Mrs. Mike

~This post first appeared over at The Mirror Magazine.~

“It is the possibility of loss that makes love tender.”

I’ll be honest: I anticipated something much less intense than what this slim, chick-flick-ish novella cover disguises. In fact, I expected a quaint romance with a little adventure thrown in and possibly a love triangle or something, but ending with the standard romantic proposal and happily ever after.

I was wrong.

Published in 1947, this little gem of a book was highly recommended to me by a friend, as a romance based on a true story–-“But I’m pretty sure it’s out of print now,” she added dolefully. Intrigued, I began begging everyone who I knew lived within 50 miles of used book stores to start searching the shelves to see if they could find me a copy. I ended up with two, miraculously, and eagerly began delving into its pages.

The cover bills Mrs. Mike as a “heartwarming classic story about the girl who married a rugged Canadian Mountie,” but unlike the conventional romance setup, the real love story does not end in a wedding but begins with it. Sixty pages in, 16-year-old Katherine Mary has already wed handsome Mountie Mike Flannigan, and I asked incredulously: “But, where is the story going to GO from here?!”

Authors Benedict and Nancy Freedman, a married couple themselves, clearly utilized their experiential insight into the “feel” of a marital relationship, it’s struggles and tensions, it’s highs and lows, and what it means for two people wedded to each other to cope with adversity, suffering, and loss.

The story traces Katherine and Mike through years upon years–-making this a real story of their love and their marriage, not just of their (admittedly loving and tender) romance. And that makes it particularly unusual in a world where popular romance lit is dominated by porn-fests like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Neither Mike nor Katherine is perfect. Katherine has a hot temper and a tendency to daydream her way out of the struggles of daily life in the Canadian frontier, pushing away her husband’s affection through her escapism. Mike, in turn, withdraws into his shell when faced with marital stress and personal grief, thus isolating his wife when she most needs his help to heal.

Besides the romantic content, a word should be said for the fairly unusual setting of the story: the Canadian wilderness (two words I’ve rarely heard put together, and never encountered as the stage for a story before now). From the snow and frozen rivers to unbearably mosquito-infested summers (who knew?!), from the dangers of fur-trapping to vivid native culture, the Freedmans bring both the beauty and the danger of this stunning setting to life–a backdrop fitting to the passionate and unpredictable love of Kathy and Mike.When I learned that the authors were Hollywood scriptwriters from the 1940s, I imagined an idealized version of pioneer life in Canada, a la Little House on the Prairie. However, while the Freedmans definitely spend plenty of page time praising the natural beauty of the Albertan wilderness, the portrait of Flannigans’ life is punctuated by the all-too-gritty details of pioneer hardships. Ignorance, mental illness, misogyny, abortion, violence, petty thievery, and disease far away from the comforts of civilization, all play prominent roles in the tale. Death, especially, recurs as a theme again and again with grim inevitability. The authors don’t shy away from tragedies that provoke the deep, heart-searching questions: “Why? Why did this have to happen to me, or to you?”

In the end, Mrs. Mike is fundamentally a romantic adventure, with a stingingly realistic twist; it offers significant insight into the workings of human relationships and the role of Providence in the pattern of a human life. It’s not exactly Brideshead Revisited, and perhaps doesn’t plumb the answers as deeply as it could, but if you’re looking for page turner that still has substance, and a tender look at the intricacies of the human heart, Mrs. Mike is well worth the read– and a masterful alternative to trash like Fifty Shades of Grey.

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