Fastidiousness can be hard on children...
This is the question that sadly came to my mind, when I read The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield. First published in 1924 and reprinted by Persephone Books, the novel concerns a fastidious housekeeper, Mrs. Knapp, who has three children, one of them unruly. She is praised by one and all for her spotless home, nutritious meals, clean children, and style, but she and her family are unhappy.
Her husband has a poetic nature and does poorly as a store clerk in the town dry goods store. On the day that he is fired from his job and contemplating his total worthlessness, he has a serious accident while helping a neighbor put out a house fire and permanently loses the use of his legs.
Living before the days of the New Deal or the Great Society as they do, the Knapps have to fend for themselves. Mrs. Knapp seeks employment and finds a job as a clerk in the same store that had employed her husband. Her style, dress, courtesy, and attention soon make her the top clerk, and a happier Mrs. Knapp soon becomes a manager.
Mr. Knapp, meanwhile, begins to emerge from his mental depression and take charge of his children, advising them from his bed downstairs on how to get out of the house and off to school, helping them with their homework, and making fatherly contact with his youngest rascal who begins to calm down under his father's attention. The Knapps are a happier family than at the book's opening.
Dorothy Canfield Fisher: quite a lady
As a story, I found the plot a bit didactic. However, as a glimpse into the world of the first quarter of the last century, The Homemaker is interesting--especially in its depiction of the generosity of neighbors and friends when the Knapps are in greatest need.
Several weeks after Mr. Knapp's accident, "When the sick man began to improve... there were hours when the round of neighbors and helpers thinned out, when he was left in his bed in the dining room, a glass of water, a book, something to eat and the desk-telephone on a table by his side, with instructions to telephone if he needed anything.
"Don't you hesitate a minute now, Mr. Knapp," said old Mrs. Hennessy heartily; "if it's no more than to put a shovelful of coal on the kitchen fire, you call 14 ring 32 and I'll be right over."
"And when Stephen gets to acting up, just shake the window curtain real hard and I'll drop everything to come over and settle him," said Mrs. Anderson zestfully.
Later, the oldest of the children, Helen, explains to her aunt, how they have survived: "Oh, we manage all right. Father and us children keep the house.... He's able to be up in a wheelchair now. The janitor of the store's old father had a wheelchair and they didn't sell it after he died and it was up attic and he brought it to Father. He said Father had helped him out at the store when his little boy was sick. Oh, lots of folks from the store have come to help out. The delivery driver, he said he couldn't ever forget what Father did for him one time. He won't tell what it was because he's ashamed. Only he wanted to help out, too, and as long as we had to have a furnace fire he came in every morning and night to look out for the furnace. And he steps in daytimes now, when he's going by, to see if everything is all right. And old Mrs. Hennessy, she's the cleaning woman, she kept coming all the time to help and bring in things to eat, pies, you know! She came in nights and mornings when Father was so bad to do up the work and wouldn't take any pay for it."