The Woman Said Yes
Jessamyn West’s The Woman Said Yes is an autobiographical work which is actually a dual biography. While West is a main personage of the book, the substance of the work is dedicated to an anecdotal memoir of her mother Grace and her sister Carmen, two very courageous women. West makes it clear from the outset that this is a woman’s book. She therefore necessarily pares down the facts about the men in their lives, even to the extent that she refuses to tell the reader the names of her two brothers, with an admonishment not to worry about such things as this is a book about the women in her family. With the ground rules laid, the work is then divided into two separate stories, one about a woman who survived a crisis and one about a woman who did not.
The title of the book is explained by West as a suitable epithet for her mother Grace who repeatedly said “yes” to life and living, stalwartly refusing to be rattled by it. The central problem of the first half of this work, which reads like a novel, was Jessamyn’s near-fatal case of tuberculosis. After spending nearly two years in a tubercular clinic, West is brought home “to die” within the more soothing confines of her parents’ home. For the average woman in her early twenties, married and almost finished with her doctoral studies, this would be a catastrophic experience, and, indeed, it was for West. Her mother, however, refused to accept the mournful prediction of the doctors and proceeded to direct her attentions to proving them wrong, as much because of her own natural tenacity as to save her daughter, the author would have us believe.
The way in which Grace accomplished this feat (West modestly refusing to take any of the credit herself) is rather unimportant in itself. The primary reason why she recounts this time of her life is to show what a remarkable, indefatigable woman her mother was. It is the method of her healing, rather than the individual incidents, which show Grace’s courage and guile.
Anyone who finds solace in reading stories of great courage and victory over insurmountable odds will not find the usual material here; the book is much more the story of a plain country woman who lived in a world of dreams and who, because of her own strength of character, was able to make many of her dreams come true. She was, it could be said, a perfect example of “the power of positive thinking.” Though by West’s description Grace was a homely, unattractive woman, her wit and imagination made her a sought-after belle. She picked out a handsome man with great potential, and after pursuing him in a rather shameless fashion during the early twentieth century, asked him to marry her.
The love between Grace and her husband Eldo was exceedingly strong. There was nothing which she would not do for him, nor he for her. It was such a strong love that, in a sense, there was no need of anyone else in their relationship; although they loved their four children, West quotes Robert Louis Stevenson’s line “the children of lovers are orphans,” to express the type of lives they had. Because of her parents’ love and her mother’s frailty, West has some unusual memories of children. Whenever Grace was not ill, she was usually helping her husband in some way. Thus, her four children instinctively learned that if they were to survive to adulthood, they would have to fend for themselves. By West’s own admission they were the worst wrinkled, least clean children in their school because their mother never noticed whether they were dressed properly. Despite the fact that Grace was in no way the traditional loving, domestic mother, her children still respected and loved her deeply. If she were not around to tend to the daily crises, at least they felt that she could be depended upon in a major one. This is perhaps why West was able to come through her ordeal of tuberculosis when she grew to adulthood. All of Grace’s children knew that their mother, if called upon, would be capable of superhuman strength—fighting off a mountain lion or stopping a freight train. This dichotomy between seeming incompetence in day-to-day motherhood...
(The entire section is 1698 words.)