Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Meet Another "Strong" Woman

Last night, I finally finished reading The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman. It's taken me an unreasonably long time to finish the book, especially when you consider that it is my favorite genre - historical fiction set in the United States during the nineteenth century. More than that, it's about a topic that I enjoy reading - the life of an ordinary woman facing challenging circumstances. I'll talk more later about why I think it took me so long to read the book, but first I want to celebrate another "strong" woman - Lydia McQueen.

(spoiler alert!)

The book covers Lydia's life from when she first marries Mark McQueen until she dies of typhoid fever at age 50. Yes! She dies! I haven't read very many books in which the main character dies at the end. But her dying actually gives the author a chance to pull together what it was that made Lydia strong. Lydia was the heart of her community. When a woman needed help with the birth of a baby, Lydia would go to help. When people needed health care of any kind, Lydia would go and do whatever she could to help. If people needed food, or clothes, Lydia would help. More than just being charitable, though, Lydia was the driving force that brought education to the community. She used a gift entrusted to her by the town's alcoholic doctor to buy land to start the school, and later, when the school is burned by an arsonist, she is not above a little blackmail of the town's most powerful man (who is the book's villain) in order to get a replacement school.

It's not just her public face that makes Lydia strong, however. She faces a string of horrendous challenges in her personal life. Her mother is abducted and terrorized by "outriders" in the waning days of the Civil War, leaving her mentally broken. Lydia has a difficult birth with her first child, and since the doctor is too drunk to come help her, her aunt delivers the boy using the doctor's forceps. The boy suffers birth injury, making him slow to develop mentally and physically. Later, the boy, who is special to Lydia, dies of pneumonia. Lydia's husband, Mark, comes back from fighting in the Civil War full of hatred brought on by months in Andersonville prison. The only thing that eases his bitterness is a year-long trip out West, during which Lydia has complete responsibility for the upkeep of their farm and their young family. No matter how you define "strong," Lydia meets that definition.

So, why did it take me so long to read this book? Not to sound arrogant, but I think Wilma Dykeman kind of lost sight of the story once in a while and veered off into Lydia-worship (if that makes any sense). You know, I can't really identify Lydia's character flaw. Everybody has at least one. Hannah Fowler was socially awkward and would do anything to avoid having to be around a lot of people for any period of time. Kate in The Perilous Gard is a little too nosy for her own good and suffers an inferiority complex when it comes to her sister. Susanna in No Shame, No Fear and Forged in the Fire prematurely jumps to conclusions and clings to stubborn pride that very nearly costs her a relationship with the love of her life. But Lydia McQueen doesn't seem to have any flaws - she's always patient and giving, she's always a champion of education, she's always fair-minded in recognizing her prejudices and setting them aside. On the other hand, some other characters in the book are sort of cardboard cut-offs for the "dark side." Hamilton Nelson, the villain, doesn't seem to have any redeeming qualities; it makes you wonder how he got to be the wealthiest and most powerful man in town.

Another thing that bugged me was that the narrative sort of meandered all over the place. I tend to like plots that are tight and knit together well. That doesn't mean everything has to be really simple-minded and foreshadowed early on or I don't like the book. But I think an author can get too many threads going at once and end up with a tangled mess (to carry the metaphor on through). In this book, Dykeman is juggling the threads of the mystery of who the outriders were who attacked Lydia's family, the struggle to get the school, the need to heal Mark from the legacy of hatred the war left in him, the uneasy relationship between Lydia and Hamilton Nelson, the unfair treatment by the community of the isolated Bludsoe family -- those are the major plotlines I can think of. Then, of course, there are a number of subplots going on as well. That's a lot to manage. I guess I just felt that sometimes we the readers were being strung along on something that then is tied up neatly and quickly at the end.

That's not to say there weren't things I didn't like about the book. One of my favorites is the part when Lydia develops an admiration for a red-tailed hawk that is raiding her flock of chickens. She hopes that Mark won't kill the bird, which seems to her to symbolize the very freedom and pride of the natural world. Eventually, though, Mark does kill the hawk, and instead of flying into an irrational frenzy (which I'm afraid I might do), she doesn't say a word to him about it. It wouldn't do any good, and she couldn't explain to him why she felt that way. However, on her deathbed, when she's delirious with fever and saying her last words to Mark, she remembers the hawk and tells him, "I was always sorry we killed that red-tailed hawk." Some things just stay with you, buried deep under daily life, but not forgotten.