Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield

by Dorothy Canfield
Harcourt-Brace & Co., 1924
Reprint 1996, Academy Chicago Publishers
320 pages

Back of the book blurb:

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. The Home-Maker is one of those "time lost" novels whose recovery will entertain and intrigue whole new generations of readers.

My thoughts:

From the very beginning, that old expression "You’ve come a long way, Baby!" kept running through my mind. Strict, inflexible ideals of 1920’s society dictated ‘appropriate’ familial roles. A wife was expected to remain home and attend to all domestic concerns, while her husband ventured out into the world to provide for his family. Adhering to these ideals was virtually draining the life from the Knapp family. My heart ached for Evangeline (Eva) Knapp, her husband Lester, and for their children, as each one strove to fulfill these expectations.

Canfield starts by focusing on Eva, who is utterly oppressed in her role as a home-maker:

“What was her life? A hateful round of housework, which, hurry as she might, was never done. How she loathed housework! The sight of a dishpan full of dishes made her feel like screaming out. And what else did she have? Loneliness; never-ending monotony; blank, gray days, one after another, full of drudgery. No rest from the constant friction over the children’s carelessness and forgetfulness and childishness! How she hated childishness!" (page 47)

Lester, a poet at heart, is equally unfulfilled in his office job at Willing’s Emporium.

“…the accursed matter of punctuality had once more frozen out a human relationship. He never had time to know his children, to stalk and catch that exquisitely elusive bird-of-paradise, their confidence. Lester had long ago given up any hope of having time enough to do other things that seemed worth while, to read the books he liked, to meditate, to try to understand anything. But it did seem that in the matter if his own children…” (page 70)

The two elder children, weak and timid, suffer from various physical ailments, while Stephen, the youngest, is robust, wild and utterly unmanageable. These physical ailments, from Eva’s eczema to Lester’s digestive troubles, seem to serve as an indicator of hard times ahead.

“[Eva’s eczema] was spreading. It was worse. It would never be any better. It was like everything else.” (page 46)

The situation reaches a crisis when Lester loses his job and contemplates suicide. On the way home, an accident occurs that leaves Lester confined to a wheelchair. Eva must get a job to support the family. What follows is Canfield’s masterful portrayal, in clear, simple prose, of how each family member responds to this change of situation. As health concerns gradually fade, all seem to come truly alive for the first time. The insight into the effects of societal pressure is breath-taking.

My rating for The Home-Maker is a perfect 5/5.


  1. Wow...this is a fantastic review. I had already put this book on my list tbr list because of the other times you have mentioned it but this review really solidified my desire to read it. The first quote you chose made me laugh. I don't loathe housework but I have had that same urge to scream (not over dishes but over piles of stuff left on the floor...grrr). And the quote about Lester really made me stop and think for a minute. I will definitely be reading this book. The question is when.

  2. BookPsmith,
    Thank you! I wrote a review last week, but just wasn't happy with it, so I put it aside and decided to try again. I don't usually write in my books, but I wrote all over this one - underlining quotes, etc. I really think Canfield got it right....the transformation these characters went through was spot on! I'll look forward to your thoughts when you do get to it.

    BTW, I like the new photo that appears with your comments!

  3. I've had my eye on this (thanks to Persephone). What a great review! I really must read this one.

  4. Tara,
    I first saw this is the Persephone catalog, too. It was on my Christmas list and my husband bought a paperback from amazon....I guess I should have been more specific ;-)

  5. This books sounds riveting! Lately I feel the need to read books that really evoke strong emotions and this one sounds like it does just that. Fabulous review JoAnn!

  6. Thanks, Darlene. If you're looking for strong emotions, then this book should do nicely!

  7. JoAnn, I always thought that his accident was done 'accidentally on purpose'. Wasn't it a miracle that heh didn't die? I was fascinated in how their enforced role reversal worked for both of them; each was far more comfortable in the other's shoes.

    This novel struck a personal note with me as well. While my father definiely would not appreciate anything but the most masculine role, my mother is far too talented and creative to be only at home. Her frustration was clearly felt by me as a child, as I could sense her yearnings for more adventure/purpose once her home was set to her satisfaction. An outstanding cook and designer, I've always felt a little sad that she couldn't achieve more of the dreams she's harbored inside.

    I'm so glad to read your review and thoughts. My personal copy was one I'd ordered from Persephone, but it's nice to know that you can buy a paperback here in the States as well! Great review, JoAnn.

  8. um...sorry about the typos. It's the end of the day teaching some squirrely kids anxious for summer. A bit like their teacher. ;)

  9. Bellezza,

    I think you're right about the 'accident'. Lester certainly had nothing to lose by climbing up there and it was a miracle that he survived!

    I loved how Canfield focused on one character per chapter. The transformation each went through was truly amazing.

    There must have been many women at the time that felt as Eva did. Even our own mother's lives were strongly influenced by these pressures. I now contrast this with my husband's brother - a writer who works at home and cares for the boys, while his wife (a lawyer) is the main wage-earner.

    I still would like to order a copy from Persephone....but I wouldn't mark it up like I did the paperback!

  10. Great review; The Home Maker is one of the Persephones that I have most wanted to buy (along with another 6-20!)

  11. Paperback Reader,
    I just discovered Persephone last fall...where have I been?? My wish list is a mile long now. I just loved this book!

  12. I only discovered Persephone last Spring but I would hate to be without them!

    Have you read The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield Fisher? It's a Virago and I own it but haven't read it as yet; it's quite highly regarded amongst Viragoites.

  13. Paperback Reader,
    I haven't read any of her other books yet, but I will certainly look for The Brimming Cup.


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