(HOST Before the early summer reading lists come out, Commentator Philip Baruth wants to reserve a relatively small spot on your nighttable.
(BARUTH) In about a month, all of us are going to be inundated with early summer reading lists and ninety-eight percent of those titles are going to be books published in the last year or two.
But if I could, I’d like to sneak in an early recommendation, for a novel published over eighty years ago, in 1924.
It’s Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s thirteenth novel, The Homemaker. The Homemaker is the story of Evangeline Knapp and her weak-willed husband Lester. It opens with Evangeline on her hands and knees, furiously scrubbing grease spots from her dining room floor. She’s furious with her son Henry for spilling the grease, furious with her husband for failing as a provider and angry with herself for feeling what amounts to hatred for her household routine.
For his part, Lester Knapp despises the world of business. Lester’s a bookish sort with a taste for poetry, an easy mark for the ruthless businessmen who control his small Vermont town. He knows very well that his wife hates her life, and he comes to hate himself for his part in it. Anticipating Death of a Salesman, Lester decides to kill himself by faking a fall making his insurance policy a final gift to his family.
Needless to say, Knapp botches the suicide and winds up paralyzed from the waist down. And that’s when Canfield Fisher works her magic: Evangeline winds up assuming her husband’s place at the local department store. And there she discovers her calling, the selling of merchandise. Mrs. Knapp becomes a sort of commercial angel, providing women with authentic emotional comfort through commodities.
As miraculously, the paralyzed Lester finds that his calling is actually at home. The children slowly shed their insecurities they developed under Evangeline’s scrutiny. Canfield Fisher was an avid and early proponent of the Montessori method of child-rearing, and she has Lester and the children discover all of its basic principles on their own. They become a loving group, and when Evangeline comes home at the end of the day tired but fulfilled they have things ordered even to her exacting standards.
And that’s when Canfield Fisher works her magic in reverse: Lester slowly regains the ability to walk, threatening the foundation of the happy new Knapp family. No longer paralyzed, Lester must return to work. Society won’t have it otherwise. Suddenly everyone is miserable again.
How Canfield resolves the plot I have no intention of telling you. But it makes surprisingly compelling, even gripping reading.
As Canfield argued in an article for the Los Angeles Examiner, the villain of the novel isn’t Evangeline, but a too-narrow perception of man and wife: “the fixed conviction that the proper pattern for marriage is a house in a suburb, with doilies on the dining room table, and some car better than a Ford in the garage. This collection of objects is to be kept in order by a woman with long hair who spends most of her days in the home, and paid for by a man with short hair who lives most of his time out of it.”
End quote, and amen.
Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.