Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Ever since I discovered the Persephone imprint, I've been so excited to read all their books.  Unfortunately, they're hard to find here in the U.S.   The Home-Maker is still in print here in the U.S. from another publisher, but the copy I received from the library via interlibrary loan was actually published in 1924!!  It's one of the oldest copies of a book I've read.

If you're familiar with Persephones, you're probably thinking of charming, cozy midcentury women's British fiction, like two of my first Persephone reads, Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day and Miss Buncle's Book, both of which are fun, delightful reads.  The Home-Maker starts out with a much darker story; in fact, it was so depressing at first I almost abandoned it altogether.  It did get better, though, and I'm really glad I stuck with it.

It's set in a small American town (not clear where, maybe the midwest) in the early part of the century.  A struggling housewife, Evangeline Knapp, is obsessed with keeping her house clean and her family in order.  They're all absolutely miserable -- she's practically OCD, her kids are cowed and frightened of her, her husband is in a dead-end accounting job at the local department store and probably has ulcers.  They're all so unhappy, it's just awful.  Her husband Lester is kind of a cerebral, poetic person, totally miserable stuck in an office, and when his job is on the line he considers suicide -- a bit like It's a Wonderful Life without the angels.

Something terrible happens, and Evangeline is forced to pick up the pieces of the family and go looking for a job.  There had been previous hints of Eve's quick mind and inventiveness, but she'd been completely stifled in her role as Wife and Mother.  So things start to turn up for this family.  Basically, this book is a very feminist, forward look at gender roles and families. It was so surprising and I was absolutely rooting for the Knapp family and couldn't wait to find out how it all turned out.  This book was published more than 80 years ago and it's still very timely, given the struggles of couples and families to balance work and childcare, and the issues of childrearing and caregivers.  It's pretty groundbreaking.

I'm really glad I was able to get a copy via ILL, but I was totally annoyed while reading it -- I got to page 315 (it's 320 pages) and I realized a page was missing.  Of course I was able to get the gist of the ending but I was sort of thrown for a loop.  Luckily, I was able to find it online through Google reader and read the two missing pages.  How irritating -- has that ever happened to anyone else?

By the way, if you're a fan of Persephones, you'll be pleased to learn that The Home-Maker is being reprinted as a Persephone Classic next June, and will be readily available for the U. S. market (according to Amazon.com and The Book Depository).  You can even pre-order now if you're willing to wait for it.

11 comments:

  1. I swear, one day you alone will have me reading Persephones. I won't order this one ILL if it has that page issue, but I'll definitely be on the lookout. Hm, I wonder if Gutenberg has it...I might be able to read it on Kindle...

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  2. Oh no, that's horrible that a page was missing! But anyway, the book sounds absolutely wonderful, and you've just made it one of my top Persephone wishlist priorities.

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  3. I was debating whether to ILL it again just for the missing page -- and I was afraid I'd get the same copy again! When I clicked on the preview on Amazon, I was able to pull up the missing pages and read them (I really just wanted the cover of the upcoming edition because it's really nice.)

    Some of the Persephones are definitely not all light cozy reads. I just got another one from ILL called The Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943, which is a translation of a Dutch bestseller from the 1980s. She died in Auschwitz, so, obviously very different from Miss Pettigrew!

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  4. Nymeth -- I hope you like it -- I'm completely getting addicted to Persephones. Now that you're in England I hope you get to go to the store -- lucky!!

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  5. This does sound very modern in many ways. But how awful about the missing page! Glad you were able to find it!

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  6. I LOVE this book, it's one of my favourite Persephones, and I must have read at least half of the catalogue. I got The Home Maker for Christmas one year and I read it straight through that very day, I just couldn't put it down! I think Dorothy Canfield is a fantastic writer, and as she's American, most of her books are available fairly cheaply secondhand in the US. I've noticed since moving here that her books are in a lot of second hand bookstores and on ebay.

    The amazing thing about this book is the daringness of it - to suggest, in the early 20th century, that mothers didn't know best and fathers could be equally as involved in the care of children and home, was really quite revolutionary. I also enjoyed her point about how easy it is for people to be trapped by convention in roles that don't suit their personalities or talents, and that the dogged insistence of society to apply universal standards to individuals causes nothing but unhappiness. I must reread this! I have also read The Brimming Cup which is equally good - see if your library has that!

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  7. I LOVED this book! I've only read three Persephones (and ironically none of them in the actual Peresephone imprint) and this was my favorite, above MISS PETTIGREW and LITTLE BOY LOST (which was also good).

    Amanda, only books published pre-1922 would be on Gutenberg, and I think most Persephones were interwar years or 1940s or later. :(

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  8. I have a nice, healthy stack of Persephones but as I am on a book buying ban I've not allowed myself any new purchases. I am also ILLing lots of books, but luckily my library has a number of her works on hand. I've looked at it many times but haven't gotten around to checking it out. It does sound good, though.

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  9. I've just finished reading Miss Pettigrew and I really enjoyed it. It was my first Persephone but it looks like I'll be reading plenty more.
    I once got half way through a very old copy of a book and realised that one whole section-about 40 pages was from an entirely different book!

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  10. Jenners -- I was happy to find the missing page but after I read it, I realized it didn't make a huge difference -- luckily it wasn't the LAST page. It was still kind of weird to read it out of order, and online. I don't think I could read an entire book on a screen, but a few pages are okay.

    Booksnob -- I'm very impressed that you've been able to read so many Persephones! Did the libraries in Britain have some or did you have to buy them all? I was definitely look for The Brimming Cup. Since Canfield Fisher was American it will probably be easier to ILL it.

    Rebecca -- I also have Little Boy Lost, it is on my Persephone to-read pile. I know a lot of people love this book so I'm looking forward to it, though it sounds a little sad.

    Danielle -- you're so lucky that your library has a lot of Persephones. My library only had about 5 or 6, I've had to buy or ILL the others (and Amanda has one that I'm hoping to borrow).

    Katrina -- Miss Pettigrew was my first Persephone as well, and I just loved it. I have to watch the movie again as it's a bit different, but I think they really captured the spirit of the book. And how annoying about the book with the wrong pages! That would be an unpleasant surprise!

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  11. Great review! I have not heard of the Persephone Imprint, but I definitely have got to check it out now. Thanks for the post!

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