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A Lantern in her Hand (1928) (Part 1)

Bess Streeter Aldrich, 1881-1954


THE STORY BEHIND A LANTERN IN HER HAND

By Bess Streeter Aldrich

When the editor of Christian Herald asked me to write the story behind the story of "A Lantern in Her Hand," it seemed an easy assignment.  Here at my desk several weeks later the task does not look so simple.  For the roots of a writer's work in creating characters often go deep into the garden soil of his own life.  So the article must contain something of my childhood, for it was then that I began, all unconsciously, to gather material for this book.

The child of middle-aged parents, I was the last of a family of eight, born after they had moved from their Iowa farm into the college town of Cedar Falls, so I was not a farm child and never knew at first hand any of the experiences in the story.  There was a great deal of talk and laughter in that childhood home, for many relatives were always coming and going, uncles and aunts who had been sturdy pioneers there on the Cedar River when the state was new.

My grandfather, Zimri Streeter, had arrived in Blackhawk County with his big family in 1852, when there was no railroad west of the Mississippi and the crossing of the river was made by ferry boat.

He built a sturdy log cabin, sheltered his neighbors during an Indian scare or two, and turned the virgin sod.  Dipping into the politics of the new county, he was elected to the first legislature after the capital was moved from its territorial status in Iowa City to the little new Des Moines.  Because of his dry wit he was called "the wag of the House," and undoubtedly he was a reactionary, for there is an old letter still in existence which says he believes he "did more settin' on unwise measures than anybody in the House."

A dozen years later, at the time of the second Lincoln election, he was appointed by Governor Kirkwood to go down into Georgia and bring back the Iowa soldiers' votes.  He was sixty-four years old then, and when he got back to Atlanta he found the city burning, all communication to the north severed, and he had to march along with Sherman to the sea.  There is a story to the effect that in all the hardships he had to undergo, sometimes foraging for food from the fields, his only complaint when he got back was that he had lost his hat.

All these tales of hardy old Zimri floated around my childish ears whenever his rather garrulous clan got together.

Mother's family came to the county two years later than father's people.  At eighteen she drove one of the teams all the way out from Illinois.  Sometimes she would recall the scenes of that trip: the ferrying across the Mississippi, the horses and oxen plunging up and down the bridgeless creekbeds, the tipping over of one of the wagons with the eight precious sacks of flour slipping into the water and the feather pillows floating down stream like so many geese, while the younger children chased after them with hilarious laughter.  She would tell the happenings merrily as though there had been no hardships at all.  The camping on the edge of the woods, the sounds of the night winds, the odors of the prairie grass--all these she pictured so clearly that I could almost see and hear and smell them myself.

So the pictures she drew for me verbally became a part of my knowledge, even though they had happened so many years before I was born.  And with no possible foresight on my part of how they were to be used one day in stories, they seemed to belong in my own memories.

Mother was a high-minded woman, a lover of good literature even though her own schooling had ended in a log schoolhouse.  She was a person who found joy in little things--to whom a cloud floating across the blue was a poem--to whom the twilight chirp of robins was a prayer.  In those early days of hard work after starting the new home with my father, she must have been torn between her love of the finer things of life and the menial tasks her hands were forced to do.  And being so torn, she did what many another pioneer woman did: she lifted her eyes to the hills while her hands performed their humble labors.

When she was in her eighties, she once related some pioneer experiences about the snow sifting through the chinks of the cabin and making grotesque figures on the bed quilts.  In a moment of sympathy I remarked that we daughters were sorry her life had been hard in her pioneering days, that it seemed unfair that we now should live in an easier era with all its modern conveniences.  She looked at me with an odd little expression and said:  "Oh, save your pity.  We had the best time in the world."

I thought of it many times after she was gone--that I would like to do a story of that type of woman.  Other writers had depicted the Midwest's early days, but so often they had pictured their women as gaunt, browbeaten creatures, despairing women whom life seemed to defeat.  That was not my mother.  Not with her courage, her humor, her nature that would cause her to say at the end of a long life: "We had the best time in the world."

So my desire was first, to catch in the pages of a book the spirit of such a woman, and second, historical accuracy.  Almost before the outline of the book was formulated, I named this main character Abbie Deal, a name which seemed from the first to fit her.  The fictitious character, Abbie Deal, might have lived anywhere.  She might have traveled into the Mohawk Valley in another era.  She might have gone with her husband into the wheatlands of Dakota, onto a Montana ranch, into the orchard country of the Northwest.

But the natural choice of settings was the Iowa and Nebraska backgrounds known to me.

Probably the question most often put to me in the twenty- three years since Abbie Deal was pictured in "A Lantern In Her Hand" has been, "Was she your own mother?"  The answer is yes and no.  With all the above introduction to my mother's character, it is easy to see that she was with me in spirit all of the time I was at work.

But in the physical realm, that pioneering in Nebraska, she was not Abbie Deal.  For mother never came to Nebraska until she was in her seventies, when she moved here with us to live out her days.  And as I never lived in Nebraska until after my marriage, whatever knowledge I have of the pioneer days has been obtained from old people who did live there in an earlier day.  Some of them were still living when the book was written, none of those who helped me are now alive.  It was only the authentic historical material that I lacked for the story, as those childhood memories of my own hardy forebears gave the keys to the pioneer character.

Three books of mine had been published previously and I was under contract to my publishers for another one when I came to the decision to do that pioneer mother story which had been dormant in my mind for so long.  Because one of the previous books, "The Rim of the Prairie," had pictured a pioneer couple among its cast of characters, the editor of the Nebraska State Journal asked me to give a talk over the radio on "The Pioneer in Fiction."  Twentyfive years ago that was something of a pioneering event in itself, and I remember how my family all trailed over to a neighbor doctor's home to hear me, his radio being the only one in town.  At the close of that rather nervous talk into the unfamiliar mechanism, I asked all those listening who had any anecdotes concerning the early days here in Nebraska, and who were interested in having them incorporated into a novel, to send them to my home.

Expecting perhaps a half dozen or so responses, I was amazed to see the letters, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, and diaries which almost swamped me.  In addition to this, there were the interviews with many old people closer at hand.

For fourteen months I worked among that material sent me and the notes from the interviews, the actual writing took only five months.  The necessity for the lengthy preparation was the rambling nature of those letters and interviews, as they jumped blithely from one subject to another and one year to another without regard to sequence of events, making one huge jigsaw puzzle.  So it took that long to prepare anecdotes and events in their correct succession of time.  So thorough had been this sorting into containers for each year of the story that when the actual writing began I could pick up any chapter and work on it, be it fourteen, five or eleven.  A certain reward for this rather painstaking process is the fact that the book has been used for years as supplementary reading in history classes, through an educational edition with questions at the end of chapters.

"A Lantern in Her Hand" was written to please no one but my own consciousness of the character of many of those pioneer mothers.

It was written in the so-called "mad twenties" when most of the best-selling books were about sophistication, flaming youth, or farflung countries.  There was some youth in it, but not of the flaming type.  There was no sophistication, for Abbie Deal was of the soil.  There was not even diversity of scene, for Abbie was only a homemaker.

"Lantern" seemed destined to be lost in the wave of the popular type of the times.  That it has made new friends each year since that day might be a bit of a lesson for young writers.  _Regardless of the popular literary trend of the times, write the thing which lies close to your heart._

INTRODUCTION

Cedartown sits beside a great highway which was once a buffalo trail.  If you start in one direction on the highway--and travel far enough--you will come to the effete east.  If you start in the opposite direction--and travel a few hundred miles farther--you will come to the distinctive west.  Cedartown is neither effete nor distinctive, nor is it even particularly pleasing to the passing tourist.  It is beautiful only in the eyes of those who live here and in the memories of the Nebraska-born whose dwelling in far places has given them moments of homesickness for the low rolling hills, the swell and dip of the ripening wheat, the fields of sinuously waving corn and the elusively fragrant odor of alfalfa.

There are weeks when drifting snow and sullen sleet hold the Cedartown community in their bitter grasp.  There are times when hot winds come out of the southwest and parch it with their feverish breath.  There are periods of monotonous drouth and periods of dreary rain; but between these onslaughts there are days so perfect, so filled with clover odors and the rich, pungent smell of newly turned loam, so sumac-laden and apple-burdened, that to the prairie-born there are no others as lovely by mountain or lake or sea.

The paved streets of Cedartown lie primly parallel over the obliterated tracks of the buffalo.  The substantial buildings of Cedartown stand smartly over the dead ashes of Indian campfires.

There are very few people left now in the community who have seen the transition,--who have witnessed the westward trek of the last buffalo, the flicker of the last burnt-out ember.

Old Abbie Deal was one of these.

Just outside the corporate limits of Cedartown stands the old Deal home.  It was once a farm-house, but the acreage around it has been sold, and Cedartown has grown out to meet it, so that a newcomer could not know where the town ceased and the country began.

The house stands well back from the road in a big yard with a long double row of cedars connecting the formal parlor entrance and the small front gate.  However, in the days when the Deals lived there, scarcely any one used the little gate, or walked up the grassy path between the cedars.  All comers chose to enter by the wide carriagegate standing hospitably open and beckoning a welcome to the lane road which runs past a row of Lombardy poplars to the sitting-room porch.

The house itself is without distinction.  There were no architects in the community when the first of its rooms were built.  "We'll have the living-room there and the kitchen here," one told old Asy Drumm.  And old Asy, with few comments and much tobacco-chewing, placed the living-room there and the kitchen here.  The result was weatherproof, sturdy and artless.  When the country was new, homes, like dresses, were constructed more for wearing qualities than beauty.

Twice, onto the first wing-and-ell, old Asy, a little more glum and tobacco-stained, added a room, until the house had attained its present form.  That form, now, is not unlike an aeroplane which has settled down between the cedars at the front and the cottonwood wind-break in the rear.  The parlor, protruding toward the road, might contain the engine.  The sitting-room to the left and a bedroom to the right seem the wings, while the dining-room, kitchen, and a summer kitchen beyond, trail out like the long tail of the thing.  If one's imagination is keen he can even fancy that the fan-shaped colored-glass window in the parlor may some day begin to whirl, propeller-like, and the whole house rise up over the cedars.

The interior of the house, during Abbie Deal's lifetime, was a combination of old-fashioned things which she had accumulated through the years, and modern new ones which the grown children had given her.  A dull-finished, beautifully-proportioned radio cabinet stood opposite a homemade, rudely painted what-not.  A kitchen table, with a little declivity in one corner, in which old Doc Matthews had rolled pills in Civil War times, stood near a white enameled case which was the last word in refrigeration.  A little crude oil-painting of a prairie sunset, which Abbie Deal had done in the 'seventies, hung across the room from a really exquisite study of the same subject, which a daughter, Mrs. Frederick Hamilton Baker, had done forty years later.

Abbie Deal kept everything that had ever come into the house.

Every nail, every button, every string, was carefully hoarded.

"This would make a strong bottom for one of the kitchen chairs some day," old Abbie Deal would say, when in truth the bottom of the chair was as strong as its legs.  Or, "Save those stubs of candles from the Christmas tree.  I can melt them and run them into one big one."  The characteristic was a hang-over from the lean and frugal days when the country was new, when every tiny thing had its use.

As a consequence, there was in the house the flotsam of all the years.

One of the daughters, Mrs. Harrison Scannell Rhodes, on her annual visit out from Chicago, protested once:  "Mother, if the house only represented some one PERIOD!  But it's such a jumbled combination of things.  They're not antique.  They're just OLD."

"And why should it?"  Old lady Deal flared up a little.  "I'M no one period.  I've lived with spinning-wheels and telephones . . . with tallow-dips and electric lights.  I'M not antique.  I'm just OLD.  It represents ME, doesn't it?"

You will infer from the retort that old Abbie Deal was a strong personality.  And you will be quite right.  The fact that she lived there in the old home until her eightieth year, over the protests of children and grandchildren, attested to that.  At the time she was seventy, they began trying to pry her away from "The Cedars."

They talked over various plans for her--that she should go to Omaha to live with Mack,--to Lincoln to live with Margaret,--that she should have rooms at John's right there in Cedartown,--that Grace should give up her teaching in Wesleyan University temporarily and stay at home.  When they had quite definitely decided on the Lincoln home with Margaret, old Abbie Deal spoke.  "I will do nothing of the kind," she said with finality.  "I am going to stay right here.  And kindly let me alone.  Because a woman is old, has she no rights?"

After that they did not press the matter.  They "let her alone,"

but they drove in frequently, for only the Chicago daughter lived far away.  Sometimes, on Sundays, the lane road contained a half dozen high-powered cars parked there through the dinner hour and the afternoon.  But not one son or daughter could ever become reconciled to the idea of driving away and leaving her there.

"When I think of fire . . ." one of them would say.

"Or of her getting sick in the night . . ."

"Or falling . . . and no one to help her . . ."

"Or any one of a dozen things . . ."

"Yes . . . something will happen to Mother some day."

And they were quite right.  Something happened to Mother.  Last July on a late afternoon, while suppers cooked and children of the north end of town played "Run, Sheep, Run," in her yard, old lady Deal died.  A neighbor woman found her lying across the foot of the bed, fully dressed, while the slice of meat which she had been cooking, burned to a crisp.

Of the five middle-aged children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, not one was with her.  They all came hastily in response to the messages.  Within two hours' time, a shining limousine, two big sedans, and a roadster all stood in the lane road.  For the first time, when the cars turned into the driveway by the Lombardy poplars, no little old white-haired woman with bright brown eyes, had come hurrying out to give cheery greeting.

That queer, solemn hush of death hung over the whole place.  It was in the quivering droop of the cottonwoods,--in the deepening of the prairie twilight,--in the silence of the star-filled summer sky.

They all gathered in the parlor with its modern radio and its oldfashioned what-not, its elaborate new floor-lamp and its crude oilpainting.  All of the children and several of the grandchildren were there.  Mackenzie Deal, the Omaha banker, was there.  John Deal, the Cedartown at


TO BE CONTINUED...


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