The Home-maker by Dorothy Canfield

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Although I have a different review waiting in the wings, yesterday afternoon I finished my next Persephone book, and I can’t help posting this review now because the ideas are so fresh and I just loved it.

Besides being an interesting look at 1920s gender roles in raising a family, The Home-maker by Dorothy Canfield was, to me, a reminder at what it means to “make a home,” particularly by making it in to a pleasant place. l loved the reminder that being a stay-at-home parent is not about nagging my child and scrubbing the floor but rather watching him learn and grow. It was so beautiful.

Home-maker Evangelina Knapp is an energetic perfectionist, who cannot do anything halfway. Her husband, Lester, is a thinker, one who cannot stand living by a clock and meeting exacting deadlines. He prefers to consider all people and situations with a little bit of poetry; nothing is clear-cut or obvious.  Since it’s the middle of the 1920s and they live in a small New England town, their lives are pretty much decided for them: Lester is the unhappy and unsuccessful breadwinner of the family and Eva is what she considers to be a perfect mother, full of unrealistic expectations for her young children.

From the first page, I despised the mother. Eva was overly critical to a fault, and when she literally made her son sick with her nagging at his imperfections, I wanted someone to interfere physically, since I couldn’t. There seemed to be no end to her taking her frustrations out on her children, and I wondered why she and everyone else in town thought she was such a great mother. After the first dozen or so pages, I put the book down. I thought I couldn’t stand any more.

But then we met the father. Lester was frustrated with his wife, his job, his inability to take the time to talk to his children, and pretty much everything about his life. He’s unable to get promotion because he’s so bored and unsuccessful at his job, and I felt there was no end to his frustrations either. Could I take much more of this? Life really was horrible for everyone in this family.

Then, when their roles were suddenly reversed, I fell in love with the novel. Although some readers may most love seeing the way Eva blossomed in her new role, I most related to Lester and his coming to terms with being a “home-maker.” Mostly, I loved how for him that term didn’t mean “keeping the house spotless” as it had for the compulsive Eva. Rather, for him it meant reaching out to his children, loving them for who they are, and watching them grow into themselves. I loved when he started telling his young son the story of Pilgrim’s Progress. And there were many such memorable scenes. In the Persephone catalog online, they say, “The scene where he surreptitiously watches his youngest child learning to use an egg whisk is one of the great scenes in the literature of childhood.” I have to agree. I even cried, especially as I pondered my own young son’s learned curve. Lester was the embodiment of patient nurturing in a parent. I wish I had a dose of such patience.

The characters are two extremes. One loves working outside of the home and seems to have a never-ending supply of energy. The other has an endless supply of patience for such tasks as learning to cook (even cracking an egg for the first time) and listening to a rowdy child. I think most parents, whether they are a stay-at-home mom or a stay-at-home dad or a full-time employee, are a mix of both extremes. I suspect that most parents need some outlet so they don’t get frustrated (as Eva did in the novel) and most full-time employees need time off from the job to unwind. I think it helps that now, 90 years later, the tasks of being in a home have lessened, from cooking (take out, anyone?) to darning the socks (we normally just buy new ones) to refilling the coal furnace every day (how Lester Knapp disliked that task in his “down time”!).

Since it was written in the 1920s, The Home-maker was mainly about the gender roles that were expected: Lester, the man, was expected to bring home the bacon. Eva, the mother, was to be the home-maker. Both knew their roles, and it took a tragedy to allow them to have a chance at swapping them. Some of the conversations stood out to me.

“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,” said Lester.

… “How dare you say such a thing!” [Mattie responded.] “I never dreamed of having such an awful idea. . . . Home-making is the noblest work anybody can do!”

“Why pity me then?” asked Lester with a grin, drawing his needle in and out of the little stocking. (178-179)

And that is what I loved about this book, for home-making was celebrated. As a full-time home-maker, I am sometimes a bit frustrated like Eva was. I am sometimes just dying to get out of the house and out of two-year-old conversations, which is why I volunteer at the library one morning a week and blog in any free time. But I was also frustrated and bored to death for the five years I worked full-time. The day I quit because my son was coming was a day I felt I left a cage that had entrapped my soul. (I really related to Lester’s feelings on that.) I love being a stay-at-home mom!  I can’t say I love cleaning toilets and sweeping the floor (and I loved Lester’s solution to mopping….) but most of the aspects of home-making are much more to my satisfaction than working full time. I don’t want pity today, just like Lester didn’t want pity.

And Lester kept getting pitied. The 1920s shock of having a man be the home-maker reminded me how necessary it is for all people to be taught to nurture, listen, and have patience. This book made me glad for the times I’ve seen my little son hugging his baby doll and saying, “Mommy, baby doll is crying. You give him a hug too?” It made me glad that he loves to help me cook and he mixes up his own invisible creations in a bowl with a spoon, saying “Yummy!” It also made me glad that he types on the computer “working,” and helps dig in the garden with me, and sweeps the kitchen floor, and is otherwise a worker. In short, I’m glad my son is well-rounded!

There were things that bothered me about the novel, especially the lack of communication between the husband and wife. Maybe this is a reflection of the 1920s, when intimate conversations about gender roles were not acceptable. Dorothy Canfield’s preface to the novel had some interesting comments on gender roles. She says, in essence, that each family should do what works for them, and not succumb to “tradition” if it’s not working out. Couples should communicate.

Once again, this is a book I wish that my library had a dozen copies of so I could suggest it to my book club which has a few stay-at-home moms and some working moms. We’d have a great discussion!

Ironically, once again the only copy my library system had was not the new Peresphone-published copy but the Center Point Large Print edition. I am not sure about the faithfulness of the text, since even the back cover has a typo (“Selected as one of the 500 greatest books every written by a woman…”). This is one book I’ve love to own in the Persephone edition, for I think I need to reread it every time I start to get Eva-overwhelmed and need a Lester-reminder of what home-making really is about.

Reviewed on June 15, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I love your enthusiasm for this book! Since I relate to so much of what you say in your review, I think I have to read this one.

    I was complaining the other day about something on the TV, a reporter was going on and on about stay-at-home-moms and all I could think was, what about Dads? There are lots of stay-at-home-dads now. Why do they get ignored?

    And yes, the stay-at-home parent needs an outlet too. Blogging is mine.
    .-= Chris@bookarama´s last post on blog ..Attention Twitterers: BBlog Chat =-.

    • Bluestalking, oh really?! I’d love to! I’m thinking I need to space out the Persephones I can find because the library system doesn’t have that many these books are nice break.

  • Aww, your son has a doll, that’s really sweet. And more gender balanced, I grew up resenting the fact that my brothers never had to do as many household chores as my sister and I, that we were being trained for separate roles (to take care of men vs. being the man and being taken care of, basically!) I also wish my library had more Persephones and/or that I could afford more!
    .-= Carolyn´s last post on blog ..Miss Pettigrew is an inspiration =-.

    • Carolyn, my son loves his doll, feeds him “dinner,” helps him “use the toilet,” etc. I think his doll is a really important part of his imaginary play, even if he does often play with his trains and little people cars more often. (He can go a week without remembering his doll, and then it’s all about the doll for a few days….)

  • I remember browsing through the Persephone catalog and thinking this one sounded like an excellent book. Thanks so much for a detailed review and I will now be trying even harder to find this one!
    .-= Aarti´s last post on blog ..Review: Bachelor Girl =-.

  • This was one of my favorites last year and I’m glad it resonated with you, too. I loved your last line – “I think I need to reread it every time I start to get Eva-overwhelmed and need a Lester-reminder of what home-making really is about.”
    .-= JoAnn´s last post on blog ..The Sunday Salon: Hurry Up Summer =-.

  • This is one of the Persephones that I actually own! I happened to find it when browsing the used bookstore and at $2 I felt it was a real steal. Having read your review, I’m now even more excited to read it, though I think it might have resonated with you more than it will with me (given that I don’t have a son), but I’m hoping I’ll still find things to enjoy in it (it sounds like I will!).
    .-= Steph´s last post on blog ..“Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven” by Susan Jane Gilman =-.

    • Steph, score! Way to go on that Persephone purchase!

      I think there is lot to enjoy about it, even if you aren’t in the same situation as the family in the novel.

  • This book sounds so good! I’ve always been interested in the ways home and motherhood get explained in books, and whether people appreciate or denigrate what that’s about. And with the growing acceptance of the idea of a stay at home dad, I think it’s fascinating. Nice review, Rebecca 🙂

  • Delightful review, Rebecca! You really communicated your enthusiasm for this one, not least because you immediately posted your response to it.

    This is one of my Persephones I am most looking forward to reading but I am trying to niche out the perfect time to read and enjoy it uninterrupted. One of the things I love about the books Persephone chooses is that there a number that evoke such an emotional response in its readers, others not so much or in a different way (basically they offer something for everyone).

    Canfield Fisher also wrote The Brimming Cup, which comes highly recommended to me. I know that there were plans to publish The Homemaker as a Persephone Classic (the non grey covers) but they were put on hold; hopefully it will be published in that format and subsequently easily to obtain in the US so that you can have your own copy.
    .-= Claire (Paperback Reader)´s last post on blog ..Another Literary Loss =-.

    • Claire, I think that’s a great plan because it’s one I didn’t want to put down, even though at the beginning I wasn’t sure about it. And I do hope they publish it in softcover so we can better find it. Certainly is a great book.

  • I agree with everyone else that this sounds like a great read! So progressive for the 1920s. My partner and I both work for pay, but he works solely from home whereas I work in an office. Plus he enjoys cooking & food more than I do, so he usually plans & cooks our meals. Even though we don’t have any kids, we still get a surprising amount of condescension & surprise from people we tell about our domestic arrangements, 90 years after this book was written! People are weirdly threatened by the idea of a man being a homemaker, which I think impoverishes the lives of men as well as women – men are denied an appreciation of those rewarding aspects of creating a home, and taught that they should be contemptuous of that kind of talk as having to do with “women’s work.”

    Anyway, thanks for the recommendation! I’ll definitely be looking this one up.
    .-= Emily´s last post on blog ..Cancer Ward =-.

    • Emily, it does make me sad when people disrespect the stay-at-home mom or the work of being a homemaker. It’s an important part of life! My husband is a great cook too. I am learning since I’m the one not working full time it makes more sense for me to cook the meals. But he LOVES it when he has time to cook.

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