In MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS, Rae Meadows explores three women of one matriarchal line --- their relationships, their hidden lives, and their secrets. From outstanding descriptions of turn-of-the-century New York to present-day Sanibel Island, their individual stories are woven together in a pleasing format.
Violet is 12. She and her mother, Lilibeth, landed in New York after Lilibeth decided to leave Kentucky, the husband she doesn't love, and a hard-scrabble life she thought her looks would help her avoid. She is also running from the stillbirth of her son, whom she held for two days before allowing to be buried. They arrive in New York completely unprepared, but Lilibeth soon finds that by turning on her southern charm, she can eke out enough money from various men to support a newfound opium habit. Violet is left on her own for days at a time but falls in with a group of newsboys and other street urchins. They soon help her hone her skills at petty theft, but they do watch out for each other.
Lilibeth is incapable of caring for Violet; she is too full of grief over her lost child --- and a life she never had --- to fully focus on making the life she does have better and being a good mother to her daughter. When Lilibeth mentions taking Violet to "the home" again, Violet takes charge of her own destiny and suggests she board one of "the trains." She is speaking of the Orphan Trains, which were run by the Children's Aid Society from 1854 to 1929. New York was bursting to the seams with orphans --- some true orphans, others just impoverished and neglected. In order to try and get them to a better life, the Aid Society would gather them up and send them on trains out to the Midwest where hopefully they would find new families, parents and homes. This premise held true for the younger travelers, but unfortunately for many of the older children, what they found were people looking for servants and laborers. As the train goes from town to town, slowly unloading its baggage, our heart breaks for the older children whose dreams of a place to call home, and people to call mama and papa, are fading.
Violet is taken on as an apprentice baker for a private hospital in Wisconsin. She eventually marries a farmer, adjusting easily to the life of a farm wife. After several miscarriages, Iris is born. Mother and daughter have a warm relationship, but there always seems to be a disconnect. Violet constantly holds herself --- and the true story of her childhood --- back from her daughter. Iris knows her mother was an orphan, but has no idea that she was with her real mother for the first part of her life --- that it was her mother who signed her over to an Orphan Train. Violet clearly loves Iris, but somehow she does not seem to trust mother love enough to lower her walls and share her deepest feelings and secrets.
Iris turns out to be an independent young woman who loves her parents, but gets out of the country as fast as she can, setting up in Chicago. When she thinks it's time to marry, she does, and rather well. A son is born, followed almost 10 years later (and quite unexpectedly) by a daughter. Iris is now battling cancer alone in a condo in Sanibel, FL.
Sam is Iris's daughter, Violet's granddaughter, and mother to Ella, the baby who has rocked her world to the very core. She was --- and is --- an artist, a thrower of pots and firer of ceramics, but she has not touched clay since she was six months pregnant. Even a commissioned teapot for her tenure-seeking husband's boss is a task she cannot fathom to begin. Sam's portions of the book take place over the course of one day --- the first day she has left Ella with a babysitter. She literally has to drag herself away from her child, and then spends the rest of the day in an aimless orbit, a moon without its earth.
There was a baby before Ella --- a miscarriage to all outside of Sam and her husband. However, the secret of what happened to that first child --- a secret not even shared with her mother --- haunts Sam even after the birth of her beautiful daughter. To top it all off, she continues to silently grieve for her mother (pregnant with Ella, Sam was with Iris during her last days and even her final moments); her parents' marriage, which only ended several years prior; and the estranged relationship she has with her father and only surviving parent.
As we learn more about these three ladies and the events that made them the women they are/were, we are better able to understand their psyches. While several of the book's mysteries will remain mysteries to the characters themselves, as readers we have the luxury of knowing the answers to all the questions. For us, the secrets of these mothers and daughters are all revealed.
Reviewed by Jamie Layton on April 4, 2011
Mothers and Daughters