Maude (1883-1993): She Grew Up with the Country

by Mardo Williams

Calliope Press

335 pages, 1998

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Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


As a rule, I don't care for biographies. Most books in the genre are, after all, celebrity-focused or at least studded with trivia about who else (for crying out loud) has slept with Geraldo Rivera and what star most hates their mom. Yawn-inducing and time killing at best.

Maude (1883-1993): She Grew Up with the Country is biography, but with a difference. In the first place, the Maude in question was not a celebrity. More to the point, she was a mom: mother -- in fact -- to the author of the book, Mardo Williams. The book calls itself "An extraordinary chronicle of an ordinary woman," and it is. Maude was born near the end of the last century and died near the end of this one. She spent most of the years in between in rural Ohio, much of that time on the farm on the banks of Rush Creek near Ridgeway where she and her husband Lee raised four children: including author Mardo.

Maude is a beautiful chronicle from a loving son. No stranger to the printed word -- Mardo began his career as a journalist in 1927 -- Williams' book is, however, more than the story of his mother's life. It's also the tale of a young country growing towards maturity and some of the steps it took to get there: especially from the vantage point of rural Ohio. A vantage that Mardo knows well.

In 1900 vendors started selling hamburgers and "hot dachsund" [sic] sandwiches, a rolled waffle was fashioned to introduce the ice cream cone, jigsaw puzzles became popular, and safety razors went on sale. A Chicago company developed the first self-contained electric clothes washer and called it "Thor." At the end of the decade, pajamas were beginning to replace the nightshirt as sleepwear and the "V" neck appeared on certain articles of clothing to protests that "it is a threat to health and morals."

Passages like this one put the time into perspective and Williams handles the transitions skillfully: as befits the master journalist, writing the book as he did in his 88th year.

For all of the poetry and human dramas, Maude (1883-1993): She Grew Up with the Country is flawed in certain ways. For one, the title is a mouthful. Too much, certainly, to make it easy to remember to ask for at the bookstore.

As well, the choice of cover art was unfortunate. The picture is of a family gathering taken in the fall of 1909. They are, I imagine, sitting very still for the photographer. At the time sitters for portraits would have to be motionless for long seconds at a time. The results showed in portraits such as this one: the family group looks dour and discontented; there is not a smile nor a hint of satisfaction in the group. Maude herself looks frumpy, tired and pouty all at once; making her look not at all like someone you'd like to know. Other portraits of her reproduced inside the book -- from both earlier and later in her life -- put a lie to that unhappy woman on the cover. In the interior photos, there is a calm beauty in Maude's features, a serenity in her mien. But the damage is, I think, done with that photo selected for the cover. I can't imagine someone wanting to read about such unhappy looking people. And that's a shame, too: the beauty in this book is quite beyond the skin.

Maude (1883-1993): She Grew Up with the Country is a delight in all other regards. Mardo Williams brings us an intimate historical portrait of both the time, the family and the woman. The ring of authenticity is distinct throughout the work. Williams' research was flawless, yes. But also, he lived through much of the story himself.

Students of new world history will enjoy this book, as will those who like to read about real people from a different part of time.

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of Mad Money.