What a Woman Must Do begs the question: what are the circumstances under which she has to decide? What forces her hand to act? Kate, Harriet, and Bess, who share a house in Harvester, Minnesota, each come to critical junctures in their lives. While Kate’s arthritis threatens her mobility, her boarder and dear friend, Harriet, waits for a marriage proposal. Bess, like a daughter to both these surrogate mothers, falls in love on the verge of college. In this novel, Faith Sullivan shows us women not hemmed in by an either/or choice, rather, What a Woman Must Do is about a love that both frees women to chart their own paths, and also ties them to one another.
The book is laid out in chapters alternately titled Kate, Harriet and Bess, but none of these characters speak as “I.” An omniscient narrator tells the tale, as though watching over all the characters, like God. “God had forgiven the world the death of his Son. Well, she wasn’t God. She [Kate] was a spiteful old woman.” She does, however, resembles God in that the first and last chapter are about her. She has an important voice among the three women. She also has a special relationship with time. She can transport herself into the past. “In conjuring, you looked back. No, you took yourself back. She had learned, for example, to call forth the the farm in every detail as it had been – touch, smell, sound. Traveling through years and miles, she returned to it. She was there. Not in imagination, but in conjuration.” Similar to conjuring, she practices the art of “forecasting.” Friends ask her to read their fortunes and Harriet and Bess count on Kate to anticipate their needs and desires. She is always “there” for them as mother-figure and friend. They begin to wonder how long she’ll be around, however, when joint pain makes movement more and more difficult. In her old age and infirmity, Kate is also like God. “Old age was a forced retreat. You carried with you as much of what you had been as you could.” She bears memories of her dead husband and her lost farm, of Celia and Archer, Bess’s dead parents. To her, and to Harriet and Bess, with whom Kate shares her memories, the past is alive. Through Kate, Ms Sullivan explores the past and foretells the future with an intimacy that brings them to the fore. Time is like a character in its own right, palpable as “the intricate web of silvery leaves [in which] lay intimations of things that a woman must do.” Time is what lies between the characters, influencing how they react to each other.
There is something dark, almost demonic, about Kate, too, suggested by this spidery image, her spite and the spiritual powers she possesses. When the newspaper runs the story about the tragic death of Bess’ parents for the “Way Back When” column, Kate relives the anger she felt at the time and wonders if it contributes to her physical pain. Others in the town of Harvester are also upset by the re-hashed news. It is a reminder of how Harvester itself, like old Kate, holds its memories against its inhabitants. There’s the memory of the Depression in which many, including Kate, lose their farms, and there are family histories no one can escape. About Kate, at the end of the book: “Spreading her arms wide and swallowing deep draughts of a landscape worn and patinated, she considered the persuasions of heaven. She might have to forgo them.” It might be because she reads tarot cards and is more interested in Greek myths than the saints. It may be because she resents her losses and doesn’t want to forgive. Whatever the case, her forgoing heaven seems to be a stand she makes, part of what she must do. Just before Kate’s last chapter is one about Harriet and Bess. Could it be that Kate’s forgoing heaven has something to do with making possible new choices for her friends and family? Could it be that she has something to do with freeing these women to choose to love in an original way, not tied to expectations from the past?
What I like about this book is how the pleasure of its quaint scenes of small town life and decorous love affairs gives way to a probing look at the underbelly of parochialism. What, at first glance, is a book about fairly conventional women living their hearty lives on the plains, is actually an insightful inquiry into the difficulties of being independent women anywhere. Sullivan says, “words are containers for small and tidy feelings.” The book is full of words describing birds and gardens, country drives and longing glances, but that’s not what it’s about; it’s about the unseen, unwritten forces that bring a woman to reckoning with what she must do. In Kate, Faith Sullivan draws a model for women of all ages, stations and eras. I look forward to her four other books about Harvester, Minnesota – Goodnight, Mr Wodehouse, Gardenias, Empress of One, and Cape Ann – to get a fuller picture of such women.