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The best book about motherhood you’ve probably never heard of

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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 08/27/22

While it speaks to every stage of life, this is the best literary depiction I’ve ever seen of motherhood.

Many of the best books grow up with you: You can read them as a child, and again as a young woman, as a mother, in middle age, and in old age, and you never tire of the story. Something about the book speaks to you in every stage of your life.

Some books of this kind are classics you’ve probably heard of and read, like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables

But the book that epitomizes this genre most, for me, is a little-known gem. When I ask if someone’s read it, the name usually elicits blank stares. 

Have you ever heard of A Lantern in her Hand?

It tells the story of a pioneer woman, Abbie Deal, who builds a homestead and a life in Nebraska with her husband and children, often against great odds. It is that rare and perfect combination of a “can’t put it down” story that’s also moving and profound (surprisingly so, for a short novel by a little-known author!). It’s the kind of book you don’t forget.

I first read it at sleepaway summer camp when I was 10 years-old, and many times since then, each time with a new and different perspective. I discovered it when a cabin mate brought the book along to camp because it was her summer reading assignment (looking back, I have to say, major kudos to that teacher!). 

That first time I read it, I just loved the exciting, adventurous story. When I read it as a teenager, I was thrilled about the romantic love story. 

But now, as a mother, my perspective has changed again. Simply put, A Lantern in her Hand is the best literary depiction I’ve ever seen of motherhood. If you’re a mother, I think you will really love it.

A mother who gives her best

I admire the heroine, Abbie Deal, immensely, and one of the things I love most about her is how she raises her children so well and thoughtfully with extremely limited resources. 

She desires for her children to love literature and music and art, so she finds ways to expose them to those beautiful things right there in their dirt-floored, bare-bones cabin:

The children’s attendance at school was broken constantly by severe snowstorms, so that Abbie again did much of the teaching herself. She often searched her mind for new ideas, trying to think what more she could do for the children. Time was slipping away and conditions were no better. Even if she must face the hard fact that she could never do anything more for herself, the children must have some of the best things of life. [Her husband] was working day and night, making an old man of himself before his time. She must do more for the children some way. She must not let them grow up without a taste for good things. They ought to know more about music and have more reading material, and because they were not getting them, in some way she must instill in them a desire to have them … If the desire were deep enough, they would find a way to seek them out as they grew older. She began getting down the Shakespeare plays for a while each evening, and requiring [her children] to learn a passage or two …

This is one of many examples in the book. I won’t quote all the long passages I want to, but will just add that the description of how Abbie gave her children a happy Christmas during a winter of deep depression when “there was not much to eat in the cupboard … [and] little or no money” brings me to tears, every time. 

Decades later, her great efforts pay off: Her children all become incredibly successful leaders of their communities, every bit as sophisticated as she’d hoped. 

Then, as an old woman, Abbie hears someone say, “To have children you ought to have plenty of time and money for their development.”

The idea is almost laughable to her. She herself had raised her children so well amidst hand-to-mouth poverty. She remembers

… a sod-house where a little painted blackboard stood against the mud-plastered walls … one shelf of books and a slate and some ironed pieces of brown wrapping-paper. The mother there was hearing reading lessons while she kneaded bread, was teaching songs while she scrubbed, was giving out spelling words while she mended, was instilling into childish minds ideals of honesty and clean living with every humble task.

I find this work of hers so beautiful, keeping a home while teaching her children well. As a homemaker and homeschool educator, I look to her (fictional though she is!) as a role model and inspiration.

A mother who gives her all

Yet Abbie’s sacrifices for her children don’t come without a cost. She is forced to give up many dreams she’d had for herself, including her desire for travel and her talents for painting, singing, and writing. 

These dreams are lived out in her children in a very moving full-circle way, and Abbie is ultimately accepting of her lot, but it’s kind of sad to read about her giving up her dreams. In fact, this part of the plot incited quite the debate when my book club discussed it.Many of us felt that such total sacrifice demanded too much of her.

At the same time, what mother doesn’t sacrifice a lot for her children? All of us give up so much for our children — our time, our bodies, our space, our sleep. The sacrifices, although so worth it, are real. 

We are fortunate in the modern world that we often can find creative ways to follow our dreams and also raise our children well, so Abbie’s story is in many ways a product of her time. Yet I think any mother can sympathize with her sacrifices and feel a little of them herself. So in this way, too, the book depicts motherhood so well.

The story follows Abbie into old age, and I really love how it helps the reader understand the perspective of an elderly woman. This, in particular, really affected me as a 10-year-old and gave me a great interest in talking to my grandmothers about their memories and life stories. I’m so curious to see how I feel about this part of the book when I read it as an old woman.

A Lantern in her Hand deserves to be on the list with other classics, and it’s a perfect read for a book club. If you’re a mother, I hope you do get a chance to read it. And please, let me know what you think!

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BooksEducationMotherhoodParenting
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