Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1332
Toth’s intent in writing the autobiography of the formative years of her life is neither to glorify life in a small Midwestern town nor to produce a journalistic report of facts and events of her maturation. It is, instead, more generic and more cosmic. The mere title of her book, Blooming, is indicative of both her metaphoric and her representational goals. The italicized introduction to the first chapter presents an important metaphor: Toth’s garden is compared with that of a friend, for both of them succeed in yielding flowers, even though the friend plants haphazardly and carelessly, while Toth gives great attention to the layout and care of her garden. She develops that idea into a useful analogy about her life: “When I look at the time, the town, the customs, the people who surrounded me when I was growing up, I cannot wish I had been nurtured in a different place. It was the only garden I knew.” The metaphor of growing up as a type of blooming recurs throughout the book and connotes potential, possibility, anticipation, and promise. For example, during a rare shopping excursion to a large department store in Des Moines, she is charmed to find “a new strain [of white blouse] blooming in an overlooked corner.” On a chilly May Saturday, her mother helps her gather blooms of wildflowers to fill May baskets. Describing preparations and events of an important holiday, Toth records donning gaily colored clothes on Easter Sunday even when the weather was inclement: “Mixing the colors of religion, nature, and vanity, we did our best to bloom.”
A second important motif in the book is water imagery. Although Toth was born and reared away from sources of natural water, many of her most vivid sensations are nevertheless associated with water. Psychologically, being near water brings soothing and healing to her. Community pools in and around Ames serve as hubs of adolescent social life, but the benefits to Toth are personal as well: “Once in the pool, doing my laps, I felt a kind of anesthetic set in. Cold water slithered over me, a numb caress, promising relief.” Family trips to an old house on a Minnesota lake for two or three weeks each summer give her peace: “I lapsed into the lake’s quiet life with an unconscious comfort that was like a sigh of relief.” There she goes fishing when it is possible to borrow a boat, more for the pleasure of dreaming and being beyond the reach of a human voice than for the prospect of actually bringing in a catch.
There are material images of lesser importance which are used in the novel to signify something more than themselves. Clothes, for example, may measure success or independence or self-sufficiency, as well as satisfaction with spending money honestly earned. They may also be indicative of a positive or negative attitude. Working as a receptionist for a college radio and television station, Toth notices the careless way a sophisticated female reporter treats expensive clothes. In the same chapter, Toth compares her attitude about an expensive yet seldom-worn wool suit she buys on the spur of the moment, when married and having access to a joint income, with her feelings about a cheaper orange print dress she had debated for two days about purchasing years earlier with money earned baby-sitting and busing dishes in the college union. Both garments signified independence, but the one that was bought more thoughtfully, with proportionately more sacrifice, was the purchase that she wore more frequently and that more tangibly proved her maturity. When she was a young girl, however, the eye for bargains that her frugal upbringing encouraged once proved to be more foolish than economical: In New York City, she purchased an $8.95 white tulle formal that she never wore because her taste in clothing changed before she needed a dress for a dance.
Toth does much to imply how place and context during the formative years determine the nature of the adult. The book echoes warmth, humor, and nostalgia for a sheltered but certainly not deprived existence. She does not deplore her simple and naive beginnings, though by the time of writing her autobiography she has become more cosmopolitan. She freely displays her own embarrassment and inadequacies along with her successes and skills.
Toth did not set out to write a radical or overtly feminist book, but the important word “girlhood” in the subtitle emphasizes her concentration on the feminine gender. The book is about women nurturing and influencing other women, some subtly and others overtly. Her mother, for example, teaches her subtly about patience, endurance, and morality while being very much in the background in the book. As a professor at Iowa State University, Hazel Erickson Allen Lipa influenced her daughter’s choice of career as well as providing the role model of a single parent. Given less prominence still is Toth’s sister, Karen, who, though very close in age, seems merely a part of the backdrop of the novel rather than an active participant in the development of Toth’s life. The sisters fight frequently, but also do chores side by side; they get along best at Christmastime. A stronger and more overt female influence in the book is Miss Jepson, stern librarian at the Ames Public Library, who unwittingly cultivates a defiant streak in Toth by keeping books of a questionable nature in a locked case and trying sternly to dissuade adolescent readers from checking out books from the adult section. The most pervasive influence, however, proves to be Toth’s girlfriends, who are confidantes as well as barometers of social expectations and acceptability. Merely conversing over trivialities somehow gives reason or ballast to their existence.
Toth gives much evidence of the philosophical, psychological, physical, and economic value of hard work. She shows how completing tasks of housework or gainful employment functions as a rite of passage into adulthood in her society. It is no accident that the longest section of her book is the chapter titled “Preparation for Life,” which chronicles the part-time jobs that Toth held from preadolescence until graduation from high school. All of her tasks she approaches diligently and, if not enthusiastically, at least willingly and thoroughly.
Although she longs to deliver newspapers as her first job, the fact that she is not a boy closes that option to her. Consigned to baby-sitting for several years, she assembles a “baby-sitting box,” a collection of resources to entertain her charges, explaining, “The mere appearance of professionalism, I learned early in my work experience, was sometimes good enough.” Two stints at housecleaning prove frustrating, one because of too-close supervision and the other because the owner is so immaculate that there is scarcely anything to clean. Her job busing dishes at the grill in the Iowa State Memorial Union makes Toth feel invisible and lonely, for contact with patrons is discouraged by her employer, although mental escape is possible by listening to music from the jukebox. Later, as assistant to the Ames playground drama director, Toth gains skills that prepare her well for college teaching: “the ability to perform under unfavorable conditions, the instant tailoring of material to fit the audience, the necessity to keep going no matter what.” Selling Camp Fire candy and baked goods convinces her that she has persuasive skill, and detasseling corn for two summers taxes her physical and mental stamina. Her desire for glamour is disappointed in her job as receptionist at a college radio and television station, since there she sees mostly “closed doors” instead of programs and famous personalities. Most of her later summers, though, are spent filling in for vacationing staff at the office of the Ames Daily Tribune, where her fledgling talents for writing, editing, and interviewing are groomed. The mental perspectives of being fully dedicated and putting forth intense effort help to develop her enthusiasm and ardor for work and her view of work as a necessary component of adulthood.
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