Mrs. Mike

Photo: Marko Metzinger/Studio D

For Peggy Orenstein, it was one of those books—the kind you keep forever and read again and again. It taught her about dreams, about love, and—in a remarkable plot twist—about the courage it takes to really live.
I happened across Mrs. Mike when I was in sixth grade; it was buried under a stack of tattered comic books in my older brother's room. I'd snuck in there to snoop for contraband issues of National Lampoon, which my mother insisted he hide from me (already possessed of a journalist's curiosity, I took that as a challenge). But Mrs. Mike, with its cover illustration of a parka-clad girl on a dogsled, stopped me. The manila library pocket, its checkout card intact, was stamped SUSAN B. ANTHONY, the Minneapolis junior high my brother had attended. I didn't stop to wonder why he would have boosted a love story, first published in 1947, about a plucky 16-year-old girl who married a Mountie. Figuring that if he'd swiped it, it must be juicy, I hightailed it to my room, slid under the covers of my canopy bed, and dug in.

That was 35 years ago. Mrs. Mike has sat at my bedside ever since—traveling with me from Minnesota to Ohio to New York and, finally, to California. After all this time, it's held together with rubber bands and Scotch tape, the pages weathered and dog-eared. I pick it up about once a year, intending merely to leaf through, and end up as engrossed as the first time I read it; the themes of resilience, a woman's indomitable spirit, of living a life of purpose, and doing so with gusto and courage, still hook me.

A classic girl's adventure yarn, Mrs. Mike is the real-life tale of Katherine Mary O'Fallon, a turn-of-the-last-century Boston lass who, stricken with pleurisy, (one of those literary wasting diseases about which one no longer hears) is sent to Canada to take in the bracing fresh air at her uncle's cattle ranch. She weds Mountie Mike Flannigan after seeing him a mere handful of times and joins him in the wilds of British Columbia. Yet this is no happily-ever-after trifle: Every tender moment is offset by tragedy, every triumph booby-trapped with loss. Kathy announces she's pregnant, and shortly afterward a fire levels her town, destroying her home, incinerating her neighbor's son. In the absence of doctors, Mike must assist in amputating a man's leg (without anesthesia). Tension simmers among whites, "'breeds," and Indians. Mosquitoes drive men mad.

When the couple's own two children perish from diphtheria—a disease that would have been treatable had they lived closer to civilization—Kathy breaks. She leaves Mike to return to Boston. But the harsh country, as much as her husband's love, has changed her, and eventually she goes back. They adopt the children of friends (who also died in the epidemic) and begin again, knowing they may well lose this family too. By the book's final page, Kathy is barely 19 years old.

As a girl, I was inspired by Kathy's determination. It was the early 1970s, and the feminist movement was crashing headlong into the traditional expectations I'd been raised with. I knew I wanted something different for myself, and even if I wasn't sure what that might be, I suspected that it would involve breaking free of my family and community as Kathy had. She had defied convention and her mother, leaving behind everything she knew, perhaps forever, for a questionable future. True, she was simply following her man (the book isn't called Ms. Kathy, after all). But given the parameters and proprieties of the time—before meeting Mike, she'd never even worn pants—hers was a radical act. I wanted to be that fearless, that confident of my convictions, that willing to create a life on my own terms. It was Kathy I thought of at 21, when my father warned me that I'd never make it as a writer. It was Kathy I thought of when I quit my day job with no money in the bank. It was Kathy I thought of when I moved to San Francisco, where I didn't know a soul.

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