Survival of the Blood:
Vardis Fisher's The Mothers

The Mothers, by Vardis Fisher [First Edition]

At a conference sponsored by the Institute of the American West in August of 1982, during a day-long session on women in the West, some stimulating assertions were made about the relationship of female experience to the settlement of the West. Lillian Schlissel pointed out that our historical picture of the Oregon Trail is essentially masculine in its details–the movement west becomes an adventure, a matter of guns and Indians and manly self-reliance, She observed that very little historical writing attends to the female side of that experience. Professor Schlissel's observation is apt, but what is true of history is less true of fiction.

While women have not fared well in the fiction of the West–neither in the dime novel and its inheritors, the committee-produced pulp paperback and the film western, nor in the serious fiction the region has produced–they have fared better in fiction than in historical writing, particularly in the fiction of authors with direct experience of pioneer life–Rolvaag, Hudson, Stegner, Cather, and Vardis Fisher.

Fisher's women–in all his fiction, from the Testament of Man to his Western Americana and the tetralogy–are characterized by their strength of will, their hardiness, their grace under pressure.
Dancing Badger

Author's Note Note

Books by Vardis Fisher I have posted an annotated bibliography of Fisher's work.

For Fisher, these are not masculine traits but human traits: his men are at least as likely to lack them as his women are. The best of his female characters are as good in these ways as any of his men, and the average Fisher woman is a cut above the average man in almost anything except physical strength.[1] This position is a logical corollary to his Darwinism, which held that adversity improves and success debauches both the individual and the species. Fisher, I am sure, would have found amusement in the feminist gibe, "A woman has to work twice as hard as a man for her success, but fortunately that is not difficult." For Fisher, the important pioneering traits are not race-specific or sex-specific, but species-specific–or even deeper-rooted, evolving from the best and most successful life-forms of the ancient past.

Fisher was an ardent feminist, though his now-dated scientific knowledge flawed that ardor with false or tenuous assumptions about male and female nature. He fought his sexism, to the degree that he was aware of it, and he fought sexism in others. He prided himself on his rationalism and encouraged the intellectual growth of the women close to him–if we may take his generally unflattering fictional self-portraits at face value as regards this matter. In essays and in the addenda to the Testament, he made his position clear: "The way men degraded women in ancient times and later under the Christians constitutes the most revolting chapter in human history," and "the fact that if man there is so much woman in you, if woman so much man, is your most precious endowment."[2] And in the Testament of Man: "There is no more cruel chapter in history than that which records the arrest by Christianity of the natural growth of European civilization regarding women . . . a wrong that continued almost up to our own day, and the results of which are still with us everywhere."[3]

Women contribute thoughtfully in all of the Testament novels and often speak explicitly about the inferior position of women in the culture a particular novel depicts, as do Helen in Peace Like a River, Khate in The Valley of Vision, Sirena in Jesus Came Again, Melanie in The Island of the Innocent, and Angela, Athene, and Neloa in Orphans in Gethsemane. In the latter book it is even clearer than in the tetralogy that Vridar Hunter's torqued understanding of Neloa's womanhood, his inability to support her in any self-actualizing way, drives her to her suicide.

These women are not uniformly good and heroic; Fisher does not settle for such reverse stereotyping. Though Helen, Khate, and Sirena usually voice a point of view resembling Fisher's own, their personal motives and vanities color their judgments. And Melanie represents a Fisher type, the reasonable defender of an admirable theoretical position which unfortunately leads to the "brutal degradation" of one people by another. Fisher's women, like his men, may be heroic and petty, vain and kindhearted, cowardly and mean, or fiercely self-sacrificing.

There is no larger assemblage of heroic women in Fisher's novels than in The Mothers, his account of the Donner Party. The Donner tragedy is one of the major disasters of the westering movement, recounted in novels, historical writing, and Hollywood films. Fisher adheres closely to the historical facts recorded in many journals and memoirs, but his title suggests the special focus of his version of the story. The Mothers credits the women with saving the few survivors and shows them acting decisively while the men, one by one, literally curl up, give up, and die.

In 1846, the Donner Party attempted a shortcut to California, a cutoff whose only drawback was the Utah/Nevada desert. It brought them to the Sierra Nevada just in time for an unseasonable blizzard that trapped them in a mountain pass for six months. To save themselves and bring help, parties of the strongest set out for California. The rest ate ox hides; they conserved calories in ways evocative of the Nazi death camps. A number of parties of brave men, led by fathers who had walked the passes and then turned back at once with help, brought in meager supplies and carried out starving children. By the time the last few survivors were rescued, most of the party had died and many of the dead had been eaten by the living. No family survived intact, but the women stranded in that mountain camp saved a disproportionate number of their children. George R. Stewart identified the problem of the Donner Party as a political one, arguing that rather than attempt to survive as a community, sharing democratically, they had focused on family survival, a kind of individual survival.[4] While he may be right, that a sense of community might have helped them make better decisions, they were apparently doomed once they reached the middle of Nevada, too weak to endure further hardship. And in The Mothers, it is the women alone who value the survival of the family "name" through the children above all else.

Fisher was interested in the strength of will that allowed for any survivors at all, and in the decisions that doomed or saved individual members of the party. For him, the incident showed humanity stripped of custom and assumption, forced to examine every belief and weigh each against the need for personal survival and, more tellingly, for genetic survival–the need to save the children. For Fisher, the essential difference between man and woman is that a cornered man may fight for his own personal survival and a cornered woman will fight for her children's. Unable to save their own lives, most of the men give up; but the women accept their fate if by starving themselves and by violating taboos, they can save their children. The adult women as a group have the lowest rate of survival, but only because they barely maintain their own lives, living solely for their children.

Fisher's characters are solid, dimensioned human beings with the strengths and weaknesses we share variously, and they are also "types." For Fisher "type" combines biology, psychology, and culture. In The Mothers, his adult characters fall into five exclusive types: the bachelor, the husband, the father, the mother, and the potential mother. None of these types is exclusively of a single sex, though the highest percentage of each occurs in the obvious sex: the bachelor types are mostly men, the mothers, mostly women. The will for personal survival is strongest in the small group of potential mothers, the teenaged girls; the will for group survival is strongest in the mothers and two fathers, Bill Eddy and Jim Reed.

Fisher once said, referring to his reading in anthropology, "The human female, when driven to the protection of her children, was probably a more ferocious animal than the human male."[5] The matriarchs of The Mothers–Mrs. Graves, Peggy Breen–are creatures of formidable courage and determination. The Donner matriarch, little Tamsen Donner, is more civilized perhaps, but no less fierce in protection of her children. Finally it is her "civilization" that kills her, when she determines to stay with her dying husband rather than accompany the last of the rescuers out of the mountains. Tamsen exemplifies the period's sexual discrimination, which Fisher identifies as unreasonable. The Mothers begins with the party in trouble, and Fisher stresses that no man among them had the boldness of a leader. Tamsen and Lizzie Graves and Peggy Breen hold the group together with sheer will enforced by their prerogatives as female heads of clans.

In his first chapter, Fisher identifies the one potential leader who might have saved the group, "if she had been a man," young Mary Graves.[6] To underscore his point, he puts us briefly inside the heads of two young men: Charlie Stanton, unimposing but brave and unselfish, and John Snyder, who believes–incorrectly–that Mary adores him (15). Snyder, Fisher tells us, "was not a born leader, but perceived the folly of these people" (16). Snyder has what Stanton lacks–good looks, physical bulk, a fine voice, skill and strength–all the qualities a leader needs, except courage, dedication, and sense. He has the only thing Mary lacks–the gender that would make her eligible to lead. George Stewart and Bernard DeVoto set no precedents for Fisher's high opinion of Mary. In their accounts of the Donner disaster, Mary Graves appears primarily in lists. Once DeVoto singles her out for praise, but the rhetoric of the praise is aimed at human nature, not at Mary particularly, whom he refers to as "an undistinguished item in the year's migration," destined to become matriarch to "commoners of Democracy." DeVoto concludes, "There is nothing remarkable about Mary Ann Graves, except that mankind can be staunch."[7]

In The Mothers, Mary becomes a central figure when she and four other women set out with ten of the strongest men and boys to cross the mountains for help. Bill Eddy is the woodsman and strength of the group, but Mary makes the decisions. When they all would turn back, and Bill curses them for cowards and fools, Mary provides the reasoned voice, leading a unanimous vote of the women to go on with Bill; when the decision to eat the dead comes, Fisher describes it as the only sensible choice, and Bill's refusal is treated as insanely unrealistic. It is Mary again who bears the weight of decision here after her dying father instructs her to eat his body. DeVoto's treatment of this grim white Christmas (400) makes no mention of Mary, nor does it identify the women as the leaders in the decision. Stewart likewise does not present anyone but Bill Eddy as a decision-maker. DeVoto and Stewart show their readers why this man and that could not lead the party, and each suggests that the lack of real leaders contributed to the tragedy. Fisher alone identifies potential leaders among the women–the matriarchs and Mary Graves. But they were prevented by the prejudice against their gender from taking command. Because no man had all the qualities necessary for leading, and no woman could command the male respect a leader must, the party suffered to a degree almost unimaginable from our comfortable contemporary perspective.

Once the party has dug in, the mothers make the hardest choices, some refusing to shelter the bachelor men, some refusing even to feed children not their own. Their personal self-sacrifices are not celebrated with sentimental authorial encomia to motherhood, but presented as grim examples of a female survival instinct. Many of the men who live are saved by their passionate desire to rescue wives and children. The only significant exception is Keseberg, an abject villain whose desire to survive transcends any sense of community, even his parental responsibility. He refuses to accompany his own family on their desperate flight with a rescue party. He degenerates finally from a selfish drone to a skeletal predator who develops a gourmand's preference for certain portions of the human body, commits murders for meat, consumes even the bodies of children.

Among the mothers, unselfishness is a ruthless thing, a resolve to save their children at any personal cost. That resolution Fisher calls "unalterable," though his mothers are ruthless and apparently uncompassionate in varying degrees (38-39). This "single, calculating devotion" the men neither observe, understand, nor share–except for, to some extent, Bill Eddy. And Bill's virtue is an imprudent generosity that his wife finds exasperating; it leads him to share the precious spoils of his hunting, to share even with the most selfish and his open enemies, with people who refuse, both before and after his act of generosity, to reciprocate. Bill Eddy behaves like a paragon of Christian charity; he survives the suicidal march for help, and when he returns his wife and children are dead. His is an idealistic good will, a deep commitment to his personal ethics; and his idealism leaves his own family with the least provisions of any when he sets out for California. Then those ethics nearly cost that expedition its success, when he alone–the strongest and most familiar with the wilderness–refuses to sustain his strength with human meat. The actions of two female characters are all that prevent his death and the resulting deaths of the entire rescue party. First, Eddy's wife, knowing that he is both irrationally idealistic and indispensable if the rescue party is to make it down to the settlements in California, hides precious food in his pack, unknown to him, food that could possibly have kept her and her children alive for a few extra days. And later, when his secret cache of meat is gone, when he is delirious with starvation, sixteen-year-old Mary Graves–whom Eddy has regarded as a child and Fisher has identified as the natural leader but for the sexual prejudices of the men–emerges as an iron-nerved pragmatist who first reasons with, then tries to bribe, then bullies, and finally tricks Bill into eating human flesh.

The older girls, the potential mothers, do all they can to save themselves and the other children, and their willingness to save themselves demonstrates female strength of character as much as does the self-sacrifice of the women with children. Most of the teenaged girls protect their siblings and accept without question parental insistence that they must survive and perpetuate the family lines.
Vardis Fisher, from the dustjacket of Rediscovering Vardis Fisher: Centennial Essays

Vardis Fisher

Fisher implies that Bill Eddy and Mary Graves come to love each other, though this implication is not borne out by their historical fates, and clearly he means to suggest a potential pairing of the best representatives of the species, a man and a woman tried and found fit to survive, strongest of the men, strongest of the women. The most determined of the mothers are driven by a will beyond reason, "guided like any she-beast by instinct and by that alone" (307). The power of this drive is best and most horrifically symbolized by the condition of Lavina Murphy when the first rescue team reaches the camp. Mrs. Murphy comes to cannibalism through absolute desperation, and searches her soul and theology for alternatives. "Would God let babies die?" she asks the others. Their answers are equivocal; Fisher's is not. Babies die. And Mrs. Murphy feeds her surviving charges flesh of the dead. Later, demented with starvation, she becomes "hardly more than a creature moved solely by a mother's devotion."

When Jim Reed arrives with the first rescue party, he finds his daughter Patty and his son; he looks in on the Breens, and then he steps into the Murphy cabin: "His first impression was of sickening stench. His next was of Mrs. Murphy, who was crawling from a dead fire to her bed. Though she was unaware of him, she was making a sound–the terrible muttering of an insane creature that was talking to itself. She was out of her mind, but she was still striving to take care of the children entrusted to her" (309). Her surviving charges include the last of Bill Eddy's children, fated to die later, before Bill's return.

Survival of the genes, through the children–survival of this part of the human species: this need may exist in the abstract for the men, but the women feel it instinctively. This need accounts for Tamsen's catechism before she sends her three daughters off with the last rescue party:

"Tell Mother who you are."
"I'm Frances."
"Oh, no, dear, not that. Say, 'We are the children of Mr. and Mrs. George Donner.'" Dutifully, Frances repeated the words, and then Eliza and Georgia whispered them. (323)

Fisher is not guilty of the reverse sexism of assigning all admirable traits to the women, nor the covert sexism of pretending that women are sui generis admirable. The heroism of Charley Stanton, Milt Elliot, Jim Reed, and Bill Eddy contrasts with the viciousness of Keseberg and the callousness of the two "rescuers" who come primarily to rob the simple Donners, or with the moral frailty of the Breens and Graveses. The determination and courage of women like Tamsen Donner, Peggy Breen, Lavina Murphy, Patty Reed, and Mary Graves is counterpointed by the total character collapse of the young woman Eliza and the greed and mean-spiritedness of Lizzie Graves and, at times, Peggy Breen. There are many heroes and few villains in the story; these are human beings, shaped by circumstance, by biology, psychology, cultural heritage–not determined but shaped, capable of meanness and charity, dignity, determination and despair.

Tamsen's death, at the novel's climax, emphasizes the novel's themes of maternal courage and the depravity of man's hunger for mere individual survival. Tamsen is the most generous of the mothers, charitable and loving within the boundary of her need to save her children. For love of her husband, whom she has nursed through a winter of convalescence resulting from an accidental wound he received before they encamped, she refuses to go with the final party. She stays with her dying invalid husband, but after his death she chooses to seek the meager community left in the mountain wilderness, and she sets out alone across seven miles of frozen snow to join the main camp. There, on the threshold of the Murphy cabin, where Lavina gave her sanity and her life to save the children, Tamsen collapses and dies. Only Keseberg remains at the Murphy cabin, and when he wakes and sees her, he takes the body for that of a child. Keseberg has eaten children.

—Mick McAllister

Essays on Western American Literature Top Book Reviews [mainly]

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