This chapter is called “new strength.” The purpose of Laura’s death, it would seem, is to create opportunities for other characters to grow and mature. Or something?
By June the second cow had calved and, to Clark’s great surprise, bore twin female calves—a special gift from God, he announced. “We sure be able to make use o’ one more,” he told Marty.
Egads. How much milk does this family need?
[Note for readers not perusing the comment section: several readers with knowledge of dairy practices have noted that one milk cow would be more than enough milk for one family. Even with making butter and cheese out of some of it, a small family like Clark and Marty’s would be hard pressed to use all of a single cow’s milk—and yet, they’ve always had two cows in milk at once, along with a spare milk cow that’s not currently making milk. And now, it seems, they have two more.]
The two sows have had their piglets—a total of 14—and three hens have hatched a grand total of twenty-seven chicks. I think the takeaway we’re meant to have here is that life is moving on, and Clark and Marty are quickly making up the losses caused by the fiery demise of the barn.
And then there’s this:
Marty still had not been able to shake off the sorrow of Laura’s tragic death. It seemed to hang about her, choking out the happiness she wanted to feel.
Maybe I’m being hard on Marty here, but this framing centers Marty in a way that makes me uncomfortable. She wants to be happy but she can’t, because Laura died. I don’t get the feeling that any of the grief here is really for Laura. Marty didn’t ever really know Laura.
In a better book, Marty would be wracked with guilt for not reaching out to Laura back when she made a mental note to do so, in November, back when it might have made a difference. She hadn’t taken up with Milt then, and she hadn’t yet been pregnant. Then maybe Clark would learn about the guilt she was feeling, and remind her that back in November she was still grieving Clem’s loss, or tell her that there were others who could’ve reached out too and didn’t. Or maybe he’d be all hardline and tell her that this was all Laura’s doing and hers alone.
Instead, we get this nebulous sense of sadness that is manifested in moments like these:
She walked past the buildings and down to the stream. She seemed drawn to that quiet spot she had discovered long ago when she had needed comfort—then because of her own loss, and now because of Ma’s.
I haven’t had anyone close to me lose a child, so maybe I shouldn’t judge this response. Maybe it’s natural to feel grief primarily for the friend who lost a child, and not for the child’s life cut short. But here, Laura was Marty’s age. This whole setup—and Marty’s close friendship with Ma—would make a lot more sense if Marty had been a 27-year-old old maid when she hooked up with Clem and headed west, not a 19-year-0ld girl just one year older than 18-year-old Laura.
Actually, I do have more to say about this. My mother read me the All of a Kind Family books when I was a child, and I adored them. The book is about five sisters growing up a Jewish community in New York City circa 1900, I identified with the children, of course—most of all with the sensible eldest, Ella. In reading through these books to my own children, today, I’ve been struck by how much this has changed. Now, I identify with the children’s mother. The mother, while very obviously a good mother, is something of a cipher. This is a children’s book, after all. Still, I’m curious. What makes her tick? When does she see her friends? I want to know more about her, and her life.
My point is that who we identify with frequently depends on where we are in our own lives. On a recent flight, I found myself seated next to an 18-year-old girl who had just graduated from high school. Our flight was delayed and she had missed her connection and her mother was texting her constantly, worried about her. To my complete shock, I found that it was the girl’s mother—and her concern—that I identified with. I like to think of myself as still young and hip, but as the mother of a child approaching middle school, who I identify with has shifted.
Marty married Clem only a year before Laura married Milt. Like Laura, she was 18 when she married. Like Laura, her parents disapproved of her choice—they were concerned about Clem’s intention to move west. Why is Marty identifying so fully with Ma and Ma’s loss, rather than with Laura, and everything Milt cut short?
This is frustrating to me.
Anyway. Back to the chapter at hand.
Missie came down with the measles, and even though she was not awfully sick, Marty hovered over her, worried lest another tragedy strike. But the child was rather quickly up and around again, pretending that her doll had the measles ‘an’ needs a wet cloth on her head, too.’
In 1920, when cases of measles and measles related deaths were first reported, 1.5% of cases resulted in death. Marty’s reaction, at least where Missie is regarded, seems reasonable. My real question is why there’s no mention of Clare. Did Clare get the measles too? I suspect a three-month-old baby would face a higher risk of death from measles than a two-year-old child. I would also assume that Marty would take pains to keep the two separated, hoping to prevent Clare from catching it. It’s like Oke just forgot Clare exists for a moment.
Also, where did Missie catch measles? I know measles is very contagious but I think you have to actually be exposed. Did the Grahams have measles? Did Clark take Missie with him to town one Saturday? (Speaking of, has Marty been to town yet?) I’m curious.
Missie’s measles serve Marty in one way, though:
It was while Missie was still red-blooded and feverish that news came of the first wagon train passing through town, heading east. Marty was busy doctoring Missie, and there would be other trains, she told herself.
She’s putting her fingers in her ears and saying “la la la la la” to drown out the fact that she has a big decision coming up. I guess that’s one approach!
Anyway, remember Marty’s walk to the stream, and her need for comfort over Ma’s loss? I went a little bit out of order here, because something else happens while Marty is at the stream. Namely, Clark comes up, interrupting Marty’s musing about death and loss—and the questions she has for God about this—with some commentary.
“Guess life be somethin’ like that stream. … Things happen. Leaves fill it up—animals waller in it—spring floods fill it with mud.” He hesitated. “Bright sunshine makes it like a mirror glass; sparklin’ rain makes it grow wider, but it still moves on—unchangin’ like—the same stream even with all the things thet happen to it. It breaks through the leaves, it clears itself of animal wallerin’—the muddy waters turn clean agin. The sunshine an’ the rain it accepts, fer they give life an’ strengthen it like, but it really could have done without ’em. They’re extras like.” He broke another branch and added more to the stream.
“Life’s like thet,” he picked up again. “Bad things come, but life keeps on flowin’, clearin’ its path gradual like, easin’ its own burden. The good times come, too; we maybe could make it without ’em, but the Lord knows we need ’em to help give meanin’—to strengthen us, to help us reflect the sunshine.
“Guess one has to ‘spect the good an’ the bad, long as we be livin’, an’ try one’s best to make the bad hurt as little as possible, an’ the good—one has to help it grow like, make all the good things count.”
Marty is completely taken by this idea. But I have a question. What about Laura? How does any of this apply to her life? The focus here is on those who go on living and have to deal with loss, and not at all on those like Laura, who don’t have that luxury.
Life was like that stream. It went on, whatever happened to it. She was ready to go on now, too. She had drawn straight from the woods. No, not that. She had drawn strength from the God who had made the woods.
Quick save, Oke! That almost went all hippy there for a moment! What a scandal this would have made on the Christian bookstore shelves!
I find it interesting that they attribute the reassurance this analogy provides to God. This stream analogy isn’t something that’s intrinsically religious. The idea that streams sometimes get dirty or mired, but that over time they keep flowing and gradually wash away the muck—that’s actually somewhat helpful in a far more general sense.
Note that Clark says the good times are “extras” that people could probably do without, but that God offers to give life “meaning.” (Oops, sorry—meanin’.) There seems to be an assumption that the bad things are the status quo, the underlying reality, or all that people deserve. That’s just sad. I’m glad Clark’s words helped Marty, but there is something unappealing about his portrayal of God and reality.
Also? Contrary to Marty’s musing, life does not go on “whatever happened to it.” Laura died, and she’s staying dead.
OH! Oh gosh! They found Laura’s body in a stream! That stream kept flowing, too! If they hadn’t pulled Laura’s body out to bury it, that stream would have eventually washed itself clean of her body! I realize Oke probably never connected this stream analogy with Laura at all, but this connection feels downright creepy. Shades of Omelas indeed.
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