Sunday, September 20, 2015

Having Her Canuck-ance

I finished reading Ruth Moore's Speak to the Wind today, and enjoyed it thoroughly.  The title is a bit misleading, it seems to me; it sounds sentimental and melodramatic, in the tradition of Gone with the Wind and Written on the Wind, not to mention "Dust in the Wind."  I can't see how it connects to the book I read.

When I wrote the previous post I didn't know where the narrative was going; soon afterwards I learned that the Chin Island community was going to be divided by a self-destructive feud that hastens the decline of the already fading old ways.  But Moore doesn't indulge in nostalgia.  Her character Eliseo MacGimsey, when told that if he and his partner sell out their struggling business, it will be the end of the town, replies:
"No.  It wouldn't.  Things'd be different, change hands, be owned by different people.  All these places here could be sold like a shot, if old Wynn bought the wharf and breakwater, made them into a yacht club and swimmingpool, whatever, the way he wants to.  At least, he'd repair the old buildings, save them from rotting down, which is more in the living God's world than you and I can do. It wouldn't end the town at all.  It'd just mean different people owning it" [270].
A number of passages struck me funny, even made me laugh aloud; too many to quote here.  Moore wasn't sentimental about her Maine islanders, and Elbridge Gilman, whose viewpoint dominates the book, is, along with his wife Jess, critical and even cynical about the stubborn truculence and pride of their neighbors -- while recognizing that they share those traits, Elbridge more than Jess.

I was particularly moved by the long section at the end where Miss Greenwood, a "summer person" who'd settled on the island year-round with her elderly mother, reflects on her efforts at self-sufficiency.
From the first, she had found to her astonishment that the simplest of practical tasks, as, for example, putting up a stovepipe, involved complicated technical procedures which took the men who did it a long time, and seemed to be secrets as closely guarded as the secrets of a guild.

She had, at first, asked for simple information,. and had found that any such information received would be either unusuable to embellished with detail indubitably incorrect.  Such as Mr. Luther MacGimsey's arguments against putting her cottage out on the point, or Mr. Willard Lowden's on cow-dressing.  Mr. Lowden had told her that cow-dressing, hauled in small quantities in a wheelbarrow, lost all its virtue in transportation.

"To get the good," he said, "you have got to haul it by the wagon-load.  You expose it to sun and air, and all the virtue passes right out of it.  Don't ask me why.  Cow-dressing's chancy stuff, my grandfather always told me." 

... Over in the village, she saw again and again, people wheeling manure in barrows, when it seemed to be the thing to do for a small garden ... While it was wonderful to have help, still, she and Mama had to be most economical ...

There were other things -- the stovepipe which Mr. Bill Lessaro replaced in her kitchen cost a good deal and took a full day to put up.  Mr. Lessaro said an elbow was hard to find, and once you found one, most difficult to fit.

Yet, later on, she had been calling on Mrs. Gilman, and Mr. Gilman had been putting up her sitting room stove for the winter.  He had a new pipe, with an elbow that looked exactly like the one in her own kitchen, and when she had congratulated him on being able to find one, he had said absently, "Oh, an elbow's an elbow, Miss Greenwood.  Buy 'em by the dozen, anywhere."  At the same time, he put up the stovepipe in about ten minutes.

So she had gone home and had climbed on a chair, had dismantled her kitchen stovepipe and put it back up again.  She decided she would not need help for this particular job again -- Mr. Lessaro's bill had been twenty dollars, the cost of the pipe, plus, he said, five dollars for his labor.  It seemed too much to be paying, paricularly since she knew now she she could have done the work herself.  She had, of course, asked Mr. Lessaro if he thought she could.

"Oh, mercy, good grief, dear lady, no!" he had said.  "It will take me all day, likely, and I know the ins and outs of it.  Not to speak of it's an awful dirty job.  Don't make no difference if I get smut all over me."

They were so gallant, such nice manners [296-8].
This was published in 1956, remember, before the feminist Second Wave encouraged women to learn to do for themselves, learning carpentry, plumbing, auto repair and other unladylike skills.   Women had acquired those skills before, of course, and during World War II had made inroads into industry that are celebrated now.  After that war, they were driven out so that their jobs could be given to returning male veterans, but that rationale wasn't enough: the expulsion had to be justified with propaganda about women's incapacity and the necessity of separate spheres.  Ruth Moore was writing against the tide here.

Beyond that, I remembered something that had made me uneasy when I read David F. Noble's Forces of Production, as much as I love that book.  Labor resistance to automation was justified, but Noble tended to ignore how organized labor had worked to exclude women, along with men from various ethnic / racial groups.  (Though I also remembered the experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, who reportedly complained that in making a film about his wife giving birth, Stan Brakhage had "permitted men to see what they're not supposed to see."  Many men agreed with her; I've often heard about men who fled screenings of "Window Water Baby Moving" or other films that showed childbirth.)  Often it's difficult to distinguish between defense of one's interests and aggressive blocking of others' interests.