Friday, March 15, 2013

The American Blended Family: 1865

In Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood, author Steven Mintz reports that the kinds of blended families we see today were common from the country's beginnings, up to the 1940s and 1950s. The reason for blending, though, was not divorce, but death. On the American frontier, for instance, 25 percent of women died in childbirth, often in isolation with no medical care. Without modern medical care and antibiotics, illness in an adult, especially one already exhausted by overwork, could easily leave a child without a father or mother, or both. Often the remaining parent would seek another mate, as a necessary for the survival of homestead and children. Then the new stepparent and children needed to get to know each other, and hopefully, a bond would grow between them, which, while not detracting from the bitter missing of a beloved parent, offered comfort and nourishment to the children.

Mother and Child by Mary Cassatt, 1880

The McNairs became such a blended family in The Able McLaughlins, and a more poignant story of blending could not be told. A widower, Mr. McNair had brought home a new wife, Barbara, from Scotland to help him care for his eight-year-old son, Dod, and his three-year-old daughter, Jeannie. No sooner had they arrived at the homestead than McNair took off for the fields with his son.

Mrs. McNair "stood contemplating. The rain continued blowing about in imprisoning drab veils. Finally she turned away, and sat down weakly. From where she sat, she saw the dripping cows shivering. She sat huddled down. She seemed trying to cuddle up against herself. Her hands, folded in her lap, seemed the only sight not terrifying that her eyes might consider.

"Presently the silence of the room was broken with a little sob. She looked up. Christie's little sister, standing near the window, was just turning away from it.... She felt deserted. Big tears were running slowly down her face. She looked like a neglected, ragged, little heartbroken waif.

"Barbara started from her chair. That moment her face showed she had forgotten the surrounding desolations. She ran and gathered the child into her arms. She sat down with her in her lap. The little Jeannie, finding herself caressed, began crying lustily. The new mother kissed her. She caressed her. She soothed her, coaxing her into quietness. She told her little stories. She sang little songs, examining thoughtfully the poor little garments she wore. Dusk came upon them as they sat consoling each other. Barbara demanded help then of the child. Jeannie must show her where all the things were kept which were needed for the supper. They would make some little cakes together. Jeannie grew important and happy.

"Dod's eyes fairly bulged with amazement when he saw that supper table. Nothing of the sort had been set before him in that kitchen. His new mother made no apologies.... " Her husband protested, "We don't have cake every day."

"I do," she said placidly. "I like a wee cake with my tea."

Perhaps Barbara McNair made Scottish rock cakes. Given the meagre contents of the pantry, theycould not have been too fancy.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

How Peony Will Travel

Before I read The Able McLaughlins, I never knew the tremendous efforts of women who pioneered the west to bring with them precious flowering bushes and plants to grow in their new homesteads on the prairie.

I learned about it through a story of one of my favorite characters in The Able McLaughlins, Barbara McNair, the second wife of a homesteading Scot. Mr. McNair had left his first wife and children to return to Scotland to settle a land dispute, but his wife, wrung out with frontier life, died before he could return. Learning of her death, he wedded a woman in Scotland and brought her back to the Iowa prairie with him. She was bitterly disappointed to see her new abode, as it seems Mr. McNair may have been guilty of false advertising. One day, she accompanied her husband to town, and while he was buying supplies, she stalked up and down the streets until she finally found a house with a garden. She asked the owner where she had gotten the flowers, and the owner took her to an older home in town. The lady of this house came out to greet them in her garden and then fetched her spade to give Mrs. McNair a peony plant to grow at the McNair homestead out on the prairie.

Mrs. McNair asked the women where she had gotten the peony, and here is the answer:

"The peony her mother had brought from eastern to western Ohio many years ago, and when she had died, her daughter had chosen the peony for her share of the estate. Her mother had got it from her mother, who came a bride to Ohio from western New York, clasping it against her noisy heart, out of the way of the high waters her husband had led her horse through, across unbridged streams, cherishing it more resolutely than the household stuffs which had to be abandoned in pathless woods. Her great-grandfather had brought it west in New York in his saddle bag, soon after Washington's inauguration as he returned from New York City. She supposed before that the Dutch had maybe brought it from Holland to Long Island. There had been tulips, too, but the pigs had eaten them in Ohio. She had wondered sometimes if it was the fate of the peony to be carried clear to the Pacific by lonely women. At least, if she gave a bit of it to Mrs. McNair, it would be that much farther west on its way to its destination, which she, for one, hoped it might soon reach, so that there would be some rest for women."

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Able McLaughlins by an Able Writer

The Iowa prairie as it might have looked when the Able McLaughlins farmed it in the mid-19th century.

Margaret Wilson won the 1924 Pulitzer Prize with her novel The Able McLaughlins, about a Scottish group of families who had transplanted themselves to the Iowa prairie from Scotland and carved farms out of the prairie. When we meet them, their children, born in the United States, are nearing adulthood, the boys who survived just coming home from service for the North in the Civil War.

The story is fairly simple. The young man Wullie McLaughlin comes home wounded from the war and suddenly sees his childhood friend, Chirstie McNair, whom he remembered as a wee lass, in an altogether different light. He intends to marry her and, her behavior conveys, she would agree. He goes back to battlefield, but when he returns at war's end, the girl will have nothing to do with him. The plot revolves around the resolution to this conumdrum. 

But the book is called The Able McLaughlins, and the story of Wullie and Chirstie functions as the heightened surfaces of a bas-relief parade of figures and scenes, as Wilson brings to life the type of Scottish community in Iowa into which she was born in 1882. At various points, she suddenly shifts the narrative for a brief second to that of the memoirist writing a tale of her grandparents--like a quick lifting and shutting of a curtain.

As with so many American families in the 19th century, the McLaughlins and their fellow Scot Presbyterians built their farms from scratch, and Wilson portrays them as competent and successful over the span of just one generation. The families are all of a community, bound together not only by their momentous and risky undertaking, but even more tightly by their devotion to their religion, the Covenant, and their reliance on the Bible as the practical guide for every aspect of life.

Wilson gives this community a voice of its own in the book, but we hear it as if we were in the room with them, sitting at the big table spread with remains of a community meal, as children are ushered into their beds, and the adults are all chewing on the events of the day, seeing if their points of view match, groping in relaxed chatter to a community consensus.

As with Conrad Richter's The Trees, Wilson writes her novel in lyrical imitation of the language of her characters, the talk she must have heard as a child and young girl. The rhythm of the language--moving through descriptions of work and prairie and house, to the inner most thoughts of the characters, to the gatherings and interactions of the wider community--creates a current that keeps the reader swiftly coarsing through the pages, until... much too soon... it's over.