Thursday, October 13, 2011
October Book Pick -- The Trouble With May Amelia by Jennifer Holm
My grandmother's family had been in America for a generation or two more than I suspect May Amelia's has, yet the emphasis on the mother country (in May Amelia's case, Finland) rings true. So does the emphasis on hard, unrelenting farm work. So, I have to add, does the parents' sternness; in that era, that a child might need self-esteem wasn't even on the radar. MA's pappa proclaims, often, that girls are useless. Truth to tell, he has little regard for the passel of brothers that precede her, either, except for the oldest.
Not all of my book discussions contain spoilers, but this one does.
The book has plenty of funny moments, such as when Friendly the bull knocks over the school outhouse when MA is using it. A subplot in which every eligible bachelor for miles around courts the pretty teacher is sweet and amusing. Yet the author paints a clear picture of how hard life was. A baby sister has died. One brother is nearly deaf from an illness, and apparently cannot be helped. A second brother loses a hand working as a logger. MA shares not only a room but a bed with one of her brothers. All of this is routine, but life changes for MA when a businessman-type visits area farmers selling stock in the development of a new town. Suddenly Pappa finds MA not quite so useless after all. He uses her as his English/Finn translator, and on that basis buys into the project. But the man is a charlatan and fleeces the Jacksons and several of their neighbors, and Pappa flies into a rage and tells MA that losing their farm is all her fault. "You're the one who read the papers! You are the reason we have lost everything. You useless girl!" He even says that she is not his daughter anymore.
This part of the story angered me on MA's behalf. Her mother says nothing. Not one of her brothers intervenes or will even look her in the eye. No one says a word to the effect that Pappa himself was the one hoodwinked by a scam. And I understand that this fits the era and the supremacy of the husband and father. But I still hate that this could happen, and hate it worse because I believe it. What happens next is that Pappa's brother, a kind man who somehow made the decision not to live like his and Pappa's own mean mother, takes MA into his home. And not a single one of her family members even says goodbye when she leaves.
After several months, one of her brothers shows up and tells her she has to come home. The farm is lost, and Pappa and the able-bodied brothers are all working at the logging camp, which now includes room and board, he says, and Mamma's working in a cannery. MA agrees. I didn't want her to go. I wanted her to stay with her uncle and never return. I started thinking about how she, how anyone, could do this while making sure they weren't falling into the trap of unforgiveness and bitterness. But, really, the bottom line is that MA had to go back. In 1900, you went back. I was pleased that she asked them whether they just needed a cook, and the answer was no: the brother who lost his hand was doing the cooking with a spoon tied to his stump. You're like a flea, is what they tell her. Annoying, but it wouldn't be home without you.
Based on quite a bit of Holm's family history, The Trouble with May Amelia is hard to forget. Definitely recommended.