Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich

A Lantern in Her Hand is one of my mother’s favorite books.  She recommended it to me when I was in middle school.  I read it and loved it.  I’ve read it a few times since then, but not since becoming a mother myself.  As it is a great book about the sacrifices that a mother made during pioneer days, I thought it was a good June pick for the FLICKS Book and Movie club, which is made up entirely of mothers.

The book starts off with an introduction about an old pioneer woman in Nebraska, Abbie Deal. The introduction ends with “This is the story of the old lady who died while the meat burned and the children played ‘Run, Sheep, Run’ across her yard.”  To me, this was an explosive beginning to the novel. Abbie Mackenzie is the daughter of a Scottish aristocrat and an Irish peasant.  With their fortune lost, her parents move to America.  Her father unfortunately dies young, but her mother moves her large family out west to Iowa.  As a child, Abbie dreams of returning to the life that her Grandmother Mackenzie had as a wealthy woman.  She meets Will Deal, a sensitive neighbor boy.  She grows into a beautiful young woman with an exquisite singing voice and great ambitions.  Ed Matthews, Doc Matthew’s son who is getting educated out East, wants to marry Abbie and take her East for training, but she can’t forget about Will Deal who is fighting in the Civil War in Ed’s place.  As Abbie marries, has children, and faces difficulties in life, she consistently sacrifices her dreams in order to fulfill the dreams of her children.

This brought about an interesting discussion at book club.  Should one sacrifice all for one’s children?  Is it selfish to keep some ambition for oneself?   While Abbie and her sacrifices were heartwarming as was her total dedication to her children, at times it was heartbreaking in the book when she wasn’t able to fulfill any of her dreams.  Two other book club members read the book, but sadly, they did not love it as much as me.  I think the old fashioned language (written in the 1920’s) and skips through time turned them off.  They felt it was very rushed trying to tell Abbie’s entire life story in one book.  Reading it again myself, I still loved it.  It was a bit rushed, but I liked how it went through Abbie’s entire life and seemed to take more time at the end for life reflection.  Abbie was proud of how she was able to help her children to succeed in life and felt her sacrifices were well founded.  I thought it was an admirable quality!

I was also struck in the book by just how alone you were as a pioneer woman.  At one point Abbie is helping her husband dig a well.  She hits herself on the head with the well handle while bringing her husband out of the well and knocks herself out.  She awakens to her crying one year old and leaves him to cross the prairie and look for help as she can’t get her husband out of the well.  Yes, she left her one year old next to an open hole in the ground to seek help as there was no other alternative.  She also has to travel with morning sickness in a covered wagon out west . . . with my hypomesis gravidum, which would have been the end to me!  I loved the detail of the trials of being a pioneer woman.  It gave me respect again for our ancestors and their struggles to find a good life for themselves.

Some of my favorite quotes from the book:
“If you want a garden – You’ve got to dream a garden.”

“You are so much a part of me, that if you were taken away, I think it would seem that you just went on with me.  And I’m sure if I were the one taken I would go on with you, remembering all you had been to me.”

“It was the only old home the children had ever known.  There ought to be a home for children to come to, - and their children, - a central place, to which they could always bring their joys and sorrows – an old familiar place for  them to return to on Sundays and Christmases.  An old home ought always to stand like a mother with open arms.  It ought to be here waiting for the children to come to it, - like homing pigeons.”

“Grace was loath to accept the decision.  ‘As I said, I’m sorry.  You owe it to yourself, if you possibly can go.  Your life has been so narrow, Mother . . . just here, all the time.  You ought to get out now and see things.’

Unwittingly, as so often she did, Grace had hurt her Mother’s feelings.  For a moment Abbie nursed her little hurt, and then she said quietly, ‘You know Grace, its queer, but I don’t feel narrow.  I feel broad.  How can I explain it to you, so you would understand?  I’ve seen everything . . . and I’ve hardly been away from this yard.  I’ve seen the sun set behind the Alps over there when the clouds have been piled up on the edge of the prairie.  I’ve seen the ocean billows in the rise and fall of the prairie grass.  I’ve seen history in the making . . . three ugly wars flare up and die down.  I’ve sent a lover and two brothers to one, a son and son-in-law to another and two grandsons to the other.  I’ve seen the feeble beginnings of a raw state and the civilization that developed there, and I’ve been part of the beginning and part of the growth.  I’ve married . . . and borne children and looked into the face of death.  Is childbirth narrow, Grace?  Or marriage?  Or death?  When you’ve experienced all of those things, Grace, the spirit has traveled although the body has been confined.  I think travel is a rare privilege and I’m glad you can have it.  But not every one who stays at home is narrow and not every one who travels is broad.  I think if you understand humanity . . . can sympathize with every creature . . . can put yourself into the personality of every one . . . you’re not narrow . . . you’re broad.’”

Overall, A Lantern in her Hand is a classic pioneer tale that also is a wonderful tale of a mother.  I loved reading it again.

Book Source:  An original copy from 1928 that I picked up at an antique store earlier in my life.


  1. Isn't it great when you reread a book from your childhood/youth and it still works for you! I love the feeling of finding old friends like that.

    This sounds like the kind of book I would've loved when young, and would still love. Especially the mothering part. Will look for a copy.

  2. I never heard of this book, but I think I would like it too. Some books are classic and leave such a good impression on our young minds that I wish I had read a lot more books when I was younger, even though I know I did read a lot.

  3. Oh my goodness. I want to run out and find a copy right now. It sounds amazing. I love revisiting childhood favorites.

  4. This book sounds absolutely wonderful, Laura. What a treasure! I enjoyed your review and the quotations from the book. The words of Abbie are profound and lovely and wise.

    I've been away but am back to blogging now. :)

  5. I hope you all are able to find this book and enjoy it as well. Thank-you for all of the great comments!

  6. I thoroughly loved this book and it kept me riveted to each page. For romance, loyalty, adventure, love, and pathos, there is no better book. I found it in my wife's portion of our library and I could not put it down.

  7. Well, now I'm sobbing. This book started me on a Bess Streeter Aldrich journey as a teenager; I read everything of hers I could get my hands on. Her books are wonderful and poignant. I still have a row on my bookcase devoted to her, and now I'm in my 60's.

  8. This is sadly the only Bess Streeter Aldrich book I've read. I need to read more of her works! Any suggestions on where to start?