(Still traveling! This blog was originally published on the site www.hercircleezine.com, a great site for women writers. I hope you check it out.)
What is most remarkable about the fifteen pages of my great-grandmother’s journal—the same that inspired my novel, The Quickening—is the fact that she wrote them at all. The difficulty was not a “room of her own” phenomenon, but a matter of temperament and time. In early to mid-20th century rural Iowa, extended periods of contemplation were a luxury, “writing” was necessary only in letters to keep family connections and communicate loss or gain, and further expressions of grief or joy were considered taboo. Not to mention the trouble of light: a farm wife worked from dawn to dusk, squinting to finish her evening mending. Electricity didn’t reach most Midwestern farms until the mid to late 40’s, gas lanterns were expensive and rare, and kerosene lamps so dim a person had to light a match to see that the lamp was burning, let alone detect the outline of a page. In any case, no one likely had the energy to pick up a pencil once the chores were done.
But rob a woman in her seventies of her husband of some fifty years, and she might just find the time and reason to write. Perhaps my life, she starts, and that of my dear husband has meant little or nothing to anyone except to us and our immediate family. My great-grandmother’s account is a summary at best, often skipping over significant circumstances. At one point, after explaining one of her husband’s illnesses, she writes: I told him I would have to stop taking care of him for a little while because I had to give birth to our daughter. I laughed when I first read these lines, but they are more than serious. A person couldn’t stop time for long to tend to human nature. And make too much of any personal triumph or tragedy and the neighbors will think you loony.
Some of the events in the journal seem outlandish: My great-grandfather suffered from “Typhus Malaria Fever,” a disease that does not exist; my great-grandmother cured herself of tuberculosis by wearing “kerosene and turpentine close to my chest”; and a “meteorite” presumably crashed near their farm, setting the land afire and smashing windows “for miles around.” I found no evidence of this meteorite. For the novel, I borrowed only a handful of the journal’s events, but still the meteorite kept making its way in. Luckily, first-person narration offers plenty of license, especially if one of your narrators is a religious fanatic and considers extreme astronomical occurrences an act of God.
But more important were the journal’s omissions. A recent Amazon review faulted the novel for “stopping just short of allowing [the characters] burning lust, religious fervor, bright bursts of joy, cold fear, maternal love, screaming grief….” Of course, “stopping short” was my point—and my dilemma. In a contemporary world where women are required to play the emotional outlet, how does a writer express a different kind of female temperament, an older kind that prefers patience and restraint, private suffering and public strength? Are such women to be considered stunted or resilient?
In itself, my great-grandmother’s decision to write about her life is the greatest demonstration of her grief. And when one of my characters gives birth to long-wished for twins, only quiet can express her confusion of joy and fear: “They were small and weak and stayed with the doctor for longer than any mother should bear. Enidina sat with Frank in the back row of the church, holding on to herself. Her cheeks were doughy and full, her mouth showed hints of a smile, but in her eyes was an inward look that said she was trying not to think of anything at all—not of how she could lose them, not of how something might still go wrong. She sat in the church and held her own, wishing the time would soon pass for any such thinking to be possible.”
My great-grandmother’s journal is significant because of this duality. For the most part, the pages show her determination, persistence, and toughness. Yet after I finished the last sentence, I realized I’d never before heard a family member cry out with such loneliness. I myself have tried to explain and defend what I consider a very Midwestern temperament ever since my move out east. I carry this temperament with me, both admire and try to break from it. In the novel as in its inspiration, extreme emotion is simply not allowed. Upbringing and values, family and town, even the surrounding landscape all support this resistance. When the more stoic of my narrators keeps to bed after the loss of another child, the neighbor women scold her, ““Get up, this is no way.” My narrator responds, “I couldn’t tell one voice from the next, only that what they said was true.”
I’ve got plenty of light and more time than my forebears. I’ve had none of the troubles others might in using a family journal. Most of the early players are buried, and my extended family nod their heads when I read the book to them. If anything, the novel has brought me closer to a large group of cousins, many still farmers themselves. For me, this was an unexpected gift, and something I hope my great-grandmother would be proud of.