According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the word “poignant” is Middle English from the Old French word “poindre,” which descends from the Latin “pungere” which means “to prick.” Today’s understanding of the word poignant is “a keen sense of sadness or regret.” I love how the Latin helps us understand this word. The idea of something pricking connotes discomfort. When we are attempting to use the word poignant in reference to a story, it is helpful to know that the sadness and regret we are trying to convey is coupled with the discomfort of a prick. When trying to decide how to describe Mrs. Mike, I thought that the word poignant was accurate and helpful.
In 1947 Benedict and Nancy Freeman published a heartbreaking and beautiful story called Mrs. Mike. Set in the early 1900s in the Canadian wilderness, the reader falls in love with a young, spunky, and tender souled Kathy Mary O’Fallon and her wise and skilled Mountie husband, Sergeant Mike Flannigan. Their courtship is short but sweet (and full of Irish stubbornness) and it sets the tone for what we hope will be a beautiful old-fashioned young bride story.
Mrs. Mike is that – a beautiful old-fashioned young bride story, but it is also a pioneer story. It is a story of joy and hardship. It is a story of life and death. It is a story of humanity, immigration, nature, motherhood, and plague. As the story progresses, the challenges become more acute and more personal. The authors gently prepare us for the sacrifices that are coming. Tragedy strikes close to home before it lands in Kathy and Mike’s small house.
Readers of Lucy Maud Montgomery might draw comparisons between Mrs. Mike and Montgomery’s stories because of the combination of language style and Canadian themes. However, the story is a far cry from Montgomery in terms of plot, story arc, and Mrs. Mike’s inclusion of Native American peoples and their customs.
This story is marked in Goodreads and other places as being an advanced young readers story. I think it has that designation because Kathy is 16 at the beginning of the story, and any references to marital relations are very innocent with the graceful exception of one tiny place. (I would give it an A- on the innocence scale.) That said, I would not give this to a sensitive teen. The hard parts are pretty heavy, and I’m not sure this is great food for an unmarried woman. The kind of maternal suffering in this book really should be saved for adult women, in my opinion.
Mrs. Mike ends well. But, the ending is bittersweet. And, there is so much suffering leading up to it, that it makes the ending a little unfulfilling. While the writing is beautiful, the plot is based on true-to-life situations, the characters are moral and noble, this is just a heavy story. The Canadian wilderness in the early 1900s was a very dangerous place to raise a family. As one of the characters warns Kathy when she moves to town, women in that part of the country refer to their “first family,” their “second family,” and their “third family.” The Canadian wilderness devours husbands and children through fire, through bears, through pox, and through flu. At that time, the northern Canadian wilderness was too remote, too primitive, and too wild to not lose entire villages every few years.
I have said that the writing is beautiful. I really do believe that. The story is very well constructed. It is reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie books or Applesauce Needs Sugar. Pioneer life, no matter where in North America it occurred, was always a gamble, and often full of losses. I think the writing captures some of the wild spirit of the rough terrain. The writing alternates between beautiful prose and very ethnic dialogue.
The theology in Mrs. Mike is a bit baffling. One might even say that it’s almost a little New Age. The main white characters adhere to a combination of basic Christian principles, some biblical teaching, some traditional worship, and some Native American spiritual customs. The village is named for the missionary Catholic priest who settled it, and we get the sense that he and the nuns who run the orphanage are pretty traditionally Catholic, but the families in the village, and their Native American neighbors practice a happy inclusive theology. Needless to say, orthodox Christians may raise an eyebrow or two.
Special Note for Moms and Pregnant Readers: this story deals with an abortion, infant loss, and the deaths of children by fire, drowning, and plague. Readers who are sensitive may wish to read this in a different season of life.
I have read Mrs. Mike two times. Each time I thought that the writing was beautiful, that the characters were very interesting, that the plot seemed plausible, but that it just wasn’t a good fit for me. I don’t generally prefer stories which are sad, but I feel that this was even beyond that. I feel like there is more suffering than happiness in this story, and that leaves me wanting more. Either more character development, richer theology, or more satisfaction in the conclusion. Perhaps I’m reading it wrong.
Generally we try not to write reviews that are not explicit recommendations. Basically, it’s our desire to use this site to make great recommendations for families. Sometimes, however, there are books that are worth a critical review. In the case of this book, I think that there are many people who find it to be exquisite for good reason. But I think the readers may want to be warned that their reading investment is going to be marked with deep sadness.