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The Home Maker by Dorothy Canfield
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The Home Maker (original 1924; edition 2005)

by Dorothy Canfield

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2701142,050 (4.41)43
Member:kdcdavis
Title:The Home Maker
Authors:Dorothy Canfield
Info:Academy Chicago Publishers (2005), Paperback, 320 pages
Collections:Your library
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Tags:literature

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The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1924)

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http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk

( )
  Iambookish | Dec 14, 2016 |
The very, very best novels leave me struggling for words, quite unable to capture what it is that makes them so extraordinary.

The Home-Maker is one of those novels. It was published in the 1920s, it is set in small town American, and yet it feels extraordinarily relevant.

the-home-makerIt is the story of the Knapp family – Evangeline, Lester and their children, Helen, Henry and Stephen. A family that was unhappy, because both parents were trapped in the roles that society dictated a mother and a father should play.

The word saw Evangeline as the perfect wife and mother. Her house was always immaculate, she was a capable cook, her needlework was flawless, and she had the gift of being to make lovely clothes, and wonderful things for the home, from the simplest materials.

The members of the Ladies’ Guild were in awe of her, and they knew that, whatever question they had, Evangeline would have the answer. But they didn’t understand why her husband was so down-trodden, why Helen was so shy, why Henry has ‘a nervous stomach’, or why Stephen was so very naughty.

But, if Evangeline’s quest for perfection was unsettling for them it was hell for her family. They had to live with her high standards, her quest for perfection, and she was desperately unhappy at the prospect of endless days of drudgery.

“Henry had held the platter tilted as he carried the steak in yesterday. And yet if she had warned him once about that, she had a thousand times! Warned him, and begged of him, and implored him to be careful. The children simply paid no attention to what she said. None. She might as well talk to the wind. Hot grease too! That soaked into the wood so, She would never get it clean.”

And Lester was no happier. He hated his job in the account office of a department store, that kept him away from his children, that pinned him down, that stole the time he desperately wanted to think and create.

Now I may make that sound horribly dark and depressing. But it isn’t, because Dorothy Canfield Fisher makes her characters live and breathe, makes their situation utterly real, and pulls her readers into the lives of the Knapp family.

Something had to change, or something was going to break.

Something changed; Lester lost his job. He contemplated suicide, believing that his family would be better off without him, but fate had something else in store. He saw a fire at a neighbour’s house; he rushed in to help, unconcerned for his own safety; and then he fell from their roof as he tried to extinguish the flames.

Lester survived, but he was confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk or work.

Evangeline realised that she has to keep the family going. She applied for a job at the store where her husband had worked and the owners, sympathetic to the family’s situation and aware of Evangeline’s reputation, decided to give her a chance.

They didn’t regret it: Evangeline’s organisational skills, her attention to detail, her determination to find a solution to every problem, had found the right home. She was promoted and very soon she was earning more than her husband ever had. She came home at the end of the day tired, but happy and fulfilled.

Meanwhile, Lester stayed at home with the children and took on the role of home-maker. His talents found their natural home too, and housework and thinking went together in a way that thinking and book-keeping never had. He worked with his children to manage the cooking and the cleaning.

“The attic was piled to the eaves with old newspapers. Every day Helen or Henry brings down a fresh supply. We spread them around two or three thick , drop our grease on the with all the peace of mind in the world, whisk them up at night before Eva comes in, and have a spotless floor to show her.”

And he found time to talk to them, to draw them together as a family, to understand their concerns, to make them feel loved and valued. He talked to Helen about her hopes and dreams; he learned that Henry has a dog, kept at a friend’s house because he didn’t think he would be allowed to bring it home; and he discovered that much of Stephen’s naughtiness stemmed from his fear that his mother would subject his beloved teddy bear to trial by washing machine. Lester coped with all of this, and much more, quite magnificently.

Evangeline, with her work to engage her, with her responsibility for housework taken from her, finds herself able to come home and relax and enjoy her time with her family. She had always loved them, of course she had, but she couldn’t cope with being at home all the time.

The family thrived, and the neighbours were astonished. It wasn’t what they had expected at all!

All of this was quite wonderful to watch, and the narrative shifting between family members worked quite beautifully.

And Dorothy Canfield Fisher did something rather clever, that brought the central question of this story into sharp focus.

The owners of the department store, Mr and Mrs Willing had found a wonderful way to balance their family and their business life. Mrs Willing was happy at home with the family, and she worked on business ideas at her kitchen table, while her husband went out to manage the day-to-day running of their story.

Different families need different solutions!

And that makes it clear that there is a bigger question here than how society should look at women who want to work outside the home, and at men who are happy to play significant roles in the home.

Should every family, every person, not be able to work out how to do things in the way that works best for them without having to worry about what the world may think … ?

We’ve come some way since this book was published, in 1924, but we aren’t there yet.

The Knapp family faces a crisis when Lester and Evangeline have to face the fact that his paralysis is psychological, that there is nothing physically preventing him walking again. Neither can face the possibility of going back to the way things were, but neither is brave enough to defy convention.

Both are in turmoil: it’s a little melodramatic, but the emotions are true and the dilemma utterly real.

It is left to a wise, and far-sighted, doctor to save them.

A little neat maybe, but the story needed the resolution.

It brought the important issues, about how to live, how to share responsibilities, how to raise children, to the fore.

I went on thinking about the book for a long time after I put it down. ( )
  BeyondEdenRock | May 11, 2016 |
One of the linchpins of the utopian society Plato describes in his Republic is the notion that each person should do the job for which she or he is best suited (and that there is a job for which each individual is best suited). This is one of the foundations of societal harmony. In The Home-Maker, Canfield Fisher shows us first what life is like for a couple engaged in the roles society would have them play, and then in the roles for which they as individuals are best suited. The difference in the family in these two scenarios is striking.

For about the first half of this book, I thought the writing was rather simplistic and that the plot came together just a little too easily ("Sure, you've been out of the workforce for more than a decade, but it just happens we have a job opening that would be perfect for you, Mrs. Knapp..."), but then I realized that the point isn't just to tell the stories of two individual human beings, but to use these individuals as allegories. They represent, first, people trying to cram themselves into a prescribed mold (what to do with the bits that hang over?), and, then, people who manage to find just the right fit. It reads somewhat simply, but there is so much behind the words on the page.

As I read this book, I kept coming back to this idea of it being necessary for one to be somehow crippled or diminished in her capacities to be a good home-maker. Mrs. Farnham is a sweet, even-tempered wife and mother, but she's a little slow on the uptake. Evie's a real live-wire, and she's going nuts as a home-maker and taking everyone with her. And then there's Lester, who is a fantastic home-maker and is crippled both by his lack of ambition and a spinal cord injury. It seems that a woman is assumed to be less-than and so she belongs in the caregiving role, but in order for a man (in 1924) to give up a paying career for the work of caring for family and home, he has to have a bigger something wrong. In order for a man to be accepted by society in the home-maker role, he has to have a reason beyond his desire to nurture his family; he needs to have no other options.

In the 91 years since The Home-Maker was published, it's become more common for a man to stay at home with his children (and he doesn't need to relinquish the use of his legs to justify this choice), but it still raises eyebrows. Today it seems like both men and women have to justify their decision to give up paid work for the home-maker role. If our goal is to let people live their lives the way their hearts and intellect and individual situations tell them, we still have a long way to go.

With all of these gender roles and what happens when what our hearts pull us towards isn't one of the options society has deemed acceptable, I expected this book to be more heavy-handed than it was. Canfield Fisher does a brilliant job of taking the reader inside the minds and hearts of her characters. She doesn't say that wage-earning or home-making either one is better, but rather that each person should have the freedom to choose the path that is right for him or her. After Lester and Evangeline trade roles, Canfield Fisher shows very vividly what Evangeline loves about working at the store and what Lester loves about being at home. Each of their roles fans the spark of passion in their individual hearts, and so the situation works in a way not even imaginable before the switch.

My favorite chapter was the one in which we see what Lester loves about being home with his children. We watch him watch five-year-old Stephen trying to figure out how to use an egg beater. This struck me as very Montessori, and so I wasn't surprised to learn that Canfield Fisher is credited with bringing Montessori methods to the United States. It also struck me because one of the things I like best about being home with my children and homeschooling them is that we have the time to just be and for me to observe them just being. When I'm in the right mood, I find it transcendent to watch my children---and any child, really; I'm just around my own much more than anyone else's---identify challenges, get frustrated, and work through them to the triumph of discovery at the other side. Lester's experience watching Stephen reminded me of what wonderful things can happen when I let the to-do list go and bring my awareness to the incredible human beings with whom I share my life.

Even if you're not interested in this novel, I recommend picking it up just for Canfield Fisher's article "Marital Relations," which is reprinted in its entirety in the front of the book. (This is in the 1983 "Cassandra Edition" from Academy Chicago Publishers.) I read it and then read it aloud to my spouse, and we were both blown away, not only because it seemed so far ahead of its time (it ran in the Los Angeles Examiner in 1924), but because it was just a wonderful viewpoint. For example, Canfield Fisher suggests that the very best thing we can do for married couples is to leave them alone.

"We could let them alone; we could let them, without comment or blame, construct the sort of marriage which fits best in their particular case, rather than the sort which fits our ideas. We could leave them to struggle with a problem which, under the best circumstances, requires all their intelligence to solve, without crushing them under the weight of half-baked certainties and misquotations..."

And that's just a taste of the awesome. (I think we could totally apply this suggestion to other people's parenting choices, too.)


( )
  ImperfectCJ | Jan 25, 2015 |
The Home-Maker is a sweet but thought-provoking novel about a wife and home-maker unhappy in her role and her husband who is also unhappy in his role as the family bread-winner. Despite their good intentions, they're also both quite bad at their appointed roles. Wife and mother Eva is such a perfectionist that although she loves her 3 children dearly, she spends far more time worrying about the housework and they are not flourishing in her care. Her husband, Lester, is a sales clerk in the local department store but he hates trying to persuade people to spend money on things they don't need (as he sees it) and has not risen in the store as he should have done. The low point for the family comes when Lester is fired by the new store owner and then injures his back after falling from a roof trying to put a neighbour's fire out. The doctor eventually concludes that Lester will live, but he will never be able to walk again. With no other options left to them, Eva does the unthinkable for the 1920s, she goes to the store Lester was just fired from and gets a job leaving the children to the care of Lester and any neighbours who can help out. What surpises Eva and Lester and the whole town is that this arrangement not only works, but that the whole family flourishes under it. Eva has the natural drive and determination to be a sales person and being interested in fashion she finds it incredibly fulfilling. Lester has the patience and time to care for the children and spend time with them and they flourish under his care, their previous health problems (probably anxiety related) completely disappearing.

But this arrangement that works so well, is so unorthodox that it's only tolerated by everyone because of Lester's injury. What will become of the family if he recovers? No one could tolerate a woman going out to work if she wasn't forced to....

Being interested in gender issues and roles I found this a fascinating novel and astonishing for one published in 1924. I'd like to comment on how much progress we've made since then and in many ways we have, but the idea of the sacredness of maternity still seems to be one we're struggling with in the present day.

'These were the moments in a mother's life about which nobody ever warned you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence, the fine book and the speakers who had so much to say about the sacredness of maternity. They never told you that there were moments of arid clear sight when you saw helplessly that your children would never measure up to your standard, never would be really close to you, because these were not your kind of human beings, because they were not your children, but merely other human beings for whom you were responsible. How solitary it made you feel!' ( )
4 vote souloftherose | Oct 28, 2014 |
Set in small-town America around the time it was written, this novel explores gender roles and how they affect families, and one family in particular. Lester Knapp is an accountant for a department store; his wife, Evangeline, is a housewife raising their three children. They both perform the roles expected of them by society, yet neither is suited to their role and neither is particularly happy. When Lester is injured in an accident that leaves him home-bound, his wife goes to work—to the benefit of everyone in the family.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher gets her reader deep into the heads of her characters, so we can understand exactly what they’re like and so that we get a three-dimensional view of the situation. Even the children’s point of view is well represented—especially Stephen, aged 5, who fears having his Teddy taken away to be washed. Therefore, we get the truth of a situation without the biases of your traditional narrator and so that the reader can see exactly what’s going on under the surface. While all the characters in the novel are lovable, my favorite is Lester—a dreamy poetry lover who turns out to excel as a homemaker and discovers a new-found appreciation for his children and their talents.

Fisher believed strongly in the strength of one’s internal personal life over external considerations. And the strength of this novel is what it says about American culture in general. Small town life is famous for being busybody-like; everyone knew your business and involved themselves in it, and if you strayed away from that, you’d be ostracized. So this novel serves as a sort of criticism of that way of life and what it represents. None of the Knapp family really has the freedom to do what suits them personally; they’re all at the mercy of what society dictates. In all, an incredible novel, with the wheelchair representing how social expectations can bind us all. ( )
1 vote Kasthu | May 13, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dorothy Canfield Fisherprimary authorall editionscalculated
Knox, KarenIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Showalter, ElaineAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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She was scrubbing furiously at a line of grease spots which led from the stove towards the door to the dining-room.
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These were the moments in a mother's life about which nobody ever warned you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence, the fine book and the speakers who had so much to say about the sacredness of maternity. They never told you that there were moments of arid clear sight when you saw helplessly that your children would never measure up to your standard, never would be really close to you, because these were not your kind of human beings, because they were not your children, but merely other human beings for whom you were responsible. How solitary it made you feel!
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0953478068, Paperback)

1924. The Home Maker is as relevant today as when it first appeared. It tells the story of Evangeline Knapp, the perfect, compulsive housekeeper, whose husband, Lester, is a poet and a dreamer. Suddenly, through a nearly fatal accident, their roles are reversed: Lester is confined to home in a wheelchair and his wife must work to support the family. The changes that take place between husband and wife, parents and children, are both fascinating and poignant. See other titles by this author available from Kessinger Publishing.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:01 -0400)

Selected as one of the 500 greatest books every written by a woman, The Home-maker is a novel that will entertain and intrigue a whole new generation of readers. "Although this novel first appeared in 1924, it deals in an amazingly contemporary manner with the problems of a family in which both husband and wife are oppressed and frustrated by the roles that they are expected to play. Evangeline Knapp is the perfect, compulsive housekeeper, while her husband, Lester, is a poet and a dreamer. Suddenly, through a nearly fatal accident, their roles re reversed: Lester is confined to home in a wheelchair and his wife must work to support the family. The changes that take place between husband and wife, parents and children, are both fascinating and poignant. The characters are brought to life in a vivid, compelling way in a powerful novel more relevant now than when it was first published." - Midwest Book Review.… (more)

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