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Presented at the 1985 annual meeting of the Western Literature Association by Mick McAllister.
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Mick McAllister. "Survival of the Blood: Vardis Fisher's The Mothers". At Wanderer's Well http://www.dancingbadger.com/survivalf.htm (December, 2001).
Summary: Fisher found in the story of the Donner Party a graphic example of the resilience and strength of women. The novel works out many of the themes which run through The Testament of Man. The book is filled with a kind of archaic feminism.
December, 2001: Vardis Fisher's The Mothers is a classic of American historical fiction, the best novel of an under-appreciated American author. Fisher pioneered a kind of American naturalism that offended many people. It was typical of his iconclastic attitudes that he would take as the topic of a novel one of the most horrific events of American history, the ordeal of the Donner Party, which eventually drove them to cannibalism. Fisher's novel was published a few years after a historical account by California author George R. Stewart, and Bernard de Voto made the incident a key narrative thread of his treatment of the Polk Era, Year of Decision, published the same year as Fisher's novel. This paper examines how Fisher shaped the bare facts of Stewart's narrative into a piece of fiction with a theme that resonates throughout his work, the courage of women, especially mothers protecting their children.
1. And even here, he expressed his doubts. In The Mothers (New York: Vanguard Press, 1943), Bill Eddy muses as he watches the five young women who set out with him for Sutter' s settlement, "Women, he had heard, were physically weak, and he wondered how the world had come by such a notion" (p. 161).
2. God or Caesar (Caldwell: Caxton Printers, 1953), pp. 188 & 21.
3. Peace Like a River (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1957), Notes, p. 288. In the notes to The Valley of Vision (New York: Abelard, 1951): "There has seldom been any civilized society in which a woman may state openly her wishes and desires, and proceed openly to satisfy them" (p. 312).
4. Ordeal by Hunger (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), 2d. ed. with supplemental material. First published in 1936. On p. 64, from Stanton's point of view, Stewart berates the party for their lack of community spirit.
5. Three West, John R. Milton, ed. (Vermillion, S.D.: Dakota Press, 1970), p. 16.
6. The Mothers (New York: Vanguard Press, 1943), p. 13.
7. The Year of Decision: 1846 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943), p. 399.