March 2011

Jennifer Taylor

fiction

Mothers and Daughters by Rae Meadows

Rae Meadows creates a multi-generational exploration of motherhood in her third novel, Mothers and Daughters. Told in alternating chapters over a number of years, the story opens with Samantha, a young mother and artist. Although she still feels the occasional urge to practice her art, it doesn’t seem as important after giving birth to her daughter, Ella. Yet her husband insists an attempt to return to her creative pursuits would be beneficial. Reluctantly agreeing to leave her baby with a sitter, Sam drifts through an entire day without Ella by her side. She is a mother without her child, if only for a short time.

In contrast, Sam’s grandmother, Violet, endures a hardscrabble childhood while Violet’s mother, a former Southern beauty, is held hostage to an opium addiction. For as long as she can remember, Violet has been the caretaker to her mother. And although her upbringing is the most difficult of the three women, Violet becomes a quiet woman of strength, the kind of person who welcomes solitude instead of shunning it. She would be bewildered by Sam’s aimlessness without Ella for an afternoon.

When the reader catches up to Sam’s mother, Iris, she is nearing the end of her life. Unlike most people who feel the need to surround themselves in a familiar setting with loved ones, Iris chooses to move to the South to be alone. As she prepares for her death, Iris reflects back on her life, and her changing relationship as a mother to her children. She’s aware that Sam’s expectations of being a mother are entirely different from her own.

After Iris’s death, Sam receives a package containing forgotten possessions from both her grandmother and mother, forcing her to think about the hidden parts of their lives that she will never know. In a worn Bible, Sam discovers a mysterious letter to Violet showing a connection with the Children’s Aid Society. Sam isn’t aware that Violet’s mother readily allowed her daughter to be taken along on an orphan train with other children who were placed in homes across the country.    

As Sam muses about the letter’s implications, she thinks about the heartbreaking secret she wishes she had confided to her mother: “She used to think she understood her mother, but the truth was, in the end, Iris had become more of a mystery. It was as if when she had gotten divorced and moved away, she had turned back into who she’d been before becoming a mother, a woman Sam never knew, or maybe she had become someone altogether different.”

There are multitudes of differences along with a few similarities shared among the three generations of women. They all love baking. Although Sam is unsure about her ability to make pottery, she continues to be comforted by creativity through food. One of the most treasured items Sam finds in the box is a set of recipes handed down from Violet: “From her grandmother, to her mother, to her. Sam smiled, feeling a sense of rightness in that simple continuum. She ran her finger over her grandmother’s handwriting and set the card aside.”

While Sam struggles to define her new role as a mother, she doesn’t know how her grandmother and mother prepared for motherhood. She also doesn’t know how they felt about becoming mothers. Violet and Iris lacked the abundance of choices that Sam has open to her. The paradox is that although Sam is the one with the most freedom, she has the most difficulty in finding direction. This is the story of how much we often don’t know about the people who raise us.

What were our mothers’ lives before they had children? Do we really consider that, or just think of them in terms of what they mean to us? Mothers and Daughters showcases Meadow’s ability to create generations of fully formed women as they navigate life-defining moments. She also brings awareness to the little-known historic orphan trains that transported thousands of children to different parts of the country where they were paraded around, waiting for someone to take them home and make them part of their family.

Mothers and Daughters by Rae Meadows
Henry Holt and Co.
ISBN: 0805093834
272 Pages