I just finished a great novel, “The Tall Woman” by Wilma Dykeman. It was loaned to me because I am a tall woman, but I feel like the comparison ends there because Lydia McQueen is one of the strongest female characters I’ve ever encountered.
Published in 1962 but set at the beginning of the Civil War, the novel immerses you in the very difficult life of a young woman coming of age in a small Appalachian community in North Carolina. She marries for love over practical considerations not long before her husband heads off to fight for the Union army, while her father, brothers and most of the other men of the community join up with the Confederates.
Lydia finds herself living alone and pregnant while the men are off at war and the struggles she must deal with are unfathomable to the average modern woman. Her family’s home is raided by outliers, leaving her mother tortured in ways from which she never fully recovers. Lydia moves back home to take care of her mother and younger siblings with very little food and resources available. When she goes into labor with her own child, the town doctor is too inebriated to help and her difficult delivery leaves the child brain-damaged.
When the men finally return, the indelible wounds of war on the entire community cause Lydia’s husband, Mark, perhaps the most wounded of all after a long imprisonment at Andersonville, to decide a remote hillside far from town is the best place for them to settle. So they move to a beautiful but isolated spot on the mountain and slowly build an eventually flourishing homestead piece by piece, through the births of multiple children and the sometimes cruel ebb and flow of nature that is an integral part of agrarian life.
At one point, Mark leaves for several years to seek fortune in the West while Lydia holds down the farm and family back home, also tending to the needs of her extended family. It made me tired just reading about her physical load and the daily decisions that she had to navigate, sometimes “life or death” in magnitude and often all on her own. During all of this she works her whole life towards securing a school for their little community against financial and political odds, knowing that an education was the best way to ensure a better life for her children. She is truly inspiring.
I thought often, “Am I strong enough to handle what she had to?”
In my past life adventures on the Appalachian Trail and canoeing long distances, when things got tough, as they often did, I would keep myself going by focusing on how well I was preparing myself to handle an apocalypse in contrast to people living a cushier life. I was proud that I could hike 20 miles through a pouring rain, or survive on dwindling rations through the 100-Mile Wilderness of Maine, or paddle a loaded canoe endlessly across a giant lake in sweltering sun and heat. But, if I’m being honest, these “struggles” were done by choice, not necessity, and there was pretty well always an “escape button” if I needed to push it. Not to mention the fact that they are now a good 20 years in my past, the positive effects long ago lost to age and life at the computer screen.
The times in the novel that struck me most were when Lydia found herself facing some form of danger, like when she had to shoot a bear, for example. I wrote a while ago about my dog Dasher’s fatal encounter with a presumed coyote and how terrifying it was, but because I never saw the animal I never felt any real danger to myself, and even first thought Dasher’s experience was not quite as traumatic as it turned out to be.
On Sunday morning, I took Hansel and Gretel (my foster dogs) on a long walk down near the water treatment plant, which is our habit. I like walking there because we can go pretty far in the grassy area just outside of the fence line, which keeps us off the road and provides them with endless opportunity to “hunt” the small creatures that frequent the meadows.
As we headed home and came along the fence near the entrance to the plant, I looked up just in time to lock their leashes as I saw that we were staring straight at four wild dogs, maybe 30 feet away on the other side of the fence. Thankfully, I kept Hansel and Gretel from launching into their challenging and fitful barks that dare an animal to come near them. I was frozen in terrified knowledge of the nearby open gate that gave them full access to attack if they felt so inclined. I’ve not felt so vulnerable in a very long time. I thought of Lydia and wished for a gun to fire in the air to scare them off. Luckily, the dogs decided we weren’t of interest and headed down the property to a distant low spot in the fence to make their exit.
Hansel and Gretel pulled hard against their leashes all the way home, wishful of some kind of encounter with the dogs, though I’m not sure if they were looking for friendship or a fight. I saw the dogs cross the road and head to the woods behind my house, thankfully still ignoring us until I could get the pups safely contained. My heart was pounding at the idea of what could have happened. I couldn’t imagine how Lydia must have felt in complete isolation in far more dangerous conditions, her wits and strength her only resources.
The idea of it begs the question, “Would I be strong enough to live back then? Would any of us?”