house because he didn’t think he would be allowed to bring it home; and he discovered that much of Stephen’s naughtiness stemmed from his fear that his mother would subject his beloved teddy bear to trial by washing machine. Lester coped with all of this, and much more, quite magnificently.
Evangeline, with her work to engage her, with her responsibility for housework taken from her, finds herself able to come home and relax and enjoy her time with her family. She had always loved them, of course she had, but she couldn’t cope with being at home all the time.
The family thrived, and the neighbours were astonished. It wasn’t what they had expected at all!
All of this was quite wonderful to watch, and the narrative shifting between family members worked quite beautifully.
And Dorothy Canfield Fisher did something rather clever, that brought the central question of this story into sharp focus.
The owners of the department store, Mr and Mrs Willing had found a wonderful way to balance their family and their business life. Mrs Willing was happy at home with the family, and she worked on business ideas at her kitchen table, while her husband went out to manage the day-to-day running of their story.
Different families need different solutions!
And that makes it clear that there is a bigger question here than how society should look at women who want to work outside the home, and at men who are happy to play significant roles in the home.
Should every family, every person, not be able to work out how to do things in the way that works best for them without having to worry about what the world may think … ?
We’ve come some way since this book was published, in 1924, but we aren’t there yet.
The Knapp family faces a crisis when Lester and Evangeline have to face the fact that his paralysis is psychological, that there is nothing physically preventing him walking again. Neither can face the possibility of going back to the way things were, but neither is brave enough to defy convention.
Both are in turmoil: it’s a little melodramatic, but the emotions are true and the dilemma utterly real.
It is left to a wise, and far-sighted, doctor to save them.
A little neat maybe, but the story needed the resolution.
It brought the important issues, about how to live, how to share responsibilities, how to raise children, to the fore.
I put the book down a week ago, but I’m still thinking about it.