more on mothers and daughters

This is related, in a very roundabout way, to yesterday’s post and the thoughtful comments y’all have left regarding parenting sixteen year olds.

I had an interesting email from somebody who just finished Fire Along the Sky and really loved it, but had one major disappointment:

I must say I am disappointed in the direction of Elizabeth’s character. I see so little of the fire in her that we had in Into the Wilderness. I felt as smothered as her children. She is controlled so much by her fears, and I believe it to be a very poor reflection of her character. I think that’s why I cling to Hannah’s character so much. She has experienced great loss, has witnessed horrific tragedies – but she’s not so incapacitated by them. — M.B.

My first reaction to this is bafflement. I did expect to get reactions like to this to Lake in the Clouds, where Elizabeth does come very close to falling over the edge when she’s confronted with another epidemic and threat to her children. But in Fire Along the Sky?

My second reaction was to wonder if this has to do with age. At twenty-five I might have had the same thoughts. I would guess that women my age might be more understanding toward Elizabeth, who has lost a number of children in difficult circumstances. It would seem odd to me if a woman experienced all that and had no vulnerabilities as a result. But of course, I understand her because she’s a part of me. It’s a given that there will be a range of reactions to characters as they develop.

There’s also an underlying theme here. Motherhood, and mother-daughter relationships are something that I explore a lot, in a never-ending quest to figure some things out for myself. I say never-ending because I can’t imagine the questions ever being settled in my mind. This comes in part because of the tremendous gulf between my own upbringing — much more like Norma’s, in yesterday’s comments — than my own daughter’s. The question I’m always asking myself is what kind of person I would have turned out to be if I had been raised as we try to raise our Girl. One way to explore this question, something I plan to do someday, is to write a novel about a woman (set in the future, fifty or so years) who finds herself in the position of raising a clone of herself. An identical twin, in genetic terms. Watching yourself grow up, trying to avoid the mistakes that were made and making others in the process, that topic really draws me in.

Listen to me ramble. At any rate, I’m interested in the different ways people react to Elizabeth as she meets (or fails to meet) various challenges.

11 Replies to “more on mothers and daughters”

  1. Elizabeth’s venerabilitys make her seem more human and familiar to me. I cant relate to her specific fears, but the way she deals with it is the way I deal with my issues. I love her strength of character, and while I agree that it has softened having her babies I don’t think this is a bad think. She is still a bit of a wonder woman in my opinion.

  2. I definitely saw Elizabeth on the edge in Lake in the Clouds – seeing it continue on in Fire Along the Sky was a bit of a surprise.

    What really upset me with Elizabeth in Fire Along the Sky was the way she asked others, maybe not directly, to be less than who they were. To be specific, I hated the way she kept Nathaniel from going out to save his son. I hated seeing her relief at having Runs from Bears go in his stead. We saw Many Doves find a way to help her children – but we saw Elizabeth draw into herself – pulling everyone into her net of security.

    I certainly sympathize with her, but really didn’t like the way it seemed to rule her. Maybe it’s because we weren’t witnesses to her sorrow with the death of her children, were unable to connect with her on that level of emotion. I’m not really sure.

    And the way she dealt with Lily! She, of all women, should have been more understanding to Lily’s fire and independence. She balked from societal constraints as a young woman, hated the confines of her family. Why would she inflict something like that on her daughter? Her son?

    There were some small moments of redemption throughout the book – but overall, her character upset me.

    You do bring up a good point about the mother’s view vs the children. I do wonder if my viewpoint would change if I were a mother? I may relate more to the children’s point of view being an independent woman in my 20s rather a mother.

  3. My mother told me when I was pregnant with my first child that I wouldn’t know real fear until I became a mother myself. “From the moment they take their first breath, you’ll forever be in fear that something bad will happen to them”, she said. Boy was she right! In Elizabeth’s case, she saw the realization of those fears… several times. So while I do agree that her fears have somewhat dominated her, I really can’t blame her for it.

  4. I thought Elizabeth’s character in Fire Along the Sky was entirely consistant with previous novels. She has always been a rational, analytical person, so things she can’t control and need instant decisions frighten her. And she reasons from past experience, so when things have consistently gone wrong in different areas, she thinks rationally that they will again. I also thought that her reactions to Lily sprang more from her knowledge of her daughter’s impetuosity and vulnerability, more from her knowledge that Lily would make a decision in reaction to an immediately presenting factor which would result in her eventual unhappiness, than any wish to curtail her independence. Lily was much younger and more inexperienced than she was when she made major decisions about her lifestyle. In the end, she gave Lily the option of independence, too. (I hope I haven’t misread her too badly, Sara). I was a bit sad for her, that her children didn’t seem to value her as a very courageous, wise and understanding person as much as they could have, but I guess children don’t until they become adults, and Curiosity and Nathaniel especially still loved and cherished her the way she deserved. I admired her restraint with Daniel when he returned, particularly.

  5. Thus far it does seem as though differing reactions to Elizabeth’s behavior depends to some degree on age and family history.

    I remember very clearly at age 34 being struck by all the hidden sorrows particular to women. A close friend lost a baby at birth due to umbilical cord compression, and I had losses of my own, and the eleven year old daughter of an acquaintance died without any warning of an embolism in the brain. At the same time I was struck by the casual approach younger women seemed to have to matters of childbearing and parenting. As if success in such undertakings was a given, and the workings of the reproductive system could be depended on to function without flaw. They were so blissful in their ignorance of everything that could go wrong. I was glad for them, and apprehensive, and angry.

    I thought a lot about these issues as I was writing LitC and FaS, and the direction of my thoughts certainly have something to do with changes in Elizabeth’s view of the world, and her reaction to it.

  6. This is a post more about motherhood than the novels. I am a mother of 4 children, three of them girls, all of them young at present. No matter how wild I was or irresponsible or ignorant when I was younger…and I was, I would never want any of these things for my girls. I can respect that teenagers and young adults make mistakes and at times do things for the wrong reasons, however, I still find myself wanting to protect and shield my children from all the possible dangers in the world even if it means limiting their freedom. Having children does forever change our lives and I will definately not give my girls the kind of freedom I was allowed as a young person. Maybe this makes me a hippocrit or a terribly unfair parent but I only want what is best for my children. I wont try to speak to Elizabeth’s state of mind or motives but I appreciate the desire of any mother to protect her children at any cost.

  7. I totally agree with Carolyn’s post. i think it all comes down to wanting the best for our children and if that means adopting a “do as i say not as i did” attitude then its because we want to prevent them going through some of the crap we and our parents had to go through.

  8. I can sympathize, as I have 2 young daughters myself that I would go to great lengths to protect. But, I also realize that in order for them to grow as people and become what they will, they will HAVE to learn from their mistakes and not mine. They are only 6 and 3 right now so I haven’t gotten into any of the really scary stuff yet, but when we do get there i plan to guide them as best i can while still letting them learn for themselves. After all protecting them from everything will not help them, it will only make them ignorant of the world we live in. The world they will have to navigate without me someday.

  9. If I may add that Elizabeth is pregnant during most of this novel too, and hormones rage -even if you are normally rational and level-headed.

    I also expect that some of her fighting spirit had left since the people she was fighting against were gone. She no longer had to prove herself daily or stand up for her views, she had a supportive husband and family and Paradise had her as a teacher for 18 years. -Yes, she still stood up for herself, but she had more support than during ITW, so she didn’t have to be so independently strong.

  10. Soup — somehow I missed this comment of yours. I’m glad you raised the fact that Elizabeth was pregnant, because it is relevant to the question at hand.

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