Review by Tyler R. Tichelaar
Novel About Five Generations of Women Reflects Patchwork of American History
Linda Bakken’s new historical novel On the Backs of Women: A Story About Family and Generations offers a look into the lives of five generations of women in the United States between the American Revolution and the Great Depression. Bakken based the novel on her own female ancestors, tracing her maternal lineage from mother to daughter back to her great-great-great-great-grandmother, who was born just before the American Revolution, and carrying the story on through the early years of her grandmother’s life.
The story begins in New Jersey in 1789 when Maggie is a servant in the Corlis house. Bakken depicts a family living just after the American Revolution who did not feel so strongly against the British that they would quit drinking tea. Nor does Bakken shy away from hard truths about American life at the time, including that the Corlises own a slave. Maggie finds Mrs. Corlis a less-than-pleasant mistress. After one of her friends and fellow servants dies, Maggie is grief-stricken, and the Corlis’ son takes advantage of her grief by getting her alone. When Maggie soon after learns she is pregnant, Mrs. Corlis refuses to believe her perfect son could be the father and tosses Maggie out of the house. The Corlises’ relatives are not so cruel, however, and soon Maggie finds herself marrying the cousin of her future child’s father.
This inauspicious beginning for Maggie results in a long and happy marriage and the start of her pioneering adventures. Maggie’s in-laws and husband do not feel extreme loyalty to the United States, and they believe the opportunities in New Jersey are limited, so they decide to move to Upper Canada, today known as Ontario. Later, they will be alarmed when the United States attacks Canada during the War of 1812, feeling it unwarranted. In time, though, the family decides it misses the more democratic way of life and moves back to the United States into Michigan Territory in the 1830s, just before it becomes a state.
In the years that follow, the men follow the work—mostly in the lumber industry—wherever it is, moving about Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Meanwhile, the women make homes for their families wherever fate sends them. Then as the twentieth-century dawns, the family moves to Upper Michigan, where they again move about, including in the logging communities of Seney, Ewen, and Birch, before finally settling in Big Bay, a small town about thirty miles northwest of Marquette, where the author, Bakken, was born.
Over the course of nearly a century and a half, we watch Maggie and her descendants struggle with what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. Maggie’s granddaughter Letty even wishes she were a boy. Letty’s daughter Sarah enters the working world as a teacher but finds her father must negotiate her pay for her with the school board. Most of the women make good marriages to reliable men, but one finds her husband is shiftless, and in the end, he becomes a horse thief.
Again and again, the women’s hard work is met only with additional hardships. They face the grief of losing their children soon after birth or in their old age seeing their adult children die. They learn to make do when their strong husbands become disabled through work accidents, and they bond together to help each other through family tragedies.
But there are also good times. Several of them take pleasure in reading, naming their children after characters from books or even becoming teachers. Others become entrepreneurs by baking for the local mercantile or taking in washing. They fall in love, support their men (one even helps her immigrant husband improve his English), raise their children, contribute to the community, and change with the times, going from fireplaces to stoves and horses to automobiles. And every year, the family celebrates its New Year’s vigil.
While the men get plenty of space in these pages, one senses the strength of the women in their efforts to create church communities, and their continually coming together for quilting bees. In fact, part of the inspiration for the novel came from a crazy quilt that was started but never finished for the author’s grandmother’s wedding. Bakken and her family have since completed the quilt so it can be passed on to future generations.
On the Backs of Women has the sweep of a family saga without being sensational or trying to place the characters at every historical event of importance. Instead, it’s a realistic look at the simple, hardworking lives of generations of women who helped to build America. It belongs on the shelf beside classic pioneer novels like Willa Cather’s O Pioneers, Rose Wilder Lane’s Let the Hurricane Roar, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. It will encourage readers to appreciate all the work their ancestors did to give them what they have today and perhaps even make them want to research their own family histories.
For more information about Linda Bakken and On the Backs of Women, visit Amazon.
— Tyler R. Tichelaar, PhD and award-winning author of When Teddy Came to Town
On the Backs of Women: A Story About Family and Generations