This time in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, I’m in 1920s small town America, in the midst of an unhappy family where the father hates working and wants to stay at home taking care of the children, and the mother hates being trapped in the house and longs to be out in the world. Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s The Homemaker is a brilliant dissection of who should earn the family income. It’s also about shopping, cooking, cleaning, parenting and selling an idea.
This is the kind of novel you may want to gallop through at a sitting – it usually takes me a rather intense three hours – because it’s packed with uncertainty as to how things will turn out: disaster, or a happy ending? All the action is focused on the characters’ happiness, and the awful things that will happen to their minds and their bodies, and to the family, if they aren’t happy. The cause of happiness, or unhappiness, is people being allowed to do the work that’s right for them, and in the 1920s there were fixed idea about this, especially in small-town communities. Things had loosened up a little in terms of how men and women’s social roles were dictated, so let’s be fair. At the cutting edge of civilised life, in the cities, men and women’s fashions were getting less restricted, men could act less masculinely, and women could act more independently, but, compared to today, social expectations were still pretty rigid. Men wore the trousers, men earned the family income, and married women simply didn’t work. If they did, society disapproved violently unless the man was unable to work, and then he carried the burden of shame unless obvious illness or incapacity was the reason. In this novel Lester is the bread-winner, and Eva is the home-maker, and the family is crumbling to pieces with misery.
The novel is set in a small rural mid-west town. The owner of the town department store has died, and his go-getting nephew Jerome Willing has inherited the business. He and his advertising whiz of a wife are determined to make Willing’s Emporium the mainstay of the community, and a leading light in family shopping. For this they need the right kind of staff, and have to let the wrong kind go.
Lester Knapp is one of the wrong kind. He’s an unhappy Willing’s accountant who would so much rather have been a poet, and whose distracted face infuriates his new, younger boss. Lester is rarely happy. He has chronic dyspepsia, which always begins after he eats the perfect breakfast cooked by his perfect wife Eva, who never fails to remind him that he has exactly 12 minutes before he has to leave for work. He hates work, and he hates leaving his three children, because Eva also never fails to correct their behaviour, check they’ve hung up their clothes and made their beds properly, and aren’t leaving mud or dust anywhere. Eva is a model housewife and a demon for cleanliness and immaculate tidiness. The way she attacks dirt and grease is admirable. That she completely fails to understand, appreciate or even like her own children, is tragic. The poor woman is devoted to them. She is so passionate in cooking the right foods to help her husband’s dyspepsia, to make shrinking Helen gain a little weight, to cure Henry’s nervous stomach and ease five-year old Stephen’s hysterical rages, that she ignores the festering patch of eczema on her arm. She refuses to rest, to go out, to take an outing, except for her once-weekly Thursday afternoon break of one and half hours, when she attends the church Guild meeting with other women, and they sew, and chat, and everyone brings their sewing and management problems to Eva. She loves solving problems, and she loves helping other women find the best solution, and they are so pleased they ask her to run a new committee. Although this would be a perfect marriage of her talents and the community’s needs, she refuses because she cannot abandon her duty to her family. She’s going to do her duty if it kills her. It’s clearly killing her family.
Their life is a train wreck waiting to happen, but something else happens first. On the day Lester loses his job, he falls off an icy roof trying to put out a neighbour’s chimney fire, and breaks his back. Once he can sit up and do some things for himself, Eva asks Jerome Willings for a job in the store, since the family still needs an income. Jerome sees her passion for the sales techniques and the presentation of the goods on sale, and gives her a job in ladieswear. Eva loves it, and the job loves her. Slowly their home life becomes happy. Lester can sleep on the ground floor, so Eva gets a good night’s sleep and he can stay in charge of the kitchen in his wheelchair. He and the children learn to cook while Eva is at work, and all the people whom Lester has helped unobtrusively over the years, simply by being a kind human being, help them with cleaning and the heavy work.
The children are blissfully happy, and their illnesses all disappear without anyone noticing for months. Lester loves running the house in his own way and time, and being with the children. Eva is blissfully happy too: after she’s come home from work and eaten, she learns to enjoy playing cards with the family every evening and she teaches Henry without once correcting him. She gets a promotion at work. Stephen learns to play in a sandbox on the back porch, and makes a tiny town out of the miniature houses and animals that Eva brings him home every week. Lester protects him from the bullying old lady next door, and slowly Stephen realises how to love his father. Perhaps one day he’ll learn to love his mother. They are a healing, happy family, all because Lester cannot use his legs anymore. And then Eva comes downstairs one night to check on Lester and Stephen, and sees Lester quietly turning over in bed in his sleep, using his legs as naturally as if he could walk. He is cured. We have one more section of the book to go. What is going to happen?
As I said, this is a fairly intense novel because it is so dramatic. We care very much about each of the characters, but the solution to their situation is so blindingly obvious to us, it is hard to remember that the social rules of the 1920s are very different from our own time. It is also so maddening that the really important things remain unsaid by Eva and Lester. They don’t talk about the things that really matter, until the children begin to unfold like flowers under their father’s care. It takes weeks for Lester to find out that Henry has a secret puppy he keeps elsewhere because Eva wouldn’t have a dog in the house, or that Stephen is terrified because he thinks that Eva is going to wash his Teddy. By talking to Lester about poetry Helen discovers that she wants to go to college, and Eva’s raised salary can help them save to pay for this. It’s all going so well. I love the shop scenes where Eva is a miracle saleswoman, and I love the kitchen scene where Lester and Helen learn how to break an egg. Soon they’re making bread and cakes and pies together without even thinking about it. Reading Eva’s happiness in her job is like warming your hands at a fire. Her guilt at not wanting to be at home, and not wanting her husband to get well, is simply heart-breaking.
This novel is about parenting, consumerism, and the cruelty and pressures of small-town life, but it’s also about its support networks and the kindness of people you’d forgotten. It’s a brilliant book: passionate and wise and full of pity for the way things were.