Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Lantern in Her Hand

Bess Streeter Aldrich knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote A Lantern in Her Hand (first published in 1928). Before she wrote the novel, she interviewed early settlers in Nebraska and studied historical documents and letters. Her heroine, Abbie Mackenzie Deal, follows her husband, Will, a Civil War veteran, to Nebraska, where he struggles to farm on the unforgiving prairie. Droughts and onslaughts of grasshoppers raze the fields year after year. One year the prices fall so low that the farmers burn corncobs rather than trade for coal at a loss. We often grieve for Abbie, who suffers the agony of the displaced yet struggles to emphasize small dertermined joys for the sake of her husband and five children. The landscape is barren and desolate, the endless wave of grasses get on her nerves, and she must constantly work in the sod house, saving every string and button and piece of brown paper (she eventually writes on the brown paper). She educates her children, giving them opportunities she didn't have. She cannot pursue the talents she once had (particularly singing), and is both proud and envious of her successful children.

Aldrich's understated prose in this engrossing novel matches the numbness necessary for dignity in Abbie's often dramatic life: She cannot show her feelings;

"The grasshoppers swarmed over the young waist-high corn and the pasture and the garden. By evening the long rows of sweet corn had been eaten to the plowed ground. The tender vines of the tomatoes were stripped down to the stalk. The buds of the fruit trees were gone. Part of the garden was a memory. The chickens had feasted themselves to bursting point. Gus Reinmueller, driving up to the door, could hardly control his raring houses, so irritated were they by the bouncing, thumping pests. The farm was a squirming, greenish-gray mass of them."

Aldrich, a conscientious graduate of Iowa Teachers College who had the "writing bug" (according to her son in an intro to an older versison of this book), won a writing prize from Ladies' Home Journal in 1911 and became popular in 1918 after American Magazine bought "Mother's Dash for Liberty." .Adrich moved to Nebraska with her doctor-husband in 1909 and raised her family there.

This is not a classic, perhaps, but it is a book to be cherished (it was recently reissued by University of Nebraska press). She seems a little uncertain at the beginning, but after three chapters you race through the book--and I did cry over one page.)

1 comment:

Ellen said...

This one made me think of the _Little House on the Prairie_ books, only it tells the truth. How does it compare with Willa Cather?