What a Woman Must Do

What a Woman Must Do

3.5 2
by Faith Sullivan

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Set in the Midwest in 1952, Faith Sullivan's novel follows the interconnected lives of three women of three generations: Bess, 17, Harriet, 39, and Kate, 59. All have been affected by the death of Bess's parents in a car accident. As Bess prepares for college, and Harriet for marriage, Great Aunt Kate holds the trio together. In writing knowingly and


Set in the Midwest in 1952, Faith Sullivan's novel follows the interconnected lives of three women of three generations: Bess, 17, Harriet, 39, and Kate, 59. All have been affected by the death of Bess's parents in a car accident. As Bess prepares for college, and Harriet for marriage, Great Aunt Kate holds the trio together. In writing knowingly and appreciatively of small-town life, Sullivan, winner of the Milkweed Editions' National Fiction Prize, addresses the universal themes of family, love, and loyalty.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
From the author of The Cape Ann comes another tale of Harvester, Minnesota: the story of three generations of women and their struggle to shake free from the tragedy that brought them together.
Library Journal
This new novel by Sullivan (The Empress of One) is an intricate study of the relationships among women, particularly three women of three different generations. Katherine Drew, or Kate; the one who holds the other two together, is the senior member of the threesome and is older than her years because of crippling arthritis. Harriet McCaffery, the businesswoman and almost spinster, has come to live with Kate in order to escape her stifling family. Elizabeth Canby, Kate's orphaned niece, completes the trio. The three live together in Kate's house, and the reader is almost lulled by what appear to be very ordinary lives. The illusion is shattered, however, when Harriet falls in love with and wants to marry a farmer, which would mean leaving the safety of Kate's house. Meanwhile, Elizabeth becomes involved with a married man, threatening her chances to escape the Loon Cafe, where she works. However, Kate has a surprise in store for Harriet and Elizabeth that will shake them to their cores. Sullivan provides a very perceptive look at actions and interactions and how they can reroute lives. Recommended for all libraries.--Patricia Gulian, South Portland, ME Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-An intergenerational novel set in the small town of Harvester, MN, in 1952. At 17, Bess is moving lightly through the remaining weeks of summer before she leaves for college. Her great aunt Kate, who raised her from the age of seven, finds herself crippled further and further by arthritis, even as her wisdom assumes increasingly rigorous power. In the generation between them, Harriet, who came to live with Kate when she was a young woman wanting to escape a stultifying home, has fallen in love at midlife. The stories, both personal to each of these characters and shared by them across the years, are revealed in well-orchestrated flashbacks as the present unfolds from three viewpoints. Bess falls in love with a married man, while feeling disgust that her cousin Harriet accepts the proposal of a widowed farmer. Kate looks back not only on her own past but also on the tragedies and misunderstandings that brought the two younger women to her home and care-and forward to the lives she hopes for each of them. Sullivan realizes the epoch in subtle and genuine detail, from the changing role of women to generational attitudes toward farming economics to the discretion required by telephone party lines. Teens who like family sagas, romance, and complex characters will treasure this novel. Its craftsmanship will cultivate their reading palates toward literary sophistication.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly
Sullivan is a good storyteller and the peaceful, rural backdrop se sketches stands in poignant contrast to her sympathetic characters' struggles with temptation and conflicting loyalties.
Kirkus Reviews
In a disappointingly maudlin story, three women shaped by past sadness confront the possibilities of hope over three momentous days. Sullivan revisits the small town of Harvester, Minnesota (The Empress of One, 1996, etc.), where memories are long and everybody knows your business. The time is summer, the year 1952, and the day Wednesday—the tenth anniversary of the fatal car crash of Archer and Celia Canby. The couple left a small daughter Bess, now 17; and she, her great-aunt Kate, and her middle-aged cousin Harriet are the three narrators. Kate, afflicted by painful arthritis, can't forgive Archer, a drunk and abusive man, for causing Celia's death. And lately, too, she can't stop remembering the happy times she spent when she and her own late husband Martin still owned the farm outside Harvester, before they had to sell it back during the Depression. Bess, on the other hand, soon to go off to college, is full of life and eager to fall in love, which she does that same Wednesday night when she goes dancing with friend Donna and meets married Korean War vet Doyle Hanlon. Cousin Harriet is also out dancing the same night, hoping that widower farmer DeVore will finally propose to her and allow her to live the life she has dreamed of since moving away from her cold and critical parents. As Harriet's wishes come true, Kate, who has caught a glimpse of Bess riding in a strange car, worries that the girl may be harmed, as her mother was, by falling for the wrong kind of man. Bess, convinced that she's in love with Doyle, is soon ready to give up college and become his mistress, even if it might cause a scandal and deeply wound Kate and Harriet. All too neatly, however, abroken-downcar and sudden death resolve matters for all three of these women, who, however well drawn, remain stuck in a pulp-fiction world. Not Sullivan's best.. . . Waters, Sarah AFFINITY Riverhead/Putnam (368 pp.) Jun. 5, 2000

From the Publisher

Praise for What a Woman Must Do

“[T]he pages can’t turn fast enough. Sullivan is a good storyteller and the peaceful, rural backdrop she sketches stands in poignant contrast to her sympathetic characters’ struggles with temptation and conflicting loyalties.”
Publishers Weekly

“Sullivan realizes the epoch in subtle and genuine detail. Teens who like family sagas, romance, and complex characters will treasure this novel. Its craftsmanship will cultivate their reading palates toward literary sophistication.”
School Library Journal

“Sullivan provides a very perceptive look at actions and interactions and how they can reroute lives. Recommended for all libraries.”
Library Journal

“Sullivan’s writing is most effective at evoking the steady pace of small-town life. This novel has a kind of gentle gravity and sweetness.”
LA Times

“Sullivan writes with insight about the difficulties her women characters face in this insular town. What a Woman Must Do draws the reader in.”
Washington Post

Product Details

Milkweed Editions
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Trade Paper Edition
Product dimensions:
5.88(w) x 9.60(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt


The old elms, planted double and triple so that the trunks were as broad as the front end of a car, cast flickering patterns that promised, but did not deliver, relief from the August heat. Drooping limbs bowed indolently, ushering into the screen porch a shadow or possibly a shade.

Her cane hooked over the head of the daybed, Kate Drew lay like a sheaf of gnarled, dry twigs gathered into a blue chambray housedress. Her arms and legs were tinder ready to burst into flame, her joints throbbing coals. Turning over in bed raised sweat on her brow and brought stifled cries to her throat.

At the foot of the bed, where she'd flung it down, was the Standard Ledger. The piece about her niece Celia and Celia's husband, Archer, had left Kate weak, and she'd lain down to catch her breath.

But what about Bess--the "daughter, Elizabeth Katherine" and Kate's grandniece? Before Bess came home from work, Kate would have to hide the paper.

Still, she supposed that the girl would have read it somewhere. Or someone would have told her about it. And she'd know that Kate had read it. Kate always read the paper. All of it.

Well, a person had to, out of self-protection. In Harvester everybody knew everything about everybody, whether it was their business or not. In that way, it was different from the Cities or Chicago. Too different for Bess. Though Bess flounced around town pretending not to care what people thought (cursing and criticizing and smoking cigarettes), she was as sensitive as a tuberous begonia. She had to shock, and she had to be loved, and she didn't see that it was impossible to have it both ways.

When shewas Bess's age, Kate had never needed to shock. Well, she hadn't had anyone she needed to punish the way that Bess did. As for love, she hadn't given it much thought. It simply was, like water from a spring, pouring out of a cleft someplace in the universe. You held out your cup. You didn't worry about it.

My God, had she been that young, that ignorant?

At Bess's age (younger, actually), Kate had graduated at the head of her high school class, armed with a plan for getting back to the country. Her father had lost his farm to the bank after years of hard times and, despite ten-year-old Kate's wild tears and threats to throw herself from the hayloft, he had moved the family to town, where he'd worked as a carpenter for the rest of his life.

After graduation Kate caught a train to St. Cloud and teachers' college. In return for room and board with her father's married niece, Elsie, she helped with the cooking and housework and looked after Elsie's three children. Despite all this, she managed to do well in her courses and have a good time. Elsie was young and dark and quiet, but full of little jokes and mysteries, and the two women got on well.

It was Elsie who had taught Kate to read the tea leaves and the cards. She called it "forecasting." "Forecasting" sounded practical, not like something that only gypsies did. Women friends came to have Elsie lay the cards out in mysterious arrangements on the kitchen table or swirl tea leaves in the cup. They didn't tell their husbands, nor did Elsie tell hers.

The first time that Elsie read Kate's tea leaves, she'd bent over the cup, intent as a biologist hunched over a microscope, then held the cup away from her to gain perspective and catch the light from the kerosene lantern.

Studying Kate's face, she murmured, "Yes. . ." and turned the cup this way, then that. If such a thing could be said, Elsie was scientific about the leaves: seen from different angles, patterns of leaves looked different and meant different things.

When she was at last satisfied that she understood the messages in the cup, Elsie tipped it toward Kate, saying, "Here is a man, tall and ... fair, and a barn and ... here is a ring, do you see it?" She held out the cup, pointing to the ring. "That means a wedding." She threw Kate a conspirator's grin. "I forecast that you're going to marry a farmer." She moved the lantern so that Kate could better see. "And the man, see here, is holding ... a child's hand ... a little girl's hand."

"And what is all this over here?" Kate wanted to know.

Elsie rose, carrying the cup to the sink. "That's ... clouds ... bringing rain to the farm."

Despite the warmth of the kitchen, Kate shivered. She'd never mentioned to Elsie wanting to live on a farm.

At the end of a year, Kate had a certificate entitling her to teach in a country school, and she hurried home to find one, laying aside the forecasting. She was seventeen when she began teaching eight pupils at a rural school north of Harvester. When she thought of it now, she shook her head with wonder.

Boarding at a farm a two-mile trek from school, Kate thought herself in heaven. Walking to school on a pitch-dark winter morning, with snow above her knees and the temperature minus twenty, wasn't punishment enough to curb her euphoria. She was living in the country.

During the second year of teaching, Kate met Martin Drew at a dance in the township hall, and life fell into place. They were married late the next summer--August of 1912--and she settled onto his farm with such ease that it all seemed ordained. Joyful years spun off, like a reel of satiny ribbon.

That farm, that blessed farm. Kate gave her head an impatient twist, then rued it for the pain it cost her. She would have to conjure the farm in order to block it out. This conjuring she hadn't learned from Elsie. It was a recent talent and she'd grown clever at it. In forecasting you looked forward. In conjuring, you looked back. No, you took yourself back. She had learned, for example, to call forth the farm in every detail as it had been--touch, smell, sound. Traveling through years and Miles, she returned to it. She was there. Not in imagination, but in conjuration.

Once she has scythed the long, soft grass in the yard, Kate lies down on the straw between rows of tomatoes and stares up through the branches of nearby cottonwoods. Whenever she can, she steals a moment to lie here between the garden rows. But she has little time today; she must head down to the pond and haul water for the garden, then hoe weeds in the sweet corn.

Cleaning house and washing clothes are duties, but gardening is a madness and a rapture. She is the farmer of a one-hundred-by-one-hundred-foot plot, harvesting kale and cosmos, horseradish and hyssop.

The garden is by turns lover, child, and course of study--very nearly a second life lying parallel to the life she has with Martin and the old folks and Baby Celia, her niece, whom she and Martin have adopted.

Kate is sure that Martin feels this passion toward the larger farm, the stubborn yet yielding fields, though he does not speak of it. Best not to tempt Providence, best not to mention aloud that which might be wrested away in an hour, pillaged by hail or winds or locusts, or bled dry in a season of drought. If you didn't admit the farm's vulnerability, if you pretended not to care, perhaps it and you would be safe.

Kate is more rash, more profligate in her passion. She surrenders herself to the farm, allows herself to be as vulnerable as it is. That is the way to love.

And she doesn't expect her garden to be easy. One morning she comes out to find a tomato plant mysteriously dying, wilted overnight. Grimly she pulls it from the ground, its roots sighing little protesting death gasps as she wrenches them from their bed. Death tunnels beneath the earth or crawls along it or flies from the sky to threaten the lives of cabbages and calendula. No, she does not expect the garden to be easy, nor the farm. Like all of life, it is made up of small, sweet victories, maddening miscalculations, and horrid losses.

She is both a terrible romantic and a reluctant but dogged realist. The garden is worth all her tears and worries and tenderness, even as the larger fields of corn and rye are worth Martin's.

As she lies on the warm, dusty straw and gazes at the cornflower sky, the pleasure of the farm oozes through her and she moans softly, running her hands over her breasts and belly. Heaven will be a farm, she thinks. And we will own it outright.

Sitting up on her elbows, Kate gazes out toward the field where Martin is harrowing with Sunshine and Moonshine, one white horse, one black. A rush of gratitude sweeps over her. This farm belongs to Martin's family, and she is his wife. She is back!

Her roots reach down below the water table, as deep as the midnight world from which Demeter, goddess of agriculture, rescued her daughter Persephone. (This according to
Unheard Melodies, a slim book of Greek mythology, and Martin's boyhood prizefor eight years of perfect school attendance.)

Kate doesn't know where love for the farm leaves off and love for Martin begins. It is all of a piece--Martin, the earth, the giant, restless cottonwoods, the ripe, waiting feeling she has, lying here between rows of tomatoes, their succulent perfume caught in her hair, in the folds of her apron, in the pores of her skin.

Thank you, Martin, thank you for your hard work and your love and your farm.

She doesn't mind sharing the house with his old parents--Martin was born when his mother was nearly fifty. The old folks are kind and patient and teach Kate things she needs to know. His mother has taught her about herbs--baths and teas and balms and such-knowing which plants are good for what. Plantain for coughs and hoarseness, dill for upset stomach.

Though farm life is harsh, in winter especially, even winter is sensuous in its pregnant hoping and planning, in its stewardship of possibility. The family incubates possibilities through dark months while they are huddled in the kitchen, besieged by an invading army of cold and snow that sweeps across the prairie at the command of a tireless wind.

Kate sighs. The pond and the pails wait; the thirsty garden waits. The pond is spring-fed, and a twisting creek, narrow enough for a girl to leap, squeezes its way out, wriggling across the cow pasture.

Bounding to her feet, Kate runs, snatching up the pails from where they lie and the hem of her long skirts as well. Reaching the creek, she leaps it, then wheels, and leaps again.

Kate was awakened by her own thin moan. Though the day was warm, she was cold, except her burning joints. Quarter inch by quarter inch, she turned onto her side, dry bones hot inside her skin.

Closing her eyes and staring into the well of pain, she raised the young Kate slowly till she was sitting, manipulated the girl's legs and arms and torso thus and thus and thus, then lifted her to her feet.

Now, standing beside the daybed, trembling from the exertion, Kate reached for the head rail to steady herself. Beaded perspiration trickled from her forehead into the hairs of her black brows, and from her upper lip into the crease of her mouth. Her lips were pressed into a grimace of pain. Then, as she extracted a soft linen handkerchief from the sleeve of her dress and mopped her hairline and brows, her mouth twisted slowly into a thin smile of triumph.

Meet the Author

Faith Sullivan is the author of seven award-winning novels, including Gardenias, The Empress of One, and The Cape Ann. A “demon gardener, flea marketer, and feeder of birds,” she is also an indefatigable champion of literary culture and her fellow writers, and has visited with hundreds of book clubs. Born and raised in southern Minnesota, Faith Sullivan lives in Minneapolis with her husband.

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What a Woman Must Do 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read all of Faith Sullivan's books now and I just love them all. They are set in Harvester, Minnesota, a small town where everyone knows everything about everyone. In What a Woman Must Do, we follow three women at different stages of their lives, who all have very important decisions to make. The writing is wonderful and story will keep you turning the pages. Can't wait for Sullivan's next!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Some of the descriptions of daily life in 1950's Harvester, Mn are nostalgic and sometimes enchanting; but on the whole, the story was a mess. Sullivan usually gives us something to identify with. In this book she deals with some wierd, smaltzy mysticism. I could not care about these characters. I was glad the book was short. If it were long I probably wouldn't have finished it. I hope her next book is better. I will look forward to a good Sullivan book! This one was not it.