Reading, Reviews

Thoughts on Helen Hull’s Islanders

I looked forward to reading Islanders for months before I could get my hands on a copy. Our public libraries have no Helen Hull, and even my alma mater, a women’s liberal arts college, doesn’t have her in its library. I see that as a gross oversight. After reading Heat Lightning, I decided Helen Hull was an overlooked great writer. After reading Islanders, it has become clear to me she is an overlooked champion of the women’s movement. Reading the biographical information in the afterward by Patricia McLelland Miller confirmed that Hull was openly feminist. As a graduate of an English program steeped in feminist writing, reading this kind of book feels a little like coming home. Granted, it’s the kind of home you come home to but still have issues with. But I can still enjoy a good women’s movement book. Though I am not qualified to write a real review of  Islanders, here are some thoughts on the book.

Islanders~The Plot~ Islanders centers on the life of Ellen Dacey. The novel opens with the men in Ellen’s life leaving to on a quest for gold in California. The women are left to bear the brunt of the men’s questing, keeping the farm running and the family strong. Ellen is strongly opposed to her sweetheart’s leaving, but he goes despite her protests. The book follows Ellen’s life from this point to the end of her life. Through this stretch of years, Hull details how thwarted Ellen and the women around her are in their search for significance in the world. From mothers to aunts to daughters to nieces to wives, the portrayal of women in this novel is discouraging. Each one is trapped in a separate world, an island of men’s making where women must live. Ellen travels through life understanding that she is at the mercy of men in her life. She remains strong throughout the novel and readers may admire her strength, but she also remains bitter. She weathers many storms and changes in her life, making her a somewhat relatable character. Her life is hard, but she does her best to share wisdom with the people she thinks have a chance to use it to become more than she could.

~What I liked~I enjoy Hull’s writing style. It is very plain and pointed, but eloquent still. Her characters in Islanders are like the writing: stark, plain, and strong. Even the weaker characters have a strong presence in the novel. Each character adds to the overall meaning. I  thought it was interesting to see the progression of someone living in the midwest to the East Coast, but the settings didn’t make all that much difference because the whole point of the book was to show how isolated women are. Where they live doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot in the women’s lives. I also liked all the nature symbolism. I can really get into symbolism if I’m not careful. =)

~What I didn’t like~There was so much stark, narrative honesty on the motives for each character’s actions, I came to dislike more than like every one of the characters. The only character I really liked was John Thurston, Ellen’s nephew,  though not her favorite nephew. He acted on purer motives and showed sacrificial love unlike anyone else in the book, aside from maybe Ellen’s mother, Martha, and Ellen at times. In an interesting twist that shows how Ellen herself bought into the popular thinking on what successful manhood is, Ellen loved her handsome, charismatic nephew, Rob, best of all. When Rob becomes an adult, she sees how the control and charm he exhibits as a child and then a man is a way he gets what he wants out of life. She then appreciates and respects the quiet, thoughtful yet tenacious younger brother more for his eschewing of traditional success and choosing from his heart in his marriage and his career. He is the only truly decent male character in the whole book. Otherwise, the men are domineering and money-minded and the women are weak. There is hope at the end of the book that Ellen’s great niece, Anne, will “get off the island” and be a strong person, at least inwardly.

While the book is a great piece of writing and very thought provoking, I felt I was reading a skewed perspective on life. I am glad that things have changed since the 1850-1920 period and that the patriarchal family structure is not stifling as it once was. Still, I can’t come to grips with the way Hull portrayed all women as thwarted and unhappy. Her agenda seems a bit too heavy handed in this book, and I doubt it is a true picture of all women in that time period. There isn’t a clear picture of what Hull believes a woman should be or what situations are right for them. The women who are mothers in the book are discontented. One dulls her pain with overeating and another with finery. One woman who cannot become the wife and mother she longs (and is expected) to be drives herself into a fantasy world and eventually into death. The most loving mother and independent woman in the book dies young. Education leaves one woman right where she was before college. You get the idea? All women in this book are unhappy. My question remains “what would make the women happy?” True love? None of the marriages are portrayed in a happy light. What will bring these women satisfaction? Independence? Maybe. The closest Ellen gets to joy is loving the children in her life. I’m left only with the rather unsatisfying idea that inner strength is the answer to being a complete person. Ellen often looks at the earth, from when she was on farmland to when she lived on the seashore, as a symbol of resilience and strength. Mother Earth becomes a symbol for what women’s strength should be like: deep, subtle, but always present and constant despite the world of men.

Perhaps I live in a world too different from Ellen’s to argue with Hull’s interpretation of a woman’s life. Still, Islanders did not sit well with me. I was fascinated by the view into the world of women in the 1800s/early1900s, but I have a hard time believing every woman was as unfulfilled as the Dacey women. I now would love to read some diaries of women of the time and see what their thoughts and feelings were on their positions in life. I’m grateful for my freedoms now, grateful that women can make their own way, but at this stage in my life, I find my life’s work and passion in my family. Perhaps I am happy to be an Islander.

If you enjoy learning about  the early feminist movement and its literature, or have a background in/love for early 20th century literature, you need to read Islanders. And then you need to come back and tell me what you think. Though I didn’t wholly enjoy the story line, the writing is the work of a true master of words. And I am thankful for a book that requires its readers to think hard about where true significance in life lies.

Everyday Life, Reading

The Wednesday Sisters and Thoughts on How to Focus

This morning, my two-year-old son woke up at 5:50. I heard him whimpering a bit in his bed, but held my breath for a few seconds, hoping he’d go back to sleep. He did. I, however, did not. Instead, I  promptly rolled over and reached for my Nook, because I was dying to finish The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton. By 6:30, I was done. It was such a great book, but for some different reasons than the ones I usually like books for.

The Wednesday SistersThe book was written from the point of view of Frankie O’Mara, wife of a technological genius, who has moved to Palo Alto, California in 1967 to pursue what would later be known as the Silicon Valley computer boom. Frankie meets “The Wednesday Sisters” in the neighborhood park. They are, of course, really not sisters, but a group of women who live in the same neighborhood and have secret literary ambitions. Or at least, most of them do and the others join in because they are talked into it. The group of women is diverse in a way that makes you think “this could only happen in a book.” Somehow, that aspect didn’t ruin the book for me because it was crucial to the story. I gained some insight about that time period in the late ’60’s when so much about the American culture was changing. Sure, I learned about the feminist movement at the women’s liberal arts college I went to, where we were required to take an entire class on feminism. This book, though, made me realize what it was like to be a woman watching all of these changes happen around her.

The Wednesday Sisters are not openly feminists. Besides Linda, the activist of the group, they are slightly fearful of the women protesters they see on TV. But as the book goes on, the characters in the book, and I as the reader, came to understand a little bit more about why changes were inevitable and some of them very necessary. For example, women’s healthcare was downright scary. Breast cancer was not understood very well and even survivors were crippled after treatment. Infertility was a huge mystery. Premature babies didn’t live very long. Besides the healthcare issue, there were many other ideas that I’m glad changed, such as the one that particularly bothered me, the idea that women who participated in sports were unfeminine.

Politically, I’m not a true feminist in the current day. For starters, I’m pro-life. I may agree with some “feminist” stances, but mostly, no. But I live in a culture that smiles on a stay-at-home mom typing out a manuscript in her spare time, and that claps for women who run marathons, and that really doesn’t take Miss America pageants very seriously anymore (if you do, forgive me, but most people I know don’t). I played sports in high school. I cut my hair short without anyone blinking an eye. These are some freedoms that I take for granted. I have a few opinions about some bad effects the feminist movement had on America. For example, while no one frowns on me for having literary aspirations, many frown on me for choosing to stay at home with my beloved children instead of pursuing a career and “using my education.” That’s an opposite extreme we’re dealing with now. But that’s not what The Wednesday Sisters made me realize. It helped me appreciate some good things about 1960s feminism, even if I have mixed emotions and thoughts about the evolution of feminism and what it is today.

A few things I didn’t enjoy about the book were the descriptions of some marital relations between husbands and wives. I could’ve done without that. I understand the author intended to portray some important ideas about men’s and women’s marriage roles in that time period. I just don’t like that kind of stuff to be in books. There’s a Victorian lady hiding somewhere inside of me, I think. So if you, too, could do without that sort of thing, skip over those pages, but know that it is only a tiny part of the book.

Even with all these historical revelations, the thing about this book that hit me the hardest was something that was not very central to the story. It was this: typewriters.

These women were full time mothers and they didn’t have dishwashers or clothes dryers or all sorts of luxuries we have now, yet they churned out short stories and novels. How did they do that? The answer is focus. They were focused on their goals. Here’s what Frankie says,

I suppose what we did was park our butts down and write any moment and any place our children were otherwise occupied. We got up early and wrote while our households slept. We carried journals and pens and even manuscripts in our purses, and if the children fell asleep in the car on the way to the grocery store, we sat with our writing propped up against the steering wheel, scribbling quietly, careful not to inadvertently honk the horn. We grabbed every minute we could, hoping it might turn out to be five minutes or ten, or maybe an hour if we were lucky. And even when it was frustrating and we didn’t like what we wrote, even when we were just jotting down thoughts about a day that had not gone well, there was joy in it…”

I write like that, I guess, but here’s what I also do: sit down on the computer and write a sentence or two, and then check Facebook. Or I start working on a proofreading project for a while, but then I check the weather. And my e-mail account. And my RSS feed. And then, before I know it, 30 minutes have gone by and I have only written two sentences or only proofread half a page. But it’s a whole different matter when I sit down with my journal. I can write pages and pages there and not realize how fast the time has gone. I know I can’t blame all my focus problems on my trusty laptop, but the distractions are hard to ignore.

Earlier today, I was thinking about how distracted I am in comparison to Frankie and the other Wednesday Sisters. I was wishing for a typewriter like Frankie had–a tool with nothing on it but letters to punch into pages of words. So I determined that I would open the proofreading project I’m working on and focus solely on it for 30 minutes straight. The difficulty of that task is a sad commentary on the state of my mind. After five minutes, I became kind of twitchy, my fingers itching to pick up my i-phone or click over to my web browser. At ten minutes, I had to grit my teeth. Fifteen minutes into it, I was actually feeling kind of panicky. Panicky! But after a few deep breaths (ridiculous!), I got into a groove and the proofreading came pretty easily for the next fifteen minutes. And when I did check my e-mail, Facebook, whatever else, I had missed absolutely nothing. Not one thing.

The Wednesday Sisters helped me think in a new way about the 1960s in America, but what I really appreciate is the insight into how distracted and unfocused I am. I can’t go back to a less media-infiltrated time, but I can make choices. For me, it’s going to come down to practice. I plan to determine times when I will and won’t check e-mail, Facebook, etc. I need to keep it separate. I know the technology available to me is helpful in many ways, but I have to work on how distracted I am by it. I’m looking forward to reading  Sarah Mae’s The Unwired Mom for some more perspective on being a more focused person. It’s free right now on her website, if you want to pop over there and sign up for it. And read The Wednesday Sisters, too! Then come back and tell me what you liked or didn’t like or learned from it.

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