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.

Reading, Reviews

A Few Great Mid-century Midwestern Books

Most of the posts I’ve written so far have focused on recently released literature (well, at least released in the last five years).  While I like to read new releases and be one of the first to discover great books, most of the books I really love have been around for 50-100 years. Or more. Just that smell of old pages between hardback covers makes me smile deep down inside.  Last fall, I read two great books written in the mid-1900s and set in the mid-west: Heat Lightning by Helen Hull and Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker.

photo Heat Lightning follows the journey of Amy Norton, a 35-year-old wife and mother of two, as she travels from her home in New York to visit her family and hometown in the midwest.  She is basically having a mid-life crisis.  Her kids are old enough to be independent (during the book, they’re at summer camp) and her husband has been distant and is camping while she travels. At the beginning of the book, you meet the Westovers, Amy’s family, who live in the small town where Amy grew up. I felt like I knew them as soon as they were introduced. Helen Hull did character descriptions and development so well.  Forgive me for throwing Downton Abbey into this post that really has nothing to do with Downton Abbey, but if you’re a fan of that show, Madame Westover will remind you of Dowager Countess. She is the book’s best character. As the plot moves forward, the Westovers and their endearing characters and family relationships becoming the heart of the book.  However, a careful reader can see Amy’s spirit returning as she figures her past and present out at the same time.

Rachel of the Book Snob blog wrote that Heat Lightning “certainly should be a classic of ordinary American life.” Now, take into consideration that she is British. =) But I enjoy her book reviews and share some of her book tastes, which is why I decided I had to read Heat Lightning. The only publisher currently releasing it is Persephone, but I got mine used on Amazon.   There are several themes, all well developed, but all very subtle. You could miss them completely if you’re just reading the book for its plot, which is, frankly, not exactly gripping (and that’s fine by me).  One theme pointed out in the Persephone edition’s preface by Patricia McClelland Miller is “how can women flourish when they are expected to make most of the adjustments in situations which really require the efforts of both men and women?” I don’t know if I noticed that theme as much as I noticed the theme of reconciling your childhood home with the home you set out to make with your husband and children.  However, I can think back on the number of couples introduced throughout the book and the life transitions each couple was navigating, and I think I’d like to re-read the book and focus on how Hull presents the husband-wife relationship. All in all, the book is both realistic and favorable when presenting marriage relationships. It kind of reminded me of Ilyrian Spring by Ann Bridge.

The theme that permeates almost all midwestern literature is that of town versus country. The characters are firmly planted in the farmland or rural town where they are born, but dream of something that they think must be greater (the city). Or they’ve been to the city but realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and there’s a part of them that will never be at home unless they’re in the rural setting they came from. The town vs. country debate is a part of Heat Lightning, but it is more central to the plot in Winter Wheat. 

Winter WheatEllen Webb is a girl on the cusp of something totally new and great to her: college in a big city. That is, if the winter wheat crop is good. She has lived on a wheat farm in Montana her whole life with her East Coast father and Russian mother. Her parents met in World War II and they don’t seem to have much in common from Ellen’s perspective. Their relationship is the crux of the book. Ellen tries to reconcile her identity and the direction of her life through her parents’ relationship. She wants to discover that her parents truly love one another, but the more Ellen learns, the more discouraged she feels about love in general and the love that created her. Also, Ellen has a hard time figuring out where she really comes from. She longs to understand and appreciate her roots, but she only knows Montana. I enjoyed following Ellen’s perspective as it went through different seasons of being completely attached to detached to her home and her family. She loves them, she hates them, she wants to understand them, she wants to get away from them.  Along with the importance of figuring out where you’re really from,  the responsibility of a girl to make her own way in the world in the post-war culture is a very prominent idea. Mildred Walker gave Ellen Webb a strong voice and character. Even when Ellen is troubled and directionless, I just knew she would fight her way through to be strong and ready to reach for a life she wants to live. The tone of the book was kind of lonely, as there are so few characters that really play into the plot or have much dialogue. I’ve never been to Montana, but I think the loneliness of the story and the setting are key to the book’s themes.

I enjoyed both of these books, but I liked Heat Lightning the best out of the two. Hull’s thoughtful, tender writing is beautiful and I can’t wait to find another one of her books.

The Magic of Ordinary DaysAnd if you’re not into “older” books but think a novel set in the midwest in the 1930s or 40s sounds like just the kind of book you want to read, check out Ann Howard Creel’s The Magic of Ordinary Days. Written in 2001 and made into a Hallmark movie in 2005, I think it’s a beautiful book. It also explores themes like the loneliness and simplicity of mid-western farming and the importance of relationships that are built and tried by hardships and how they hold up or break down. I have already read it twice and will probably read it again someday.

Happy reading!

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