Each daughter represents a possible path for a woman to follow, and tracing the drawbacks and benefits of each path is a major theme in the book. One daughter, Laura, is a socialite, a party girl with no plans to have children and with no social consciousness. Another, Edith, is a mother of five who is so wrapped up in her own children that she cannot think or speak of anything else. The third, Deborah, is a social reformer and suffragist who is terrified to marry and have children because she fears she will never be able to go on with her work, which is the most important thing to her. Roger Gale is most often perplexed by each daughter, and even more so by the interactions between them. The narrator clearly favors Deborah, the social reformer, from the start and Roger gets there eventually too. She is, obviously, the best of his daughters.
Deborah’s dilemma may seem quaint to the modern woman who can “have it all,” but of course that’s just an illusion. Before I got pregnant I never would have thought I would want to leave my career to stay with my baby. But once Adeline was on her way I couldn’t imagine leaving someone else to care for her. She is far and away the most important thing in my life. Deborah’s fear suddenly seems so real to me. Granted, I wasn’t feeling very passionate about my career as it was, so the comparison isn’t really apt. But I do struggle to pay attention to things other than baby. I definitely do not want to become like Edith – a mother and nothing else. I asked a friend the other day what her parents did and she told me about her dad and then said her mom is “just a mom.” Oh crap, I don’t want Adeline to ever say that about me. Time to find a passion. Deborah, I hear you.
The woman question was on the top of the nation’s mind in 1918, so it’s no surprise that this book was awarded the Pulitzer. But there is more to it than that. A deeper and more enduring theme is mortality and how we find immortality in the lives of our family. Before she died, Roger’s wife told him, “You will live on in our children’s lives.” Throughout the book he realizes the truth of that statement, as he gets to know his daughters and finds himself in each of them. He feels the roots of his family before him and seeks comfort in the fact that he, too, will be a figure in the distance to the coming generations.
Finally, Roger often contemplates the youth of mankind – he feels as a child still, and he sees everyone else in the same way. All his life he has felt that he is just beginning, and now he is already nearing the end. As he walks through a birch grove on his farm one evening, he comes to an understanding of it all. “It seemed to Roger that all his days he had been only entering life, as some rich bewildering thicket like this copse of birches here, never getting very deep, never seeing very clearly, never understanding all. And so it had been with his children, and so it was with these children of Edith’s, and so it would be with those many others – always groping, blundering, starting – children, only children all.”
The book also deals with the growth of New York City; immigration and poverty; and World War I. Roger Gale came to New York when horses and carriages traveled its roads, and now he has to face the crush of modern life with its fast cars, tall buildings and bright lights. Little did Roger know that the chaos of urban life was only just beginning. One facet of this new city life that Roger struggles so much with is the influx of immigrants and the rise of tenements. As he gets to know Deborah he sees her work with the children of these tenements and he gains a new understanding of the deprivation they face. When World War I breaks out, he is faced with suffering on an even grander scale. Roger comes to a new understanding of humankind and he learns to make sacrifices to help those beyond his own family.
These political themes play an important role in the book, but it’s true strength is in dealing with the personal. As Roger Gale comes to know his daughters, we come to know more about life. Can we ask anything more from a novel?