FINALLY! After what feels, probably because it is, far too long I have managed to get on the saddle of the Persephone Pony. Okay, as I don’t really care for horses that is a dreadful analogy, I shall simply say that I am back on the Persephone Project and am really pleased that Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s ‘The Home-Maker’ a novel which at first simply reads like a grimly fascinating story about an unhappy family and yet as you read on (and think on) it is a book with many hidden depths. Basically it is another typically marvellous Persephone novel.
The Knapp family is not a happy one yet to anybody looking on, and many do where they live, they seem the perfect one. Mother, Eva, is the home-maker (or housewife to Brits like me) of the title and she is a woman with a serious case of OCD when it comes to cleanliness. So much so that not too far into the book she has a full on breakdown in the kitchen when one of her children has accidentally dropped some meat-fat on the floor trying to tidy up. This breakdown also makes it very clear that she is incredibly depressed. But so is her husband, those poor children.
Lester, the father, is one of life’s drifters (many see him as being a bit strange and rather ineffectual) and who simply goes to work, in a job that is clearly making him miserable, to bring home the money yet when he does get home he must abide by the strict rules his wife imposes. The children; Helen (a bit dreamy and bookish but too timid to talk about it), Henry (an early worrier and sickly child who has issues with certain food substances) and Stephen (a child with serious determination and spirit, who everyone thinks has the devil in him) all also live under this rule. They are all miserable.
When Mother was scrubbing a floor was always a good time for Stephen. She forgot all about you for a while. Oh, what a weight fell off from your shoulders when Mother forgot about you for a while! How perfectly lovely it was just to walk around in the bedroom and know she wouldn’t come to the door any minute and look at you and say, ‘What are you doing Stephen? and add, ‘How did you get your rompers so dirty?’
However, as with every good tale, something happens which completely alters their lives and indeed turns it upside down quite literally. How so I don’t want to spoil as when I came to the end of ‘Part One’ my jaw almost hit the floor, especially as Canfield Fisher has a darker twist on it at the end. I can say that Eva ends up becoming the bread winner, at the very department store her husband hated, whilst Lester becomes the home-maker. You will have to read the book to see if either likes the switch…
What I thought was so brilliant about ‘The Home-Maker’, which I should add was written and published in the 1920’s, is how it looks at gender and gender roles. A subject still current today, I mean how any house-husbands are there really? It also looks at what the accepted norm of these are. The rule seems to be that, bar the odd exception, women should stay at home where they clean, cook and look after the children and are expected to love it. The men on the other hand must be hunter gatherers, there is no real place for a man who has artistic flair or simply lacks the drive to get to the top. This is still the opinion of some people today, many of us have met many a character like Mrs Anderson who sees anything out of the ordinary or slightly left of the centre as being suspect or weird.
He supposed that Harvey Bronson would die of shame if anybody put a gingham apron on him and expected him to peel potatoes. And yet there was nobody who talked louder than he about the sacred dignity of the home which ennobled all the work done for its sake – that was fir Mrs. Harvey Bronson of course!
One of the themes of the novel I also admired greatly was how we should never assume that what meets our eye is the truth. As I mentioned the Knapp’s are seen as the perfect family and Eva the perfect mother and embodiment of womanhood, neither is true. The assumption that women want to stay at home also false, yet unthinkable. The other aspect of this novel that I thought Canfield Fisher was very brave to cover at the time was that no matter how much one might read or hear through other people nothing can prepare you for parenthood and that no matter how many children you have two will never be the same.
As I mentioned to you earlier there are many, many levels with this book beyond a tale of a dysfunctional family in the 20’s yet that is indeed what it is too at its heart and there is so much to love when it is. Set pieces like an episode with Henry where he lives up to being a sickly child, along with a brilliant scene as Helen and Lester wonder how on earth one must open a raw egg (as no cookbook ever tells you), are hilarious. As is the marvellous world of the department store in which Eva finds herself working with the slightly daunting Mrs Flynn, in fact I could have had more of that.
All in all, as you might have guessed, I found ‘The Home-Maker’ a multifaceted read as well as being a wonderful tale of a family lost in society. I know I will often think of the Knapp family and what might have happened after the last page, especially as the ending is left much to any readers interpretation.
Who else has read ‘The Home-Maker’ and what did you, erm, make of it? I would love to talk about the ending in the comments below so please feel free to (if a bit vaguely so not to ruin it) discuss that down there. Have you read any other Dorothy Canfield Fisher novels? I am most keen to read more, especially ‘The Bent Twig’ actually. Next up in the Persephone Project are the wartime stories of Mollie Panter Downes in ‘Good Evening, Mrs Craven’ which will be my first Persephone re-read.