On the Backs of Women: A Story about Family and Generations by Linda Bakken

Review by Jon C. Stott

On the backs of women.“Nothing is impossible to a determined woman.”

This statement by Louisa May Alcott, which introduces Chapter 38 of Linda Bakken’s On the Backs of Women: A Story about Family and Generations, encapsulates both the themes and the characters of a novel that is subtitled A Story about Family and Generations.

The narrative, which is a fictionalized chronicle of five strong mothers and daughters, begins after the Revolutionary War and concludes shortly after the start of the Great Depression. The depictions of the lives of the heroines, who are based on the author’s ancestors, are fleshed out with thorough historical research and creative, imaginative details. The story traces the mothers-wives-daughters’ moves from New York, to New Jersey, to Upper Canada (now western Ontario), to western Michigan, and finally to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Hardy and courageous pioneers, the families move westward into the newly-opened frontiers, places where much hard work and great determination are necessities. As opportunities in one area run out, the families move on, bolstered by stout hearts and hope.

Maggie, the first mother portrayed, is called “The Dreamer.” Orphaned at age eleven, she becomes an indentured servant in a household where she is badly treated and the family’s son rapes and impregnates her. But a kind relative marries her and becomes one of a series of hardworking and loving spouses who support and are supported by their wives as they move into the various wildernesses of the Midwest. Charlotte, Maggie’s daughter, is “The Survivor,” married to a man who abandons her and their children.   Later mothers are Letty, “The Optimist;” Sarah, “The Entrepreneur,” and May, “The Realist.” Each has a unique personality, but all share the dedication to family and spouses. There are hardships and tragedies: occasional bad husbands, infant mortalities, devastating and often fatal injuries in the logging and lumbering industries.

Each of the women is different, and each moves through her life as maiden, mother, and matriarch in her own way. But there is a connection between each daughter, mother, and grandmother, as the younger learn from the life-wisdom communicated by their elders. Life is not easy – there are wars in the great world beyond the homes of the families, danger and hardship in the lands — but the love and friendship of family and friends, the courage, faith and hope that each of the five heroines communicates to daughters, granddaughters, husbands and families give them the strength to face the many challenges in their lives.

This is not a plot -driven narrative, although there are many conflicts and obstacles encountered and usually surmounted by the five heroines. It is rather a kind, loving celebration of the spirit of these pioneer women and their roles in the frontiers in which they live, survive, and thrive in decades that are long-passed.

The historical background, the detailed portrayal of life in the various homes these women make for their families and, most important, the respectful depiction of the central characters make On the Backs of Women a fine introduction of the powerful role played by pioneers whose importance in the history of the Midwest is often overlooked.

On the Backs of Women: A Story about Family and Generations by Linda Bakken
Pub Year: 2023
ISBN 979-8-218-11589-0
418 pp.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.