“I have loved you when I did not know you existed, Anna. I have loved the dream of you. I have begun loving you before I left my mother's arms. I have loved you while I find this land to which I would bring you and while I cut its timbers to build this home for you and while I reap my grains for you and build my fire for you . . . I know all my life you are waiting somewhere for me.” The Endearment
How many times have you longed for more books with character-driven stories, books that weave external conflict seamlessly with internal conflict, books with richly detailed settings and evoking a great sense of time period, ones with characters you laugh with, cry with, cheer for, and celebrate with, fall in love with? The Endearment by LaVyrle Spencer is just such a book and follows Morning Glory, Vows, Years, and Hummingbird on my 'in case of fire' shelf. I feel totally inadequate in even attempting to relate how much I love LaVyrle Spencer's body of work, but The Endearment deserves all the paltry praise I can wring out of my head and heart.
Karl Lindstrom (whose face would "not curdle milk") is twenty-five, a Swedish immigrant, who settled in the frontier of Minnesota, the nearest thing to a village is a primitive outpost called Long Prairie. Karl had immigrated looking for land which was hard to find in his native but beloved Skäne, and he came alone, without any of his large, loving family, making a place for himself and his dreams in this place which reminded him of his home, with hope that his family would follow, but they didn't. Without family, without the familiarity of his customs and people who loved him, without human companionship of any kind to relieve the unrelenting loneliness, Karl feels the isolation very deeply, with only the sympathetic ears of his pet goat, Nanna, to listen to his woes.
“Goats make maybe the best pets of all. They are loyal and quiet and do not eat much. During the winter blizzards, there were many times when I was grateful for the company of my Nanna to listen to me talk and never complain when I tell her how impatient I am to have neighbors, and how I miss my family back in Sweden and how I think spring will never come. Nanna, she just chews her cud and puts up with me.” His eyes strayed to Anna as he spoke, then back to the boy. (77)
His loneliness leads him to place an advertisement in newspapers back East, seeking a mail-order bride, and his requirements and expectations are high. He wants a woman his age, "an able cook, an experienced housekeeper, a willing farm worker." Karl wants his bride-to-be to be without encumbrances (like a little brother), and one who must be able to read and write so that she can teach their children.
Anna Reardon ("my whiskey-haired Anna")is just seventeen years old and is alone in the world except for her thirteen-year old brother, James. Their mother, Barbara, was a prostitute in Boston who had no time or love for the two children known as "Barbara's brats" and died of "the disease all women of her profession fear." Though James has enough education to read and write, Anna has had none.
"Sometimes, when our mother got a fit of conscience, she'd make him go to school, but she didn't see any girl needing to know her letters, so she left me alone.”
“What kind of mother would only send a boy to school now and then, when she had a fit of conscience? Conscience over what?”
This time James saved Anna from lying or revealing the full truth. He burst in. “We didn't have much, even before Barbara got sick and died. We lived with . . . with friends of hers most of the time, and I had to go out and try to find work to help. I guess she thought I was kind of young to be out working, and sometimes she'd get . . . well, sorry, kind of. That's when I'd have to go to school. I managed to go enough to learn to read and write a little.” (52)
After Barbara's death, Anna mended clothes for a meager amount of money while James picked pockets or stole food from markets to survive. Both slept in the brothel till the rooms filled up, then bunked down at a local church when they were thrown out for the night. Anna and James's situation became dire when the ladies of the house began to urge Anna to join their ranks, but James found Karl's advertisement in the paper. So he wrote letters to Karl, dictated by Anna, letters full of lies. The lies were not easy for either of them, rising from desperation of a homeless girl and her young brother. Those lies were "like a hair shirt upon Anna's conscience ever since."
Anna Reardon had done the unforgivable. She had lied through her teeth to get Karl Lindstrom to marry her! She had intentionally deceived the man in order to get him to send her passage money to Minnesota as his mail-order bride. He was expecting her to be twenty-five years old, an able cook, an experienced housekeeper, a willing farm worker and . . . a virgin.
Furthermore, he was expecting her to arrive alone.
The only thing Anna hadn't lied about was her looks. She had accurately described herself as whiskey-haired, Irish, about as tall as a mule's withers, on the thin side, with brown eyes, flat ears, a few freckles, passable features, all her teeth and no pox marks.(1)
One by one, most of Anna's lies are found out, very quickly, within a few hours of their first meeting. Her age, her brother, her inability to cook, her illiteracy, her inexperience on a farm. Karl is accepting and forgiving of them all with some encouragement and prodding from the priest who witnesses their vows. But there's one last lie to come to light, one whose revelation is the hardest for Karl to forgive and forget. The timing of it, coming at a time when both are beginning to discover they love each other, is heartbreaking because this is the one that drives an almost insurmountable wedge between them.
The long trip to Karl's land is filled with Karl's patient teaching of both James and Anna of their new home, the land he loves, and gives such a beautiful sense of early Minnesota Territory. Karl's knowledge of the different trees and the wood they provide is almost a religion unto itself as is his reverence for nature.
They were passing through a place of green magnificence. The forest was built of verdant walls, broken here and there by peaceful embrasures where prairie grasses fought for a stronghold. Trees of giant proportions canopied above saplings vying for the sky. The sky was embroidered with stitches of leafy design. Anna leaned her head way back to gaze at the dappled emerald roof above. (54)
As he points to the maples with "nectar such as you will find no place else", how it polishes to "shine like water"; yellow locusts which "splits as smooth and true as the flight of an apple falling from a tree"; the chestnut yielding "boards as flat as milk on a plate"; the beeches for whittling and carving; oaks for 'shingles that will keep a roof tight for fifty years", their natural grains catching "the rain and send it running in channels as true as the course of a river over a falls"; red oak for fence rails; ash for making axe handles to make it "light and strong and springy"; pine, the "best friend the axeman" because beneath the bark is wood read to be made into boards, interspersed with his memories of his 'morfar" and "far" (grandfather and father) teaching him about trees, wood, and riving, some of Karl's love for his land is transferred to Anna and James.
"You must ask a tree to do what it does best, then it will never disappoint you. And so I split the locust, carve the beech and make boards from pine and chestnut. It is the same with people. I would not ask a blacksmith to bake me a pie, would I? Or a baker to shoe my horse.” Karl tipped a little grin their way. “If I did, I would perhaps have to eat my horseshoe and tack the pie to my horse's hoof." (55)
His love and respect for the land, its resources is compelling to both Anna and James, opening up a well-spring of hope, a sense of purpose, and life-affirming optimism neither had ever experienced.
“Elder is for shade and beauty.” Karl smiled. “We must not forget that some trees are given to us for nothing more than shade and beauty, and if this is all we ask of them, they are happy.” (57)
Karl sounds perfect, doesn't he? Despite his anger, his disappointment, his disillusionment with Anna, he is patient, kind, considerate, and accepting of both James and Anna. He begins to like Anna, to flirt with her, and he gives her time to grow accustomed to him before consummating their marriage. He shows her how to cook, to make lye soap, to light a fire, all the things that she lied about in her letters.
Within the heart of Karl Lindstrom fell a heavy sadness. How he had looked forward to this day, thinking always how proud he would be when he took his little whiskey-haired Anna into his sod house for the first time. He would proudly show her the fireplace he had built of fieldstone from his own soil, the table and chairs he had fashioned of sturdy black walnut from his own trees. He remembered the long hours spent braiding buffalo grass into ropes to restring the log frame of the bed for her. How carefully he had dried last season's corn husks to make the softest tickings a woman could want. He'd spent precious hours collecting cattails, plucking their down to fill pillow ticks for her. The buffalo robes had been aired and shaken and rubbed with wild herbs to make them smell sweet. Lastly, he had picked a sheaf of sweet clover, its fragrance headier than any other, and had lain it on the spot where their two pillows met, in the center of the bed.
In all these ways Karl Lindstrom had sought to tell his Anna that he prized her, welcomed her and strove to please her. (20-21)
He takes James under his wing, giving him confidence and a positive male role model he's never had. Using humor and gentle teasing with his Anna ('my Onnuh'), he cheers her on, encourages her to keep trying, despite her failures.
Anna tries to learn all the things Karl expects of her, but her cooking experiments fail more than succeed (so much so that even Nanna the goat won't eat the charred, tough remains of meals thrown out the door of the sod house) and her housewifely duties are disappointing. She's skinny, prefers britches to dresses, has a fiery temperament, her hair has a mind of its own, and she's happier outside the house than she is inside. But they grow to like, respect, and begin to love each other in spite of their differences. Maybe because of them.
What LaVyrle Spencer does best here is weave the external conflict of Anna learning to survive a very different environment in the frontier of Minnesota with an internal conflict of striving to be all that Karl dreamed she would be before he discovered all her lies. More, the revelation of the final lie - what Anna was forced to do in order to provide passage and new clothes for James to accompany her to Minnesota - and Karl's inability to forgive her ratchets up her struggle, making her feel even more inadequate, without pride in any of her accomplishments, and harshly judging herself as someone not deserving of Karl, of happiness, of love.
The entrance of a Swedish family into the community (including a buxom, sweet Swedish daughter with a coronet of blonde braids, who knows how to cook Swedish pancakes and make lingonberry jam) on the heels of Anna and Karl's emotional rift and his physical and emotional withdrawal from her increases the distance between them, especially when Karl appears to prefer Kerstin and her family to Anna. Anna and Karl's argument over harsh correction of James is more about a desire to punish Anna than to correct James. Both say things they regret but both are too proud to apologize. Karl storms off, and Anna's isolation and sense of failure is bone deep.
There was an opportunity to make Kerstin the proverbial "other woman", the paragon of Karl's dreams when he immediately seeks out Kerstin and her family after the argument, but LaVyrle Spencer takes another path. Instead, Kerstin is the one to make Karl own up to the mistakes he's made in the past several weeks with Anna. Three days of separation on a trip to grind wheat, several bolts of pink gingham, a bar of chamomile soap instead of that "lardy" lye soap, five glass windows for the log house, and a brand new stove to cook with instead of a fireplace is Karl's olive branch on his return.
The gifts he brings back for Anna aren't the only way he redeems himself for the way he refused to understand and forgive Anna. Anna had begged for his forgiveness many times and in many ways, but he was unwilling or unable to give her that. His return to the farm finds Karl changed in a significant way.
Anna and Karl tiptoe around each other, though she's "My Onnuh" again, and he gently teases her as they work to finish the log house. Finally, the log house is complete, the oak door has been hung, the windows placed. All is ready for Karl, Anna, and James to move in, to become a family, and to fully realize the dream of family that began with Karl but was cherished as much by both Anna and James. Anna's preparations for their first night in their home mirrors Karl's actions as he prepared for his "Onnuh's" first visit to his sod house.
She listened for the first sizzle of the kettle while she put their house in order. She hurried to hang the curtains at the windows on arching willow withes. Next she laid a matching gingham cloth upon the table, then their dishes, knives, mugs. She used precious minutes to pick the wildflowers, running all the way out to the edge of the field where they grew. These she placed in the center of the table in a thick pottery milk pitcher: clusters of Karl's beloved Minnesota. There were the late-blooming lavender asters, brown-eyed susans, lacy white northern bedstraw, feathery goldenrod, rich purple loosestrife, brilliant pink blazing star and lastly . . . most importantly . . . she interspersed the bouquet with fragrant stalks of yellow sweet clover. Standing back, she took a moment to assess her handiwork, wondering what Karl would say when he walked in and saw it.(316)
In a pink gingham hand-sewn dress, Anna waits for Karl wondering what he'll notice first, what he'll think of the table, the curtains, the dress, the braids in her hair, herself. If she'll once again be a failure.
Karl searched his mind for the proper word. But, much like the first time he had ever laid eyes on her there was only one word he could say. It came out, as it had so often, questioning, wondering, telling, a response to all he saw before him, a question about all he saw before him. All he had, all he was, all he hoped to be was wrapped up in that single word: “Onnuh?” (319)
Over Swedish pancakes and rose hip tea, their reconciliation shows Anna that she wasn't the only one who needed to learn, to change, to grow.
“Did you think, Anna, that maybe it was not you who needed to change, but me?” he asked now, so softly.
“You?” Her head snapped up and she laughed a little too harshly. “Why, you're so perfect, Karl, any woman would be a fool to want you to change. There's not a single thing on this earth that you can't do or won't try or can't learn. You're patient, and you have a . . . a grand sense of humor, and you care about things so much, and you're honest and . . . and I have yet to see you defeated by anything. Why, I haven't found a single thing you don't know how to do.”
“Except forgive, Anna,” he admitted before the dusky room grew silent.
". . .I had you, and I could not look past the one and only thing you could not change and try to forgive it. I have held onto my stubborn Swedish pride all these weeks, long after I could see that until I forgave you that one thing, you would not find pride in anything else you did.”(328-329)
Karl gives Anna a gift more precious than gingham or soap or even a house with wood floors and a stove to cook on. He lets her know that he recognizes the million and one ways she tried to make amends, to atone, to change herself into a person he could love and respect, but he makes sure she knows she already is that person without changing one thing about herself:
He reached to cover her lips with his fingertips, stopping her words. “You are the one who deserves, Anna. More than I have given. It is not enough that I have taken up my axe and cut trees to build you a home and that I have cleared land and raised food for its table and bought you a stove and a bar of soap. A home is only a home because of the people in it. A home is only a home when it has love. And so if I give you all these things, what does it matter when I withhold myself?”
In his own fiercely honorable way, Karl kept his eyes glued to her face while he said all this. When a man speaks of things which mean much to him, he does not hide it from showing in his face.
"Forgive me, Anna,” he whispered hoarsely, “forgive me for all these weeks.”
Into his azure eyes Anna gazed wonderingly, wanting this moment to draw on into the forever of their years. “Oh, Karl, there is nothing to forgive. I'm the one who should be asking.”
“No,” he uttered, “you asked long ago, on the night you picked blueberries for me.”
Still kneeling, he took her hands apart and lowered his face into them where they lay on her lap. He needed so badly to be touched by her, to be assured of her forgiveness now. She looked down at the back of his head, at the blond wisps that waved into the shadowed hollow of his neck. Her love surged in devastating swells that overflowed from her eyes, blurring Karl's image before her.
To Anna came the intrinsic understanding that he must have the words she alone could give. Karl. Karl who in all ways was good and loving and kind. Karl needed her absolution from a transgression of her own making. She felt his flesh upon her palm and moved her other hand to twine her fingers in his hair. “I forgive you, Karl,” she said softly, knowing utter fullness at the words, at the look in his eyes as he raised them to her face again. (329-331)
Karl and Anna find mutual generosity and honor in 'sweet mercy', letting go of resentment, anger, and guilt. Anna had sought Karl's forgiveness in word and deed, many times. She was patient when he asked for time, she offered up her reasons for her actions, not excuses. She understood when he withdrew from her even though it hurt. She persevered through it all when she could have just given up. Karl, in turn, could do no less for the hurt he caused her. There is a beautiful symmetry in the clover he placed on their bed at the beginning for the Anna he had never met and the clover he plucks from the milk pitcher and places on their bed in the log house at the end of the book.
Anna opened the door and stood gazing out at the night for a moment. “Karl, I really never felt what you did about this place and all its plenty until I thought I had lost you. But I know now. I really know.”
“Come to bed, Anna.”
She smiled over her shoulder, then closed the door and padded across the newly hewn boards of the floor to the candlelight at their bedside.
Karl stood waiting there for her.
And in the center of the bed, between their two pillows, lay a single shaft of sweet clover, plucked from the bouquet that had graced their dinner table, where lingonberry jam now dried on two forgotten plates.(340-341)