Love Comes Softly: Christian Men Don’t Beat Their Wives

Love Comes Softly: Christian Men Don’t Beat Their Wives February 15, 2019

Love Comes Softly, chapter 3

This chapter starts with Marty waking up in Clark’s house and having a moment of confusion about where she is before suddenly remembering. It’s the evening of the day Clark proposed this bargain. A lot has happened in just one day. Marty freshens up and leaves the bedroom; Clark looks up from the kitchen and motions her to the table. 

Marty sat down and Clark came from the stove with a plate of pancakes and another with a side of bacon. He set it down and went back for the steaming coffee. She felt a sense of embarrassment as she realized he was taking up what she should have been doing. Well, it would be the last time. From now on she’d carry her load. 

This is something of a theme—Marty is determined to pull her own weight and hold up her side of the bargain she has entered into. In fact, she seems to expect more out of herself than Clark does. Clark knows what it’s like to lose a spouse. He’s said she should take some time to settle in. Marty’s response feels very natural, though. It’s a coping mechanism: the more time she spends focusing on how determined she is to fulfill her side of this bargain, the less time she has to think about Clem. 

And then there’s this suddenly stuck in here:

Clark sat down, and just as Marty was about to help herself to a pancake, she was stopped by his voice. 

“Father, thank ya fer this food ya provide by yer goodness. Be with this, yer child, as Comforter in this hour, an’ bless this house an’ make it a home to each one as dwells here. Amen.” 

Marty sat wide-eyed looking at this man before her, who spoke, eyes closed, to a God she did not see or know—and him not even a preacher. Of course she had heard of people like that, various ones who had a God outside of church, who had a religion apart from marryin’ and buryin’, but she had never rubbed elbows, so to speak, with one before. Nor did she wish to now, if she stopped to think about it. So he had a God. What good did it do him? He’d still needed someone to help with his Missie, hadn’t he? His God didn’t seem to care much about that. Oh well, what did she care? If she remembered right, people who had a God didn’t seem to hold with drinkin’ an’ beatin’ their women. With a little luck she maybe wouldn’t have to put up with anything like that. A new wave of despair suddenly overwhelmed her. She knew nothing about this man. Maybe she should be glad that at least he was religious. It might save her a heap of trouble. 

Oh my gravy. 

Let’s start by being completely fair: The temperance movement did often link alcohol consumption with domestic violence. Additionally, historians today acknowledge that this was actually a serious problem, and not mere propaganda.

Missing from this treatment,  however, is that many people of the time viewed the overly religious as kill-joys who got in the way of fun and enjoying life. Someone like Marty—who it seems did not grow up in an overly religious home (what kind of home she did grow up in I’d dearly like to know)—might just as well have responded to Clark’s prayer by worrying she’d married a stick in the mud who thought he was better than anyone else. Not everyone thought that having religion made someone a better person.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Marty’s musing—“people who had a God didn’t seem to hold with drinkin’ an’ beatin’ their women … with a little luck she maybe wouldn’t have to put up with anything like that”—feels out of place. Oke offers us no context. I want context. Was this something Marty was actually worried about having to put up with? If violence against women was much a part of her lived experience and her understanding of the world, why didn’t she ask Ma Graham or some other local woman for some background on Clark before accepting his offer?

Marty didn’t weigh the possibility that Clark might beat her when she pondered whether or not to accept Clark’s offer. Why not?

I can imagine an explanation—perhaps she grew up in a home with domestic violence, perhaps Clem even hit her a few times, perhaps she sees violence against women as simply something that happens. The trouble with this possibility is that this issue simply disappears. Marty doesn’t marvel, later, when Clark gets mad at her but doesn’t hit her. Indeed, she seems to expect fair treatment from those around her as a matter of course. She doesn’t otherwise appear to see violence against women as something that just happens. That may be why this offhand comment suggesting she does see it that way feels so off.

Clark, of course, isn’t just not physically abusive. He’s also perceptive and genuinely participatory, even around the house, in what is now Marty’s sphere. He’s no absent father.

 

After the meal she heard herself volunteering to wash up the dishes, and Clark said fine, he’d see to putting Missie to bed, then. 

Several commenters have noted that the bargain Clark struck with Marty—that she could go back east in the spring if she took Missie—would make a lot more sense if he were a fairly absent or uncaring father. It certainly would, but he’s not. He’s not at all.

As Marty puts the dishes away she realizes for the first time that she’s living in some other woman’s house. It sort of freaks her out. I get it—that would be a weird feeling. It leaves her feeling unsettled. When Clark comes back from settling Missie, he seems to recognize her need for assurance. 

Feel free to be a usin’ anythin’ in the house, an’ if there be anythin’ thet ya be needin’, make a list. I go to town most Saturdays fer supplies, an’ I can be a pickin’ it up then. 

The town can’t be that far away, if Clark goes every Saturday.  

On another note, I’ve noticed something in my re-reading of this book: When there’s tension between Marty and Clark, it frequently occurs in Marty’s mind. Marty imagines that Clark is angry with her over something, when he’s not. Marty imagines that Clark is being terse, when he’s not. Marty spends a lot of time imputing things onto Clark, which in turn tends to drive much of the tension in the book.

Take this for example: 

“I think thet ya better git ya some sleep,” he said, his voice low. “It’s been a tryin’ day. I know thet it’s gonna take ya some time before it stops hurtin’ so bad—fer ya to feel at home here. We’ll try not to rush ya.”

Then his gaze demanded that she listen and understand. “I married ya only to have Missie a mama. I’d be obliged if ya ‘llow her to so call ya.” 

It was an instruction to her; she could feel it as such. But her eyes held his steadily, and though she said nothing, her pride challenged him. All right, she knew her place. He offered her an abode and victuals; she in return was to care for his child. She’d not ask for charity. She’d earn her way. 

That doesn’t sound to me like an order. It sounds like a request. The only thing that at all suggests that it might be more than that is Oke’s comment about his gaze, but gaze is something frequently interpreted by the beholder. Clark’s gaze probably looks like that because he’s about to break down into tears, and he’s fighting that impulse and trying to hold it together. He’s asking some other woman to have his daughter call her mama, for god’s sake. He’s probably thinking about Ellen, his deceased wife.

Marty, though, interprets his comment as a command. This actually feels very familiar to me. See, I grew up in a home where indirect communication was common. “The floor is dirty” actually meant “please sweep the floor.” Every statement had layers of meaning to be interpreted. A decade ago, I too would probably have viewed Clark’s words as a command. I suspect Marty grew up in a similar home.

Speaking of which, what kind of home did she grow up in? This lack of any background for her whatsoever is frustrating as heck. She existed before she met Clem. I think.

Anyway, my husband grew up in a home where communication was direct. There were no layers of meanings behind his words. In the early years of our marriage, our communication styles often clashed. I read things into his words that he never intended; he missed things I thought I had communicated clearly (but had not at all). It took me a long time to recalibrate my communication style. 

The dynamic between Marty and Clark feels very much like the dynamic I experienced early in my own marriage. Clark says he’d appreciate it if Marty’d let Missie call her mama, and means just that, but Marty hears him instructing her to let Missie call her mama. I have so been there.

I don’t think this is every actually resolved as such, though. I wish more romance novels would resolve communication problems by having characters learn to recognize mistakes they were making and communicate more effectively. It would resolve the tension and actually be instructive.

One huge contrast I’m noticing between Oke’s book and Rivers’ and Farris’s books is that Oke is much less obvious in the lessons she teaches through her stories. So much so that things I think I would ordinarily see as “lessons” sometimes aren’t. Oke references Marty’s “pride” leading her to hold Clark’s gaze steadily, but she isn’t actually that hard on Marty. Marty is never treated as a particularly bad person. Marty is hard, closed-off, and easily upset, but this is continually treated as understandable; when she eventually converts (because you know that will happen), Oke emphasizes only the joy she feels. She doesn’t make a big deal about Marty realizing she’d been prideful, or anything of the kind.

It’s refreshing, frankly.

Anyway, after holding Clarks gaze to keep her pride intact, Marty turns away and goes into the bedroom, where she looks at the sleeping Missie in her crib. Wait, did they even have cribs back then?

I’ll be right back.

Okay, I’m back.

Nope, there would not have been a crib. Missie would have started out in a wooden cradle—Clark likely would have built one. Cribs on the other hand weren’t developed until the end of the 19th century, during the Victorian period, when it came to be believed that infants needed airflow underneath them—sides were added so that infants and toddlers wouldn’t fall out of what was essentially a raised bed. Another factor to the crib’s development was the advent of larger homes, which Clark doesn’t have.

Unless it’s actually 1880 (which I doubt, given that trains aren’t mentioned) and Clark is trying to keep up with the Victorians (which I also doubt), Clark would not have had a crib. Missie, at almost two, is too big for a cradle. She would have slept in a trundle bed pulled out from under the bed, or on a pallet made up for her nearby—or simply in the bed with Clark after her mother’s death.

There’s a tender moment here where Marty looks at Missie, “the brown curls framing her pixie face,” and realizes how much the world has already hurt her. Marty feels a surge of compassion for her.

But wait! This chapter isn’t quite over yet.

The next morning, Marty wakes “determined to uphold her part of the ‘convenience’ marriage which was now her lot.”

So she had a roof over her head. She’d earn it. She would be beholden to no man, particularly this distant, aloof individual whose name she now shared. She refused, even in her thoughts, to recognize him as her husband.

This is that thing I mentioned earlier—by focusing in a stubborn way on upholding her part of the bargain she’s struck with Clark, Marty can take her mind off of Clem.

Just then, she realizes her name is no longer Martha Claridge.

Listlessly she wondered if there was a legal difficulty if she stubbornly clung to her “real” name. Surely she could be Martha Lucinda Claridge Davis without breaking any laws.

Look, if she’s planning to go back east, she can call herself whatever she wants. It’s not like there’s a central registry of marriages that’s going to show up in her home town, wherever that is.

Then with a shock she realized her baby would have the Davis name too.

“Oh no!” She stopped and put her hands to her face. “Oh no, please. I want my baby to have Clem’s name,” she whispered her horror.

But even as she fought it and the hot tears squeezed out between her fingers, she knew she’d be the loser here, as well. She was in fact married to this man, no matter how unwelcome the idea; and the baby who would be born after her marriage would be his in name, even though Clem was the true father. She felt a new reason to loathe him.

Well that’s a healthy reaction.

It’s also, of course, a completely understandable reaction.

Did they have birth certificates back then? Nope. I just checked, and they didn’t. So again, if she’s going back east, she can call her son whatever she wants to call him. Problem solved.

So anyway, it’s morning. Clark is already out at the barn, and Marty, determined to uphold her side of the bargain, sets herself to make breakfast. The problem is that she still doesn’t know where anything is. Clark didn’t show her around the night before because he wanted to let her get some rest and settle in, so I don’t think he’s going to much blame her if she can’t fix breakfast as a result—but Marty is determined to uphold her side of the bargain, so she goes in search of fixings.

Marty finds the ingredients to make pancakes.

At least that she could do. She and Clem had almost lived on pancakes, the reason being that there had been little else available for her to prepare. She wasn’t going to find it an easy task to get proper meals, she realized. Her cooking experience had been very limited.

Um, what? It’s not like she’s lived with Clem her whole life long. We get it, they were young and poor and just starting out, they didn’t have much. But what about Marty’s home, where she grew up? Her mother would have taught her to cook. Someone would have taught her to cook.

There are of course ways to explain this. Perhaps Marty grew up wealthy, with servants, and then ran away with Clem after her parents objected to her marrying him. But it’s made pretty clear, with Marty’s dialect and a few other hints, that she didn’t grow up rich. Perhaps her mother died early and she and her father boarded with another family, and Marty was put out to work—I’m getting stuck even here, though, because while boys might be put out to work at a variety of things, girls generally did domestic work, which includes cooking. Maybe she worked as a maid in a wealthy person’s house, and only did the cleaning. Maybe she worked at a mill from when she was very young, eating common meals.

There are ways to explain Marty’s lack of cooking experience, but “she and Clem had almost lived on pancakes [because] there had been little else available for her to prepare” is not one of them.

Marty and Clem might have had almost nothing, but Clark is doing quite well for himself. Marty finds a shed attached to a kitchen, and in it an underground food storage contraption that is raised with a pulley. She finds eggs, cream, milk, butter, bacon, ham, fresh vegetables, preserves, and honey. She’s elated. She takes some eggs and bacon to cook alongside the pancakes.

And there you have it. End of chapter. Christian men don’t beat their wives, Marty and Clark have vastly different communication styles, Clark would not have had a crib, and Marty should be able to cook.

The end. For this week.

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