Iowa Digital Heritage Collection

Ruth Suckow's Life & Writings: Short Stories, Novels, & Nonfiction -- an Introduction to her Short Stories, posted on the Iowa Digital Heritage website

by Professor Barbara Lounsberry, RSMA President.

Iowa Women

Ruth Suckow is one of Iowa's greatest writers. She lived from 1892 to 1960 and, as the daughter of a Congregational minister, lived in many Iowa towns—large and small—as her father moved from one church to the next. In 43 short stories, 9 novels, and many essays, Suckow preserves and probes Iowa life from the 1880s through World War II.

In the coming months, through the generosity of Suckow's literary executor, Suckow's works will be made available here for readers to enjoy--and also for reproduction for nonprofit educational use (by teachers, book clubs, theatre artists, and other groups).

We start with 10 of Suckow's short stories that focus on Iowa women's lives. The first 5 together offer one of the fullest studies ever offered of the “sacrificial daughter”--that is, of the daughter who must postpone (or give up entirely) her own life goals in order to care for ill or aging parents. The sacrificial daughter was a common occurrence throughout Iowa's first century as a state and, while less common today, still affects more women (and men) than one might suspect—not only in Iowa, but across the world.

In “A Home-coming,” published in 1926 in Suckow's first short story collection Iowa Interiors, Suckow offers one of the most complete pictures of the effects of the daughterly sacrifice. Laura Haviland returns to her birth home in Spring Valley after her mother's death. Although in her youth she had been noted for “joyousness,” now (at 36 or 37) she is “fragile and worn.” Now she has choices open to her, but will she be able to seize them? “Her life seemed drawn out of her,” Suckow writes; “it made one angry at the world.”

An Elegy for Alma's Aunt Amy,” published in 1952, portrays another side of the story: the sacrificial daughter who, after the parent's death, comes to live in another sibling's home. Amy Ramsey stays to take care of her father in Fairview after her mother dies. “I guess it had to be one of us, didn't it?” she asks. A cultured woman, she chooses eventually to live with her widowed sister and her daughter, Alma. Suckow shows the nuances when a home isn't really one's own. She writes that the three women “lived in that house with the frame tower, not like Sleeping Beauties waiting to be awakened, but in the dim and changeless after-enchantment of stillness when the prince has gone from their lives.” Suckow asks us here to face a situation that occurs to men and women then and now: when, for one reason or another, a love doesn't appear.

In “Mrs. Vogel and Ollie,” published in 1952, Suckow presentsboth a sacrificial daughter and a sacrificial son. In Woodland, Ollie Vogel cares for her mother. LeRoy, the man Ollie loves and who loves her, cares for his. Ollie does everything to make her childlike mother happy—including hiding family secrets from her. LeRoy and Ollie must meet away from both homes as they wait.

Henry Acres, the patient fiance of Mary Lane in Suckow's 1926 short story “The Daughter,” shows a different fate from that of Leroy in “Mrs. Vogel and Ollie.” Ever since Mary Lane was a child “she had waited hand and foot on her mother.” Mr. Lane, even when living, “had not helped much, believing such things to be a woman's duty.” Suckow writes in this story of the “strange inner flame of tenderness that some women have.” Mary “had gone on patiently, lovingly, with no recompense that could be seen, and scarcely a word of appreciation.” When the mother finally dies, we see Mary's and Henry's fates.

In “Experience,” published in 1931 in Suckow's short story collection Children and Older People, Suckow offers a glimpse of the sacrificial daughter in her later years. In this story, Elizabeth has just lost her beloved husband and is riddled with pain and suffering from the loss. She goes to visit Miss Gurney, whom she has always admired. Miss Gurney, we learn, first took care of her mother who was injured after a fall from a tree, and then of her father, immobilized for the past 10 years after a wagon accident. The father died at age 91 only the winter before. Elizabeth asks of Miss Gurney: “When things happen to people, how can they stand to go on living? Why don't they simply die?” Miss Gurney gives her a thoughtful reply.

The 5 stories that follow these first 5 on the “sacrificial daughter” portray a range of Iowa women—both single and married.

“Spinster and Cat,” one of Suckow's most beloved (and delightful) short stories (published in 1931), celebrates Toldene Schöwette and her adventurous cat, Sammie. Suckow looks at two sisters in this story—neither sacrificial daughters. Toldene is the happy “spinster” living just the life she likes with her flowers and her cat. Toldene only wishes to be let alone—and she is willing to let others alone as well. Henrietta, her widowed sister, living next door with her daughter and daughter's family, lacks this calm, self-content.

In “Charlotte's Marriage,” published in 1931, Suckow again contrasts two women and their choices. Grace VanCamp, a wealthy Iowan “wintering” in California, contrives to look up Charlotte, a girlhood friend Grace always envied. Charlotte always possessed a “distinction” that eluded Grace. Charlotte was the most popular girl in school, and she married Ken, the handsome most popular man in college. But Charlotte and Ken leave town and settle on their own in California when Charlotte's father belittles Ken. Charlotte's and Grace's fortunes now seem reversed—and Grace must see this for herself. What she finds will spur many thoughts and memories in readers.

California is questioned as a golden “paradise” in “Auntie Bissel,” published in 1952. Auntie Bissel is a naïve “Midwestern primitive” basking now in California. Personal values are raised once more in this, Suckow's critique of California as dreamland.

The last two short stories shared here offer portraits of two more touching Iowa women. In “Mrs. Kemper,” published in 1931, Suckow explores how lack of the assurance of love can keep a person from blooming. Mrs. Kemper is just such a woman. She comes to Iowa from the East as a young woman to teach in the high school. She is cultured, but shy, prim, and “not a very pretty girl.” Her neighbor, by chance, turns out to be a wealthy bank director, Mr. Kemper, whose young fiance has just died. In time, Mr. Kemper proposes to the shy young high school teacher. She accepts; however, he never has said “I love you.” We see how this lack of love's assurance keeps Mrs. Kemper from blooming and coming into her own.

In contrast, a woman does come into her own in “The Resurrection,” published in 1926. In this striking story, a family is stunned at “Grandma's” appearance in her casket. Who is this person, her three married daughters wonder. She had lived their life so long—never her own. They “never thought of her as a person in herself.” But her husband remembers long ago this look, this person now “radiant, calm” and self-possessed—and resurrected.

To view the ten short stories, please visit the Iowa Digital Heritage website, http://www.iowaheritage.org/items/browse?collection=127&sort_field=Dublin+Core%2CTitle



Last Updated April 13, 2015
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