I was the child who read the Little House series, Nancy Drew, Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Jane Eyre, Secret Garden, Pig Man, and Anne of Green Gables.
And like my daughter Lydia, I have always liked facts. One spring, when I was about 16 years old, I took a stack of books out of the library’s nonfiction section on farming, gardening, and vegetables. (That summer I also attempted a 10 x 15′ garden on a clayey waste plot in my family’s back yard. What I recall is that lettuce grows quickly, and slugs like to make a home among lettuce leaves, which a person finds out when she holds that salad lettuce up to her mouth and sees a baby crawler on a leaf.) Another time I took out a less goal-oriented selection of books on the human body — a bunch of owner’s manuals. (I remember a set of photographs from a dermatology book on effects of aging, and how an older person could pinch skin on the back of her hand and it would stay in a little teepee shape for a second or two. I tried this on my own hand then and could not imagine a little skin teepee as a possibility.)
In my fiction reading, as much as I followed plot I liked learning how people did things with their hands: laundry in big tubs, food over an open fire, sleeping 3 or 4 to a bed, toys from sticks and rags, and treatments from poultices (ah, Kaiser Pease’s onion bath in Where the Lilies Bloom). When I picked up Mrs. Mike again, at least 30 years after I first read it, it was to find the description of an emergency amputation that has stayed with me:
I filled a kettle. I lifted it to the stove. The cries drew me back. His nails dug long furrows in the wood of the table. His dark eyes rolled back under his lids, leaving white, unseeing holes. The smooth muscles moved in Sarah’s arms. Back and forth, back and forth. The trap bumped and clanged against the table. Sarah’s strong man’s hand pressed the saw’s teeth deeper into the wound. It quivered, it quivered like jelly. A strange laughter stirred me. Mother and child, I thought. Mother and child. Then Sarah begin hacking. The bone chipped and splintered. I looked at her face, at the clamped lips! I looked at her hands. I thought, how can she do it! I looked again at her face, relentless and calm… His body lay under her hands, twisting, screaming, while she hacked at him calmly with a saw. I stared at a flap of hanging flesh.
The narrator is Katherine Mary, a 16 year old Boston Irish girl who is sent by her mother to an uncle’s place in the Canadian wilderness in 1907 as therapy for her pleurisy and soon marries Mike Flannigan, a Mounty stationed in the frontier, far north of Alberta. The local population, as many Indians as white trappers and their families, is all of 135 people. To them, Mike is like a mayor, judge, and country doctor all in one. Kathy is only one of two women who are from somewhere not there. The plot is built on her adjustments to extreme weather; deaths from illness, fire, and animals; friendships with the other women in the settlement; Mike’s and her own responsibilities to the community; and the beauty of undeveloped Canada. It is based on a true account told to Benedict and Nancy Freedman by Mrs. Flannigan at the end of the second World War.
Does the book hold up? For this reader, it does. There are many moments, like the surgery-with-a-saw one, that taught me about the reality of a life I have not lived. Most horrible and poignant is the passage that describes Kathy’s experience of seeing her community dying around her from diptheria. Although medicine to treat it was available at the time, it had to be freshly manufactured, and town was three months away by dogsled, water, and wagon journey. Immediately after her baby Ralph and toddler Mary Aroon die, Kathy, who was vaccinated as a younger girl in Boston, is enlisted by Mike to help deliver food to the families of the sick. She goes from house to house and sees the sick, the naked, the mourning. Outdoors, she sees this:
It was like a drawing I had seen in… a vision of William Blake’s… Out the window hung a pair of legs. And in the snow a young man kept clubbing a snarling phantom of a dog. I grasped my stick in both hands and walked toward them. The dog turned on me. I struck it on the nose and it backed off, whining. Another dog, lean and gaunt and ragged, crawled as close as he dared, on his belly. The two watched, their saliva dripping, while the man lowered the body of a girl into the snow. Lifting her, he climbed on the roof and laid her down.
I looked at the other roofs of the other cabins, and for the first time saw the rows of feet. I saw then that there were bodies lashed to the trees too. That’s the way Mike kept our meat in the winter. Best refrigeration in the world, he’d say.
The body of one child was eaten by a dog, and the dead child’s weakened father attacked and mauled by one. Kathy finally beat the dog off by a stick, too late to protect the child’s body or save the man.
Grief, the background music to these lives, is symbolized in Mrs. Mike by the image of a little cemetery on the hill, with row after row of identical crosses, whitewashed and salted, with the names of the dead carved into them. As Constance, the other woman besides Kathy who is from somewhere else, tells Kathy as she shows her the cemetery: Some women have lost their first and second families and are on their third. By the end of the novel, Constance has lost all nine of her children and dies herself from the flu. Kathy and Mike take on the care of Constance’s twin grandson and grandaughter, and become parents again this way.
There is romance in the novel, too, or at least the romance of feeling between Kathy and Mike and between their Indian friends, Oh-Be-Joyful and Jonathan. But there are no wedding dresses, gifts, parties, love letters, declarations, or sweet talk.
While I did, at age 14, go through a period of a few month’s reading Harlequin romances, loaned to me by Katy Kane, another smart and bookish girl in my high school, I have not generally been a reader of the over-dramatized courtship novel, although I am okay with Jane Austen. Romance and courtship, in books and in life, are often about signals and gestures and tense misunderstandings later resolved, and I frankly prefer love in the doing. My favorite scene in Disney’s Cinderella is of the animal helpers fashioning a dress for their Cindy. (Prince Charming and that glass slipper are of no interest to me. In fact, I always doubted that a glass slipper was durable, no matter how lithe was the human that put her weight into it. That the delicate shoe was constructed by a fairy godmother and possibly “magical” did nothing to convince me.) My favorite scene in Out of Africa is when Robert Redford washes Meryl Streep’s hair, or the one in Chinatown where Faye Dunaway opens up and presses a bandaid on Jack Nicholson’s roughed-over face.
I digress. I did not intend to say much about love.
As an adult, two of my favorite television dramas were Northern Exposure and E.R., both of which I watched for several years. I have never been interested in any of the so-called reality shows, which makes me realize this: If fiction is a dream, then I like the dream of a reality that is not mine.
It’s not just realism I prefer, and preferred as a child, however. If that were so, I’d probably be a big fan of Philip Roth or J.D. Salinger’s work, and I am not. And it’s not that I prefer women authors because I’m a huge fan of both Melville and Hawthorne. Therein may be the rub: I like novels and movies and shows in which the tasks of staying alive and making a life are treated with both seriousness and artistry, like this moment in the woods at the end of “Roger Malvin’s Burial” by Hawthorne:
Dorcas, after the departure of the two hunters, continued her preparations for their evening repast. Her sylvan table was the moss-covered trunk of a large fallen tree, on the broadest part of which she had spread a snow-white cloth and arranged what were left of the bright pewter vessels that had been her pride in the settlements. It had a strange aspect that one little spot of homely comfort in the desolate heart of Nature. The sunshine yet lingered upon the higher branches of the trees that grew on rising ground; but the shadows of evening had deepened into the hollow where the encampment was made, and the firelight began to redden as it gleamed up the tall trunks of the pines or hovered on the dense and obscure mass of foliage that circled round the spot.
Taking care of life within the wilderness, whatever the wilderness stands for — that may be what I’m looking for, and have always been.