Thursday
Aug042016

All Waiting is Long

By Barbara J. Taylor


 

Kaylie Jones Books
July 2016
978-1617754432


Reviewed by Bradley Babendir


 

1.

There's a scene near the end of All Waiting is Long by Barbara J. Taylor where Lily, one of the main characters, is attending a lecture hosted by a religious group for high-society women. The speaker is Dr. Peters, an obstetrician who is also part of the eugenics movement. As he begins to explain his philosophy, that poor women should be sterilized because their genetic lines should be ended, Lily is horrified. This sounds cruel to her. She assumes those around her recognize this, too. She assumes that those around her see it as a fringe position, a radical one that no fair and free society would embrace. Then she looks up and sees all those around her nodding along.

All Waiting is Long is set in the 1930s, and it's easy to sit back and think about how far we have come, how different we are from the people of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the early 20th century. We know eugenics is wrong and ethically abhorrent. It is less easy, though, to sit back and think about the ground we have not gained, how similar we are to people in the past, and the way that society still nods along.

Taylor's novel starts with Lily and her older sister Violet going to an infant asylum because, at 16, Lily is pregnant and they don't want anyone to find out. Good Shepherd Infant Asylum is in Philadelphia, a train ride away from home. Mother Mary Joseph, who runs the asylum, is a compassionate woman who understands that those who come to her have made a mistake and are asking for help and it's her duty to say yes, come in, we'll help you. God does the judging. This type of character exists in stark contrast to many of the figures from Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night, Taylor's first novel, which precedes the events of this book by about 16 years. Still, one compassionate figure does not a church make, and the asylum's existence is necessitated by the moral outrage that would have consumed Lily had she openly admitted to being pregnant at home. If, instead of preaching abstinence and condemning those who fail to comply, people were taught how to have sex safely and without conceiving, it's possible this whole thing could be avoided.

The conventional wisdom at the time, though, was a little different. The first words in All Waiting is Long are an excerpt from Woman: Her Sex and Love Life by Dr. William J. Robinson, who wrote:

All are agreed . . . it is important that the boy be given some sex instruction . . . No such agreement exists concerning sex knowledge for the girl . . . Some say that such instruction . . . is unnecessary, because the sex instinct awakens in girls comparatively late, and it is time enough for them to learn about such matters after they are married.

Other excerpts, which appear sporadically in between chapters throughout the book, offer Dr. Robinson's insights on what underwear a married woman should wear for her husband (the nicest she can afford), the hygiene of menstruation (only swim in the ocean if you are an "exceptionally robust" woman), and more. Within All Waiting is Long, these excerpts serve to constantly bring the reader's focus back to the crux of the book, to the fact that men from medical and religious institutions were defining and controlling female sexuality with impunity.

This always brought me back to the ways in which, sometimes, we do not seem so different from how we were as a society 85 years ago. The United States Senate is 80% male and the United States House of Representative is 80.7% male. In Texas, where the government was trying to close abortion clinics with irrelevant and onerous building regulations, only 36 of 178 legislators are women. There is a difference, of course, in the government action of today and the subjects Taylor tackles in the book, but it's a difference of degree, not type. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 25 states do not require that sexual education be taught at all, and only 13 states require that sexual education be taught with contraceptive instruction. Woman: Her Sex and Love Life was reprinted in 2010 and can be ordered on Amazon. Many young men and women are still not equipped with the knowledge to prevent life-altering mistakes.

Still, things have improved. Of course they have. Taylor's book, though, does a good job of demonstrating the structures that existed in the past, and it's hard to ignore the similarities to the present day. I think only a small minority of people feel this way about premarital sex:

If a girl makes a misstep . . . she has for the rest of her life a Damocles's sword hanging over her head, and she is in constant terror lest her sin be found out . . . even if the girl escaped pregnancy, the mere finding out that she had an illicit experience deprives her of social standing, or makes her a social outcast and entirely destroys or greatly minimizes her chance of ever marrying and establishing a home of her own. She must remain a lonely wanderer to the end of her days.

This book did, however, cause me to wonder how many people who think this is true receive paychecks from state or federal governments for their job as lawmakers or school board administrators.

2.

All Waiting is Long is about more than just the repression of female sexuality and its consequences. Taylor's Scranton is a coal mining town and the mine owners have a great deal of power over their workers, often owning their homes and having a hand in the grocery stores in which they shop, among other things. Taylor dedicates a good amount of space to the friction between two unions, one that is larger and closer with the mine owners, and another that is smaller and more adversarial. This conflict is interesting and complex, with its outcome having a major impact on every named character, but the resolution is treated like any other offhand comment, and in the process, it loses force. On top of this, race is only given a few mentions, and in a novel that focuses on social inequities, it's a missing piece.

There are also moments where it seems as though Taylor is weighed down by the book that preceded this one. Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night adds texture to the world and depth to the characters, but the distance between the fictional present and an obligation to pay lip service to what took place before combine to make some moments feel a little shoe horned.

Taylor has a lot of plates spinning, and this results in moments when the plot feels as though it hums along a little too conveniently. Many stories rely on an improbable person being in the right place at the right time because that's what makes them something other than ordinary, but some of the occurrences in the latter portion of this book teeter on the edge of believability. Taylor doesn't fall off, but it can get close. Thankfully, by the time things get dicey, the pages are turning themselves.

Ultimately, though, Taylor explores complicated issues with excellent prose and compelling characters. Her excavation of the religious and political context in this place and time is fascinating. She achieves depth and breadth, and tells a great story, too. Even with its flaws and blind spots, All Waiting is Long is an intricate portrait of this fascinating time in America's history.