A Lantern in Her Hand tells the life story of Abbie Deal and her life in the Midwest at a time when it was the newly minted West. The first of her family born in the United States, her father a wealthy aristocrat and her mother a lowly peasant, Abbie embodies the two clashing sides of her parents, making her a true American. She identifies with her paternal grandmother, a well-to-do lady who disapproved of her son’s marriage, but on the frontier Abbie will need her maternal family’s grit and courage to survive.

Aldrich’s novel bristles with characters in conflict representing the upper and lower classes, the city and the county, art and labor, civility and wilderness, East and West. These two conflicting ideas are especially embodied in the two men courting her – rugged farmhand Will Deal who she loves and well-groomed Ed Matthews who promises to take her to New York City to be a lady. For Abbie these two sides of life find harmony in the beauty of nature, where flowers become jewelry, and acorn tops a tea-set. The serenity of the land provokes artistic passions in Abbie, above all singing, which she one day hopes to make a career of.

Throughout her life Abbie feels that time is rushing by like a wind she cannot stop. This feeling is captured in the past-paced narrative, where conflicts rise and are resolved quickly, seemingly before Abbie can even think about the consequences. Above all, the conflict is inside Abbie, born of her mismatched parents and revealed in her contradictory loves of the simple life and her ideation of the finer things. Even when she marries Will, choosing true love over superficial pleasure, it all seems to happen too fast. Soon enough they are leaving their families behind to head west into Nebraska, a new state with vast potential – some good, some bad. It is there they start a family of their own, and discover the two constants of the West: hope and hardship.

A Lantern in Her Hand weaves together beautiful descriptions of the unspoiled nature of the frontier with the emotional tumult of those who settled there. As beautiful as it is, nature is unconcerned with the plans of humans, and often works against them. Aldrich’s personification of Work, Time, and Fate capture the difficulties of taming the wild land on the body and mind as Abbie tries to recreate the wealth her family once knew in new, hostile territory. She asks herself “how one could be a lovely lady when there was not always enough water to keep immaculately clean?” While her own life is rushing past her, the outside world is not moving fast enough to keep up, as Abbie desires the trappings of the civilized life she dreams of.

Abbie struggles in her longings for a richer life, with more things and time to refine her talents, against the wild earth that keeps that longing from fulfillment with drought, wildfire, blizzards, dust-storms, swarms, and death. These struggles cause her to question her entire life with Will, but only for a moment. Her courage and love always win out in the end, and as long as she has her family, she is happy. Eventually she comes to desire the finer things, not for herself, but for her children, whose longing for things outside the farm remind her of her younger self. But like herself, she knows she must let them make their own lives, even if it goes against her or Will’s desires, just as she chose Will and the life she leads in the countryside.

Aldrich also traces Nebraska’s history, from the founding of the state and creation of the capitol, to the establishment of Arbor Day and into the twentieth century. Abbie Deal comes to be a stock character in Aldrich’s eyes, representing all the strong mothers who raised families and worked the land at the same time, deferring dreams of their own for others, only to find those dreams fulfilled in future generations. In Abbie Deal, the bittersweet spirit of the West is found – ever-hopeful in the face of harsh conditions, always striving for better while content with the simplicities.

A Lantern in Her Hand is available at Bellevue University Library, along with several other Aldrich works, located in the general collection. All books can be borrowed for 21 days with the option of renewal.

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