Learning by Light and Darkness: A Review of A Lantern in Her Hand

If philosophy is a preparation for death, as Socrates says, then the same can be said of education, at least any worthwhile education. This accounts for the additional sorrow at the death of the young: even the most promising young woman or man is really not ready in several concrete senses. For one, the young have only had partial instruction in parenthood, as in their own upbringing but not in raising their own children. For another, they have not had enough time to learn humility in practical terms. If humility is the virtue of “walking in truth,” as Thomas Aquinas implies and St. Teresa of Avila states, the young, having lived more in the potential than in the actual, do not know enough about humility or truth. 

This is not to deny the profound effects of grace from baptism, nor that God has willed to produce precocious saints in the past; it is only to acknowledge that man, in terms of nature, is not complete until he has passed through all the ages of man, from helpless infant to lean and slippered pantaloon.

Bess Streeter Aldrich’s Lantern in Her Hand is a book about a woman who studies well in the school of death throughout her life, and who reaches her old age well-prepared to matriculate. While the writing is stilted at times, and though the philosophical commonplaces do not always hold up to rigorous trial, there is a great deal of practical wisdom, a beauty in the story itself, and a gathering of all this into the quiet triumph of a soul.

The story of Abbie, the protagonist, starts in Ireland and moves quickly to the fields of Iowa and then to sod-busting in Nebraska. Here the story stops moving geographically but picks up in describing the growth of her family, her town, and her wisdom through long, hard years.

One line of the plot particularly disturbs, enlightens, and possibly encourages: one generation endures grinding poverty and grueling work for the sake of the farm and family, only for the next generation to decline farm and family to pursue city careers and personal goals. And the kicker is this, that this is 1870 to 1920, not 1934 to 1984! More than fifty years before Wendell Berry wrote Hannah Coulter, Bess Aldrich described her own era, sometimes with more, often with less affectation than Berry. The potential encouragement lies in “nature never being spent,” for as in Hannah Coulter, so in this book is revealed the dormant vigor of the grandchildren, waiting to be awakened to redeem the time.

Redemption, which originally means “a buying back,” is one of the most noticeable tendencies in Abbie’s life. It occurs on several levels. There are the artistic aspirations of Abbie in her youth, forsworn to marry the love of her life, share a hard pioneer life with that love, and bear and raise the children of love. In the accomplishments of these children, Abbie accomplishes all she dreamed of doing to become stylish and famous. But there is an ironic twist: each child in some way repudiates the kind of love that gave them being in the first place. When you read this book, watch for a hilarious episode near the end of the book that illustrates this fact poignantly. 

But there are deeper and more permanent redemptions. Time, the greatest fear of Abbie in her youth, becomes a friend. Abbie becomes a woman who values both the duties and pleasures of friendship over fame and fortune. She becomes a wife whose love for her husband conquers death rather than being conquered by it. Finally, there is a redemption of the pioneering instinct itself.

It is important to tread carefully here. Literally, with care. On one hand, we Americans take a very correct pride in the men and women who extended civilization West, and we are bound to have a great reverence for them, and a great appreciation for the sacrifices many of them made to leave the communities they were born into because of severe poverty, political turmoil, or persecution of their faith. But not all the pioneers were forced by necessity. For these, the pioneer impulse is a dangerous one, not only to one’s life but to one’s soul. Abbie’s husband’s argument for their move to Nebraska reveals the dangers: “There are too many settlers here. And as long as I’m anywhere around here I’d always have to work for Father.” Abbie’s initial shrinking from her husband’s thinking is proved to be with good reason; while she and her husband cut particular inconvenient familial and community ties for the sake of independence, their children up the ante by rejecting family and community culture.

Still, whatever the uprooting, individualistic, and even materialistic impulses behind the movement to the American West, A Lantern in Her Hand also points out the cultivation, community-building, and faith this experience could elicit as well. There is an image, familiar to our culture even now, of the humble homestead holding in honor its two links to civilization, Shakespeare and the Bible. Abbie’s kind of homesteading is true to this type. As crops repeatedly fail during their first decade in Nebraska, families discover that their choices are death, giving up, or making great sacrifices to cultivate not only the land but their humanity. On the outposts of European civilization, the great feast of Europe, Christmas, is kept with a joy and love more genuine than that of many contemporary New Yorkers or Parisians. And it is appropriate to mention again, here, that while the children seem to give up on the hard-earned wisdom of their parents, the children’s children find themselves drawn back to that wisdom.

A perfect example of the kind of wisdom contained in this book is the discussion of love. At one point Abbie states that “You can’t describe love . . . and you can’t define it.” Now strictly speaking, that is untrue. We know that love can be defined. We know from Thomas Aquinas that love is desiring the good for the other. We know from Christ that the greatest love is to die for one’s friends. One might fear that the book is tending to the sentimentalization of love so prevalent. But that fear is not borne out. Abbie might not learn how to define what love is, but she does learn what it is, and what it is like. In the episode just mentioned, Abbie goes on to depict love in terms that are striking and unsentimental. Read it in comparison with Jesus Christ’s parable of the wise and foolish virgins, and I think you will agree. Let wiser heads and hearts, more steeped in philosophy, take up this discussion now, but there is at least a commonsensical, practical truth about love in this book. 

Learning truths about things such as love is what makes Abbie a well-educated woman at the end. Being well-educated, she is well-prepared for death. Abbie’s life is a kind of education also, and so I invite you to give it some time in preparation for your true final exam.

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