Have you heard of Bess Streeter Aldrich? I hadn’t until my book club found out we’re moving to Iowa for the fall semester. Suddenly I was told about this Iowa native writer and promised to read A Lantern in Her Hand for our next book club. I’ve been raving about it to every mother I meet.
A Lantern in Her Hand is a pioneer book, not a historical romance, as the current Amazon cover might indicate. Think Little House, but from Ma’s perspective. Abbie grows up on a farm in Iowa, dreaming of a life like her elegant, aristocratic Scottish grandmother. Instead of a life of riches and ease, she marries a good, hardworking man and becomes a Nebraska farmer’s wife. Her husband Will promises her that as soon as they get some extra money, she’ll get those music and art lessons she’s always wanted, but if you’ve read the Little House books, you know how the 1870’s were for farmers–droughts, grasshopper infestations, years of broken dreams. And if you’ve read any realistic fiction about pioneer life, you know that women miscarry, children die of snakebites, husbands die before their time. Abbie and Will face a host of challenges as they raise their young family on the untamed Nebraska prairie. By the time they have financial stability, their children are grown and need the music and art lessons and college tuition. Abbie sacrifices for her family again, and again, and again. Every time it seems life might be getting a bit easier, she’s called to do something hard, and the tragedy is that her children don’t even seem to notice all that she has done for them.
It may sound like a real downer of a book. But the beauty of this novel is not in the events (although they are so realistic as to make you wonder how much was based on the author’s own family) but rather the way that Abbie responds to them. Again and again, she has to choose not to be bitter and resentful but to have joy. And as a young mom who is definitely sacrificing a lot in order to be home with my children, it’s encouraging to see a picture of what a life poured out in love can produce. Aldrich’s message is that there is purpose in the sacrifice of a mother for her children, building something better for the next generation. Abbie leads an undistinguished life, yet the influence of her faithful motherhood ripples out through her children, grandchildren, and community. Interestingly, this book does not talk about what could cause the human heart to do something so unnatural as choose to humble oneself for others. There is very little mention of faith, and Abby’s death scene (this isn’t a spoiler; the book begins with her death and is all a flash-back) owes more to American theistic folk religion than to any explicitly Christian understanding. But…all in all, A Lantern in Her Hand made me so proud of my Midwestern heritage, so grateful for the women in my family who came before me, and so thankful to be given the opportunity to impact lives as a mother.
I gushed so much about this book to my mom that she went out and read it, and I had to laugh when she texted me back to say she’d finished it. “Sort of a strange little book, but thought provoking,” she said. I’d been telling her I was moved almost as much as I was from Lila, which is a true American classic and will be read and studied a hundred years from now, and she was expecting something that profound. Lest I confuse you as I did my mom, this is a five star book to me because of my emotional response to it, not because of its prose. Aldrich is no Marilynne Robinson; her writing is a bit old-fashioned, and while I think reading about the early days of Middle-America are fascinating, the life story of a farmer is not what the cool kids are reading these days. That’s okay. Abbie herself defends the scope of her lifestyle when her adult daughter accuses her of having lived a narrow life:
You know Grace, it’s queer, but I don’t feel narrow. I feel broad. How can I explain it to you, so you would understand? I’ve seen everything…and I’ve hardly been away from this yard. I’ve seen cathedrals in the snow on the Lombardy poplars. I’ve seen the sun set behind the Alps over there when the clouds have been piled up on the edge of the prairie. I’ve seen the ocean billows in the rise and the fall of the prairie grass. I’ve seen history in the making…three ugly wars flare up and die down. I’ve sent a lover and two brothers to one, a son and son-in-law to another, and two grandsons to the other. I’ve seen the feeble beginnings of a raw state and the civilization that developed there, and I’ve been part of the beginning and part of the growth. I’ve married…and borne children and looked into the face of death. Is childbirth narrow, Grace? Or marriage? Or death? When you’ve experienced all those things, Grace, the spirit has traveled although the body has been confined. I think travel is a rare privilege and I’m glad you can have it. But not everyone who stays at home is narrow and not everyone who travels is broad. I think if you can understand humanity…can sympathize with every creature…can put yourself into the personality of every one…you’re not narrow…you’re broad.
Sounds a bit like G.K. Chesterton on mothers being everything to someone, right? Near the end of Abbie’s life, a granddaughter asks her about her happiest memories. Her answer hit me hard as I read it:
There are many memories. but I’ll tell you the one I like to think of best of all. It’s just a homely everyday thing, but to me it is the happiest of them all. It is evening time here in the old house and the supper is cooking and the table is set for the whole family. It hurts a mother, Laura, when the plates begin to be taken away one by one. First there are seven and then six and then five…and on down to a single plate. So I like to think of the table set for the whole family at supper time. The robins are singing in the cottonwoods and the late afternoon sun is shining across the floor, Will, your grandfather, is coming in to supper… and the children are playing out in the yard. I can hear their voices and happy laughter. There isn’t much to that memory is there? Out of a lifetime of experiences you would hardly expect that to be the one I would choose as the happiest, would you? But it is.
You totally should pick this little forgotten gem up this summer and read it while your kids are running through the sprinkler. But even if you don’t, can you join me in aspiring to find joy in the little, homely, everyday things of motherhood? Like Abbie, can we savor the moment when our husband comes in from a hard day of work, the little people are playing, and we’re putting dinner on the table? I’ll be the first to admit that the dinner prep hour is usually my least favorite time of day, but this book has challenged me to look at the mundane moments of my life as a mother with new eyes.
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