A look at the author’s life…

Almost 900 pages into “…And Ladies of the Club”, I needed to find out more about the woman who wrote it.  I was growing the image, for some un-based reason, that Santmyer was a one-work author, a little old lady who cranked out her one book long after retirement.  I suspected she had spent her life in small Ohio towns, and only blossomed in her ‘golden years.’

I think…I thought she was one of her own characters.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Santmyer was a highly intelligent adventurer whose first literary successes came early. Clearly, she wove lots of her own life into the work, but the book is not a thinly veiled autobiography.  I bet a Santmyer biography, however, would be a fascinating read!

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I visited Ohio Reading Road Trip (www.orrt.org/santmyer) and the Ohioana website (www.ohioana.authors.org/santmyer) to see what I could find out about Helen Hooven Santmyer. Here’s what I discovered.

Santmyer was born in November, 1895, in Cincinnati, Ohio; she grew up in a small town, Xenia, not too far from that city. Her mother, an educated woman, encouraged Helen’s love of reading; Helen was nine when she read Little Women, and she knew, then and there, that she would grow up to be a writer.

Helen’s father, a former medical student, worked as a salesman, served as deputy county auditor, and managed a rope company–professions that reappear in “…And Ladies of the Club.”

So Helen knew what it was like for a child to grow up in a small Ohio city-town; she’d played the games, and gone to the schools; had friends, watched the adults and their dynamics; heard the Civil war stories; went to the parties and attended the funerals. She must have been a sharp observer of life and its foibles.

Helen graduated from high school in 1917, and had to defer college for a year: she had contracted typhoid fever. In 1918, she attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she majored in English Literature and Composition.

She spent three years in New York City, but big city life just never took for her. Santmyer’s first job was working with female suffragists, a job which proved, at the least, to be disappointing. According to Ohioana, Santmyer said of her colleagues, “They considered a day lost when they hadn’t succeeded in going into jail.” A staunch Republican, Santmyer herself might have advocated the vote for women, but she wasn’t interested in serving jail time.

Mrs. Ballard, that radical activist, is one of my favorite Ladies of the Club in the first half of Santmyer’s book.  I wonder how much of her loving but wry characterization comes from Helen’s interaction with the NYC suffragists.

Santmyer finished out her time in the Big Apple as a clerk at Scribner’s. In 1921, her mother ill, Santmyer returned to Xenia to help the family. She taught high school English in her home town briefly, and then took a position at Wellesley. And then, finally, she went to Oxford, a Rhodes Scholar. Her first novel, Herbs and Apples, was published in 1925; Santmyer received her degree from Oxford in 1927.

The Ohioana website suggests that Oxford was a long-deferred dream; this is a life that teaches me much about deferred dreams and perseverance! 

Santmyer published her second novel, The Fierce Dispute, in 1928, and began a book of essays about life in Ohio, tentatively entitled Our Town. And then she went to Cedarville, Ohio, College, where she taught English and served as Dean of Women. She didn’t publish again for many years.

I understand this—and I bet other educators will, too.  The immediacy and urgency of higher ed work sweep in and erase time to concentrate on hefty projects outside academe. I wonder if the illnesses Santmyer began to experience were signs of the writer trying to bust out of the academic.

In the 1950’s she began to experience what Ohio Reading Road Trip termed ‘debilitating illnesses.’ She left Cedarville, and went to Dayton, where she ended her professional career as a reference librarian. During this time, she met Mildred Sandoe; they became a couple and were together for 30 years.

Ah!  No wonder Santmyer writes so matter-of factly and kindly about Kate—and shares that poignant episode between Binny and Julia—in “…And Ladies.”  I don’t remember any scandalized responses back in the early ‘80’s; what a lovely handling of topics only whispered about in the time frame she addresses.

Retired from all outside work, Santmyer could devote herself to writing. She finished her book of essays; it was quickly picked up for publication in 1963, and earned an Ohioana award for excellence. Then Santmyer turned to a project she’d been waiting to take on: the writing of “…And Ladies of the Club.”

The Ohioana essay suggests that Santmyer wrote the book in angry reaction to Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, a cynical look at small town life in the United States. Santmyer’s book is far from an idealized picture; her characters are flawed, some of them deeply. But there is strength among the people in “…And Ladies of the Club”; there is creativity and growth, acceptance, forgiveness, and true change.

When Santmyer finally finished the book, a magnum opus at 1176 pages, she packed the manuscript up in several boxes and carted it to the Ohio State University press, which quickly agreed to publish it. They printed a small batch of copies in 1982, most of which were bought by libraries. A librarian in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Grace Sindell, thought it was the best thing she’d ever read.

Sindell called her son, a Los Angeles producer, to tell him about the book. He looked into it and phone lines began buzzing. A miniseries was in the works (as far as I can tell, it never materialized), and GP Putnam scooped up the novel for widespread publication. It became a Book of the Month Club selection and an immediate sensation.

Unimpressed, Santmyer said, “Ninety percent of the hoopla is because I’m an old lady.” When asked what she’d do with the money the book was bringing in, she said, “I have no plans for the money…but it’ll be awfully nice to have it.” (www.ohioana.authors.org/santmyer)

I love her comments!  I get the mental image of a sharp and savvy lady, so seasoned by her adventures that she was comfortable with, but unimpressed by, her own achievements.

By the time the book was redistributed, Santmyer had about two years to enjoy the proceeds; she died in 1987. Her final book, a novel called The Farewell Summer, was published posthumously in 1988.

I’m putting Santmyer’s other books on my ‘List for Later.’  AFTER I finish the books on my shelves, I’d like to see if I can track down some of her other work.  I wonder what The Farewell Summer is about, for instance—her last book, is it, as the title suggests it might be, a story framed by the perspective of great age and imminent farewells?

I look forward to reading her Ohio essays, too.

But meanwhile, I have almost 300 pages left of “…And Ladies of the Club”. The young ones are moving into adulthood; the original members of the club are becoming grandparents, leaving long careers, learning hard lessons, suffering heart-breaking losses.  They’ve turned the corner into the twentieth century, and I am anxious to see what happens next to the ladies of the club.

“…And Ladies of the Club”

A tattered treasure...
A tattered treasure…

“…And Ladies of the Club”
–Helen Hooven Santmyer
GP Putnam’s Sons, New York
1982

Joyfully snagged at a Half-Price Books store for 5.99; I hear this book is out of print and so, a treasure!

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I am reading Santmyer’s book because I am, in a turn of fate that sometimes startles me, a ‘lady of the club.’

I have been, in our travels through time and place, a member of book clubs and civic groups, of parent organizations and academically-related organizations and once, of a wonderful group of supportive women writers. But I never thought of being in the kind of a club of women that Helen Hooven Santmyer writes about.
My image of that sort of group was formed, I guess, as a very young child, when my mother quit her ‘card club.’ It was, I overheard her tell my dad, a pain in the neck–she felt the club members enjoyed inspecting the home of the hostess, who was expected to have an immaculately clean house and tiered platters of sandwiches made from bread dyed at the bakery, crusts cut off, mayonnaise-y fillings oozing.

I  internalized a vaguely negative feeling about ‘ladies’ clubs’–that they were a little frivolous, a little ostentatious, maybe. (Now it occurs to me that with an off-beat household–five rambunctious kids, one foster kid, a husband whose job demanded great deals of overtime, a rollicking dog, not much money, dust bunnies in odd corners, and a fragile emotional state, Mom might have WANTED to be part of that long-ago card club, but maybe just didn’t have all the pieces in place to make it a go.)

In the swinging 60’s and early seventies, I took my cue from those who sneered at sororities and fraternities. The state college I attended didn’t even offer such things. Instead there were groups dedicated to the pursuits of a discipline–literary club, say–or groups aiming to accomplish in the name of good causes–one sponsored a yearly carnival that raised money for, and made connections with, disadvantaged children, for instance. And I had little time for joining anyway; I needed to work–at the college library and a supermarket during the term, at an ice cream factory and a book store during the summers.

I was, I liked to think, a serious student, then a serious young teacher, who didn’t have time for such frivolities.

Before long, I had married–and then I had married again–and I had my own off-beat, rollicking household, and I often felt lucky to escape for a half hour walk around the quiet neighborhoods of my sleepy town. Mark worked at a company we knew deeply was indestructible;but it wasn’t, and he changed jobs, I went to grad school, I graduated, we moved.

We started thinking seriously about law school for the boy. Now or never, right? Never didn’t sound like the better option. We embarked on a five year journey that involved searching for programs, a second baccalaureate, and relocation.

None of that offered opportunity for establishing long-term ties or joining clubs. It was a fun, intense interlude with the ambience of a long roller coaster ride: This is great, but hang on–we can’t get off till it’s over.

And then, the aftermath: leading us to this home, these jobs, allowing us to sink roots into this wonderful Ohio community, and opening up the possibility of joining a club.

My friend and colleague–and Dean–Susan invited me to attend a meeting of the club I’m in; I wasn’t sure about it, but I went and listened to papers prepared by two members, and I was thoroughly charmed. I am not sure what I had expected–pinkies out, maybe–but what I found was a group of educated, intelligent women who enjoy researching topics about which they are passionate and sharing their findings with others who have open, inquiring minds. The group has been meeting since the late 1800’s; it has wonderful traditions, and there’s the often the opportunity to hear the voices of women who’ve gone before.

*****

At one meeting, not so very long ago, someone mentioned a book about another Ohio women’s club, “…And Ladies of the Club.” I remembered that book; it had been a best-seller when I worked at the Book Nook in the 1970’s and 1980’s. We were encouraged, there, to take books home and read them, gently coddling the volumes, so we could return them to the shelves and then talk to customers intelligently. I read a LOT at that job, but it was the time of Marilyn French and Mary Gordon; I re-read, too, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy and all of CS Lewis, I dove into Dune, into Anne MacCaffrey, and I read Katherine Kurtz…somehow, the ladies of Helen Hooven Santmyer’s club didn’t beckon me then.

But now, I developed a real curiosity about the book; the women of MY club mentioned a former member, Marilyn, who had gone to Xenia and visited with Helen Hooven Santmyer twenty years before. Then Marilyn presented a paper on “…And Ladies of the Club,” complete with primary research. The fictional club and our actual club, Susan pointed out, had uncanny parallels. I said I’d really like to read “…And Ladies of the Club“; some of the women looked a little dubious. It was, they thought, long out of print. Someone said the library’s copy had been read and read again into oblivion.

But that very weekend we took a little road trip to Half Price Books, and there on the shelf was Santmyer’s book, obviously in my path for a very good reason. I snatched it up, paid the pittance, and brought it home to my shelf.

*****

I am 572 fascinating pages into this book, a sweeping saga at 1176 pages: a not-surprising product of the ’70’s and ’80’s (it was published in 1982). Think Thornbirds; think Roots. …And Ladies… would provide the perfect base for a mini-series.

The book begins with commencement for two young ladies from Waynesboro, Ohio’s Female College–not really a college, but more of a church-sponsored secondary school.  Anne gives the valedictory that day as Sally sets her sights for an ambitious young blond man who’s visiting. They’re excited and apprehensive about life after school, and they are a little nervous when their teacher, Mrs. Lowrey, asks them to stop in her office before leaving.

What’s that all about? they wonder uneasily, even as they realize that they no longer fall under the disciplinary realm of the school’s hierarchy.

But Mrs. Lowrey has an invitation for them: some of the intellectually minded women are planning a “…a literary club, in Waynesboro, a women’s club, not a ‘female circle,’ to meet at intervals and promote an interest in culture–in letters, in poetry–at least in a small group.” And Anne and Sally, so recently thrilled to be free from study and academic discipline, surprise themselves by accepting on the spot.

The club formed that day is the structure for Santmyer’s story. This is not, by any means, a saccharine, all-will-be-well tale. There is bigotry in Waynesboro; there is back-stabbing and connivance. The story blooms in the shadow of the Civil War: the young men who become Anne and Sally’s husbands have been scarred and shaped by their roles in it. The War’s legacy stains the characters’ lives in both healthy ways and ways that bode ill.

The club members are good, decent people, but they are not mindlessly contented women, sipping tea as they embroider cozies and discuss literature suitable for ladies. Their lives involve poverty, infidelity, hidden homosexuality, suicide, mental illness, and death. There are class differences; there is a divide between the married women and the women who stay single (by choice or by fate) and work. There are children who turn out in unexpected, and not always welcome, ways.

The women represent a variety of ages and backgrounds, but the club binds them closely together. Despite their faults, their stumbling, their timidity or their brashness, the ladies of this club are sympathetic and likable.

By page 572, Anne and Sally are settling into middle age; their oldest children are teenagers; they have established a lending library; they have come to be leaders in the club. There have been losses and new arrivals and disappointments and triumphs. The club has formed a constant in their lives, an unchanging certainty no matter what else may happen.

*****

I look forward not only to finishing this book, but to finding out more about its author. I hope to track down Marilyn to ask about her visit with Helen Hooven Santmyer, who was born in 1895, making her 87 when the book was published. There’s a story there, I bet; and I look forward to finding out more about Santmyer’s life. Was she, I wonder, a lady of the club?

I will find out, and I’ll be back.

Read it NOW…

Books on the shelf

My theme for this year, I have decided, is ‘Do it now.’

No more thinking, “I really need to re-caulk the bathtub soon.” I get the tools and do it.

I am finishing all my moldering projects, writing letters long deferred, making those necessary calls, setting up my long-avoided appointments, and cleaning out my email inboxes, which hold archives from the 80’s, I swear.

And–I am going to read the books on my shelves. My son James and I finally organized the bookshelves; the books are now in loose alphabetical order by author. As we worked, I realized how many of these volumes are waiting for me. I have promised them my ‘soon’ attention, after picking them up at used bookshops and buck-a-bag library book sales, with gift cards at the Big Book Store, with delight in finding something long sought on Amazon.com. I stack them neatly; I promise myself I will read them JUST AS SOON as I finish my library books. I will NOT, I tell myself sternly, get any more library materials until I have read at least ten–or maybe five–well, two, anyway,–of my waiting books.

And I take James to the library, and while I am there I just take a look at the New Books section and discover to my surprise that Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things is on the shelf–I can’t believe that’s not buried deep in reserve requests!– and I grab it…and oh my,…Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; oh, and wait, The Rosie Project. My gosh.

My canvas shopping bag is bulging by the time I get home, and library books demand precedence; they have due dates; people are waiting on them. They usurp my owned books’ spaces; those sad, neglected volumes get woven into the shelved books. Dust gathers on their gilded page edgings.

But now that’s over—the time of reckoning has come. My owned books have my full attention. I am reading what’s been shelved.

I have a wealth of books waiting. There are Karen Armstrong’s histories of God and of myth, and there is Jon Kabat-Zinn on mindfulness. There are several Ruth Rendell mysteries, along with six or seven of Tony Hillerman’s. There’s a wonderful stack of Miss Read books, and there are volumes of Alexandra Stoddard, along with Neil Young’s autobiography, and some of Ruth Reichl’s cooking memoirs. There are random ‘one copies’; there are series inserts; there are thoughtful histories and creative non-fiction.

I get excited thinking about the books in wait, what they’ll say to me, and what I’ll learn. I look forward to what the authors have to tell, and I look forward to remembering why this particular book was so important that I bought it and I saved it, saved it till now, when I’m ready, for whatever reason, to peel back the layers and discover the treasures that lay in wait.

This blog will keep me honest. No sneaking to the library for just-out fiction fixes; I am sticking to my program. I am reading my patient books NOW.

The kitchen is cleaned; the laundry is sorted; except for the snapping of the fire, the house is quiet.

Let the reading begin.