Fantastic novel about a woman born into poverty in 1890s Missouri who pulls herself free from the despairing life her mother leads (which causes her mother to die at an early age, beaten down by economic and social forces), getting herself educated, traveling the country, and ending up working for the Indian revolution against England which gets her imprisoned during the war as a spy. Lyrical writing with a punch of truth. “We were very poor. But that I did not know.” On seeing the celebration around her father after her brother was born, and told to go away, “‘Why?’ I have asked over and over again, but have received no answer.” Marie Rogers is an independent woman who loathes the slavery of marriage, and yet ends up marrying Knut Larsen as a lark. She insists on keeping her name, but others call her Mrs. Larsen. They divorce not long afterwards, but only after Marie endures the threat of two pregnancies. Thoroughly enjoyed the first six parts of the story, but it went a bit off the rails for me with her involvement in the Indian revolution.
First mention I’ve seen of asafoetide in a book, in Marie’s description of the hard life of her mother:
To her, the foreign miners were nothing but men who had lice that forced her to hang a lump of asafoetide in a little bag around the neck of each of us. Lice don’t like asafoetide.
Evaluating the life of her Aunt Helen versus that of her mother, Marie decides that prostitution would be the preferable route. Helen earned money and could do what she wished. Marie’s mother worked to the bone and popping out children as other mouths to feed then abandoned by her husband and taking in laundry during the cold winter to get enough money to eat.
In my hatred of marriage, I thought that I would rather be a prostitute than a married woman. I could then protect, feed, and respect myself, and maintain some right over my own body. Prostitutes did not have children, I contemplated; men did not dare beat them; they did not have to obey. The “respectability” of married women seemed to rest in their acceptance of servitude and inferiority. Men don’t like free, intelligent women. I considered that before marriage men have relations with women, but nobody thought it wrong–they were but “sowing their wild oats.” Nobody spoke of “fallen men” or men who had “gone wrong” or been “ruined.” They why did they speak so of women? I found the reason! Women had to depend upon men for a living; a woman who made her own living, and would always do so, could be as independent as men.
Helen generously helps to pay for Marie’s school early on. Later, Marie comes to stay with her in Denver en route to New York:
After a time she asked again: “Why are you going to New York?”
“I’m going to get work to support myself and Bee, and then I’m going to try and study in a university. I’ve a friend who lives there and she says I can work in the daytime and go to the university at night.”
“To a… college?… Your’e not finished studying yet?”
“No. I want to study a lot of things–history, literature, economics, and I want to learn to write.”
“But I thought you’d finished your education and knew all those things.”
“No. There’s always a lot more to learn. Every time you read a new book you find that you know less and less.”
She was silent for a time. “I guess no one can read all the books in the world, can they? But I suppose it’s nice to know a lot as you will.”
*** Discovered via recommendation from an appendix to Tillie Olson’s Silences, which sits on my table ready for a read.