Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Lantern In Her Hand

I need to get this book out of my head. I think it's partly to blame for this heavy blanket of melancholy I've been feeling since Friday.

Originally published in 1928, Beth Streeter Aldrich uses this novel to create a fantastic female character, Abbie Deal. Abbie's story begins in 1854, when she is eight years old and at the start of a three week journey, traveling with her family by wagon from Illinois to Iowa. The fact that I grew up listening to pioneer stories from this era made her voyage very vivid in my mind. I could see the sacks of flour falling out of the wagon and floating in the river and the oxen slowly pulling all the families' possessions along a bumpy buffalo trail. The story ends in 1926 with Abbie's death at the age of 80. The face of America changed dramatically between those years, and Abbie's life changed alongside it.

Part pioneer story, part pride of Nebraska lesson, part farming tutorial, part commentary about marriage - Aldrich ultimately uses Abbie Deal to explain the choices and sacrifices that faced a 19th century woman, or more specifically, a mother.

Perhaps Abbie Deal's selfless mothering is the source of my distress. I've always felt I've lacked in this arena and while I've tried really hard not to compare myself to my friends' and siblings' styles of mothering, I found myself forlorn with the realization that I was no Abbie Deal. Abbie was a natural mother. She postponed her dreams of becoming a singer and learning how to paint the prairie's sunset to follow her husband, Will, to Nebraska at the end of the Civil War.

Originally, she postponed these dreams for the sake of her husband, who needed to carve his own way in life away from his father. Later she postponed them because there was no money or opportunity and every ounce of her energy went into building their home and farm and caring for her young children. Later yet, she postponed them because her children grew and had dreams of their own that required any extra time or money she had saved. Finally, she abandoned them altogether because her talents had left her. Her voice had faded from non-use and her fingers were gnarled and knobby from years of work. In the end, all she was left with was her good name and the pride she had in her children's accomplishments.

Thus started the deep, stabbing pain in my chest. This kind of story, really...the universal story of motherhood, always leaves me feeling a little "damned if you do, damned if you don't". Abbie gave up everything of her own...her talents, her time, her figure (I can really relate to this), her life...for her children. The feminist in me resists....even feels slightly miserable that we women are expected and praised for being noble and altruistic, but void of personal achievement. The mother in me, however, wipes away a tear as I watch life from back stage instead of front and center, but wholly gets that my family is THE point. I get to clap and cheer and know that my efforts made this grand production possible.

Throughout the book, Abbie does women a great service by allowing herself to wonder "what if". What if she had married that other boy who wanted her but who she didn't quite love, the one whose wife now wears all those fine clothes? What if she and Will hadn't moved to Nebraska and avoided suffering through drought and grasshoppers and blizzards? What if she had kept at her singing...developed the talent that everyone acknowledged she had? What if, what if, what if? What if I had? What then? Is the prize for the correct choice happiness?

The fun in discussing this book would be hearing the strong arguments that defend the choices made at either end of the spectrum, and all the shades in between. Today, we lucky women get to choose whatever shade we like. Do we like how we look? Does it match our souls?

Abbie Deal chose motherhood but the story did not romanticize her choice. Abbie's story included every distracted husband, every sick child, every annoying friend and every moody child. And yet, in the end, Abbie sat as an old woman and felt satisfied that her five children were a fine product of her life's work.

I recommend this book to every woman out there who enjoys tales of pioneer life or more importantly, empathizes with the difficult decisions made by women everywhere...always.

No comments: