The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

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the_home-maker_classicFiction – print. Persephone Books, 2011. Originally published 1924. 288 pgs. Purchased.

 Evangeline Knapp threw herself into motherhood, obsessively monitoring the food her three children eat and keeping every spec of dirt out of the family’s home. Her eldest son, Henry, is unable to eat foods cooked by his aunt because they don’t match the delicate balance his mother has made to aid his delicate constitution. Her youngest son, Stephen, screams, hid, and is generally considered an unruly child.

When Mrs. Knapp’s husband, Lester, is injured and unable to work, she has to take on a job as a stock girl for her husband’s former employer, the local department store. But the opportunity to work allows Mrs. Knapp to flourish; her keen eye for detail and ability to memorize the contents of the stock room like she once did for her pantry are celebrated by her employer in a way that her family never did.

And, as much as the community tuts over the poor Knapp children no longer having their mother at home, the role reversal allows every child in the Knapp household plus their father to thrive. Stephen’s tantrums subside as his father takes the time to understand the root cause of the child’s anger. Henry’s “outgrows” his delicate stomach condition, finally able to eat and play like all the other little boys in the neighborhood.

And Lester, once derided by the ladies in the neighborhood as an unfortunate person to be saddled to, readily takes on the role of “home-maker” and finds that his love of English literature is appreciated more at home than it ever was in the workforce. His boss used to say his head was too in the clouds for bookkeeping, but his children love the imaginative stories he tells.

This is the most domestic novel of the fourteen titles published by Persephone Books that I’ve read so far. Although there are sections dedicated to following Mrs. Knapp at work, the story is almost entirely focused on the home and the chores required to keep a home running smoothly.

And yet, in between explanations on how a paralyzed Lester keeps the floors clean, there are some truly magical moments as the children discover how to complete rather mundane chores. The Knapps’ only daughter, Helen, figures out how to crack an egg without leaving any of the shell behind. She is so delighted, so proud of herself that the reader can’t help but smile. And both the reader and Lester watch with bated breath as young Stephen figures out how to operate a hand-cranked whisk for the first time. It’s hard not to cheer aloud for his accomplishment.

For me, though, the most touching moment is when Stephen is told by his father that he enjoys spending time with him. The little boy is so overcome by emotion that he flees in search of solitude in order to process these new emotions.

It is this scene where Fisher’s view of her novel as advocating for children’s rights rather than as a feminist text becomes apparent. Of course, children should be cherished and cheered on by their parents!

But this fact can be undermined by rigid gender roles, which restrict a father’s access to his children by moving him out of the home while simultaneously insisting that women as the only ones who can emotionally relate to or understand children.

And, in that regard, it’s hard not to see the novel as also a feminist one, despite Fisher rejecting that particular label. The oppression of Evangeline (and Lester) badly impacts her family; it is only when their roles reverse – when the non-gendered title of “home-maker” passes from mother to father – that the whole family begins to thrive. It is a message that was ahead of its time in the 1920s, but one I enjoyed rehearing from my non-home-maker position in 2019.

This is my twentieth – and final! – book for #20BooksofSummer. I purchased my copy directly from the publisher in October 2014. Fisher’s novel was reissued as part of the Persephone Classics collection, which presents twelve of Persephone Books’ bestsellers in more ‘bookshop-friendly’ editions (i.e. with pictures on the front).

The endpaper in these editions are printed in greyscale, so the 1920s Warner silk derived from a French fabric based on medieval tapestries is presented without the fabric’s original yellow and pink coloring. The fabric is described as two birds “facing each other and away from each other – as in marriage, they are both coupled and confrontational”.

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