Book Summary: A Lantern in Her Hand

Title: A Lantern in Her Hand

Author: Bess Streeter Aldrich

Basic Overview:

I really liked this book. Honestly, it started out a little slow for me, but by the end I was engrossed and it’s made me think about quite a few things as a woman and a mother.

The novel is set in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Abbie Deal is the daughter of European immigrants and dreams of becoming a famous singer, painter or writer. She wants to be as sophisticated as her Scottish gentry ancestors. Early in her life she has the opportunity to marry a rich doctor and move away to New York. Instead, she follows her heart and marries Will Deal. Together they set off to the untamed Nebraska territory to try their hand at farming and she finds herself living in poverty and difficult conditions.

The majority of the book chronicles her pioneer struggles as a woman, wife and mother. She raises five children in humble circumstances, yet she pours her unfulfilled dreams into them. She makes them memorize Shakespeare and then later goes to great lengths to be able to pay for good schools and educational opportunities for her children. At one point an artist moves to a nearby town and Abbie finally has the opportunity to take lessons and fulfill one of her dreams. Her oldest daughter, however, has developed quite the talent for drawing and so Abbie sends her to take lessons instead.

I loved how the story didn’t gloss over Abbie’s trials. She experiences depression, jealousy and regret. She also shows great love and dedication, courage and sacrifice. Her children and grandchildren all grow up to be successful, well-educated and talented individuals with far-reaching effects. In the process, Abbie helps to settle her little town into a successful community.

Parts I Liked Best:

Isn’t motherhood, itself, an accomplishment?” (pg 161)

“It’s queer what ambitious dreams a girl has when she is young. I thought I would sing before big audiences or paint lovely pictures or write a splendid book….And just think…now I am eighty and I have not painted nor written nor sung.”

“But you’ve done lots of things, Grandma. You’ve baked bread…and pieced quilts…and taken care of your children.”

“…That’s just it…I’ve only baked bread and pieced quilts and taken care of children. But some women have to, don’t they?…But I’ve dreamed dreams….And I think I dreamed them into the children…and the children are carrying them out….”(pg 229)

How This Book Made an Impact In My Life, Especially as a Mother (or why I just really liked it):

Aren’t we lucky to live in the day and age we live in? Abbie was right, some women have had to give up their dreams just so their family could have basic necessities and survive. We have educational opportunities, technology and discretionary time our ancestors would never have dreamed of. Reading this book helped me realize how fortunate I am and how important it is to use my free time wisely.

The other thing that really hit me after reading this was the impact of a mother’s love. Abbie may not have been successful according to her own standards, but because of her love and sacrifice, her children were a force for good in the world. It reminded me that our mothering struggles count for something in the long run.

In the book, two of Abbie’s grown children ended up having little desire to get married or to have children. I wonder if this was common of their generation – having watched the struggles of their parents, did seeing the financial and personal costs of caring for children discourage them from following in their footsteps? This helped me realize that given the increase of discretionary time that we have, it is important as mothers to continue to progress in our talents and fulfill our dreams. Our children will see that motherhood is not all sacrifice and struggle, but also a time for personal growth.


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  1. says

    I just finished reading this book as well and was impressed by so many of the same things as you. I’m so very grateful that I can spend time pursuing my interests and passions while still focusing on my children and household (provided I use my discretionary time wisely). I keep thinking about that book.

  2. Audra says

    I also heard about it from Sarah. Your review is spot-on. I can’t get the book out of my head and am now reading Aldrich’s sequel to it, A White Bird Flying.

  3. Mark says

    As a native Nebraskan I had an interest in a novel by a Nebraska author, and was quite pleasantly impressed by the quality of the book. The stories ring true and the hardiness of the people is amazing. All too often we forget what it was like for the people who put roots down so the rest of us could prosper. Aldrich brings home the power of the characters with a unique skill with words that makes the piece a gem. I think it is significant enough that I plan to use the novel as part of my American Lit. class next year.

    I may not be a mom, but I can surely be thankful for all the good ones who put us on the right path.

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