Tuesday, July 19, 2011
CELEBRATING THE SIMPLE PLEASURES OF LIFE: PAPA’S WIFE
There are certain books that lie with you for years but somehow you either don’t get the chance to read them or keep putting them off on some pretext or the other – better finish the book borrowed from the library, keep it for a ‘rainy day’, read it when you are a particular mood, so on and so forth.
One such book that I finally got down to reading (believe it or not) after a decade of picking up and putting down is Papa’s Wife by Thyra Ferre Bjorn. And it wasn’t that the incentive wasn’t there: the publishing history showed how popular the book was. First published in 1955; by 1972, it had seen more than twenty five reprints. More importantly my sisters read it and loved it.
Finally, this week I got down to reading it. The first of a trilogy (the other two are Papa’s Daughter and Mama’s Way) and partly biographical, the novel chronicles the life of Maria, a Swedish girl who has three ambitions in life. One to be a Minister’s Wife, more specifically to be the wife of the handsome Pontus Franzon, the pastor of a church in the small Swedish town of Lapland, whose household she enters as a maid. The second is related to the first one – have a large brood of little Franzons; and third to migrate to USA from Sweden.
It’s the third ambition that she is able to realise first. She is offered a passage to America by a lady who is keen to join her husband in US and needs somebody to help her in traveling along with her children by sea. Maria tries to use this to her advantage and informs the pastor about how she’ll have to leave his service. She expects a proposal from him, for hasn’t she slaved all these years keeping the parsonage clean and the food hot. However, the pastor who is not only her elder by twenty two years but moreover has decided never to marry after facing rejection in love, simply wishes her the best in life. With her plan in tatters, she goes to America as and tries to become a cook. However, America is dull without the Pastor. So the lonely girl writes a letter to him. Months later she receives a reply and thus begins anew the determination to realise all her dreams. How she finally ensnares the reluctant bachelor, how God blesses her with eight children, how she copes with her life as a Minister’s wife first in Sweden and then later in the States makes for some enjoyable reading.
If you are in the mood to read fluff, you will enjoy the book. Nothing depressing happens, the kids are all beautifully angelic, adversities get turned into opportunities, and faith gets renewed every time something untoward happens. The book seems to exist in a kind of vacuum. Time and history it seems make no difference to the family snug in their parsonage. In fact, it’s even difficult to ascertain the time line in the book as the author doesn’t mention public events at all. With the accent on the personal, family values are highlighted. Things like cooking great food (the description of coffee bread and cookies, fried herrings tinged with Swedish sauces, meat balls and apple pies will make your mouth water), keeping the home clean and gleaming, planting plants and flowers, sewing and fishing are emphasized to show how even the most mundane thing can bring much joy. Here is Maria giving a piece of advice to her daughter who is about to get married:
“The way you manage your own home is important too. Very important. Little things again – like having the table set when John comes home. And making the meal the most important thing in your life at the moment. Nothing lifts a man’s spirit like the odor of fresh coffee and meat and muffins baking in the oven. And when you whisper ‘Darling, I cooked this especially for you!’ Well – that’s a big deposit in your happiness-for-life bank account.”
There are also certain interesting nuggets about Sweden. How during certain months in Northern Sweden, the sun keeps shining even at night or how washing is done only twice a year! (Is it true even now?)
The book is good but to me it’s not great. The plot is wafer-thin, the characters are drawn lovingly but they are not intriguing, and after some time the rosiness does begin to jar. However, certain passages are an absolute delight. Here’s how the book begins:
Papa was an old-fashioned preacher. He preached the word of God straight from the Bible, without regard for personalities or consequences….If Mrs. Nelson whispered to Mrs. Backlund about the price of her new hat, Papa would stop in dead silence. “When you ladies are through talking,” he would announce in an even voice, clipping short each word, “I will continue.”
You may be sure there was no more whispering that Sunday morning. But Mama was furious. “Do you have to say a thing like that right in the middle of Job’s patience? If only you had a bit of it yourself, then you might be able to teach others!”
Read it and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
Papa's Wife can be bought online. My copy was bought from a raddiwallah.
20th July, 2011
Submitted for Cym Lowell's Book Review Wednesday.
For details of the review party and other entries, click here: