In The Day the Falls Stood Still, (by Cathy Marie Buchanan, Voice, 2009) we see Elizabeth (Bess) fall in love with Tom. Bess is a young woman who was born into a life of privilege. Family circumstances change, and she finds herself learning to sew for a living to help her mother support the family. She is forced to leave her private boarding school, as well. Once home, she falls in love with Tom Cole, a local boy who grew up in a small cabin near Niagra Falls where he learned to read the river, fish and hunt from his grandfather, a local legend. Of course, even though Bess sews for a living, her mother disapproves of Tom. She is betrothed to the brother of her boarding school roommate, much to her chagrin. When Bess’s sister, Isabelle, takes her own life by drowning herself in the falls, it is Tom who seeks Bess when he finds the body. Bess learns that Isabelle was pregnant, and when the family fortune was lost and Isabelle’s fiancé spurned her, she sees Isabelle felt she had no choice other than suicide. Bess swears Tom and the undertaker to secrecy about the pregnancy, and is dutiful through her sister’s wake. Unable to bear her grief any longer on her own, she goes to visit Tom at his boarding house, and is seen by residents of the small town, of course.
The family’s recovery seems in peril, as Bess was expected to marry Edward Atwell, and save them from certain ruin. Bess determines she will marry Tom, regardless of her parents’ dismay. One would think Bess a headstrong woman, ahead of her time, willing to make sacrifices for love. Yet, wouldn’t that character seem cliché? Bess does not sacrifice her principles, rather, later in their marriage, she asks her husband, Tom, to do so, claiming it is for the benefit of the family.
Tom goes off to serve in World War I and returns an emotionally disturbed man. Bess rallies to help him recover his sense of the world by coaxing him back to his beloved river. Yet, she heals him only to force him to compromise the very principles on which his well-being rests. She convinces him to take work for the hydroelectric power company, the very industry threatening the river that seems to flow through his body like blood. For a time, Tom is able to fend off the guilt he feels at digging channels that will divert the water flow. Ultimately, though, he becomes obsessed, manic. He hikes the gorge for hours, takes measurements and records them in a notebook.
When he is no longer the man she fell in love with as the result not of war wounds, but rather due to sacrificing his principles for a paycheck, Bess decides she doesn’t care about the house that seemed so important and that she no longer believes Tom’s salary is necessary to their well-being. She decides she can support the family with her sewing alone, and that they will do without anything else Tom’s salary might provide. And, when Tom seems he may be unwilling to leave his post, Bess makes sure he is fired from it by taking his diaries and charts and giving them to a reporter so that a critique of the power company may appear in the paper.
It is not just women who suffer the “problem that has no name.” Men, too, suffer in our society today and throughout history with the roles into which they are cast. Men are to work, to bring in the money for the household. No one ever asks whether they like the work they do, or whether it asks them to compromise their principles. Quite possibly, had they remained in rented rooms, Bess might have brought in the main income, while Tom was “unemployed” and raised their children by taking them fishing, hunting and teaching them to tend the garden and make repairs to the home in which they rented rooms as a way of lowering their cash outlay. Bess may be seen as a woman ahead of her time, or one who is romantically revered for her ability to leave behind a world of privilege for love. The story we do not hear is that of Tom. We do not learn enough about men who go off to war because society expects it of him. We do not learn about his suffering, which is kept quiet, when he returns emotionally wrought. We do not read about the bitter pill he swallows each morning he reports to work for a company that is essentially diverting his metaphoric soul as it takes water from the river. Rather than a “modern woman,” I see Bess as manipulative and conniving as she claims her mother and other townswomen to be.
In our consideration of the situation of women in our society, of how work might better accommodate family life and of how we might all be equal, with not just one sex having the most freedom, we must consider these untold stories of men. We must work toward altering the societal reaction to a father as homemaker and primary childcare provider. We need to value the work of raising children and maintaining a household, just as much as we hold dear the world of paid work and career, whether it is a woman or man who does either job.
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master’s in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family.
Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women’s health clinic.