In honor of Women’s History month, I’m writing about my own history, and how it was shaped by some of the female writers who influenced me at a young age. I’m primarily thinking of the humorists like Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr, but I would also have to admit to some unflattering (to me) influence from Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
To say that I was unpopular during my preteen years was an understatement of colossal proportions. To escape my pre-adolescent misery, I read for hours a day. I was kind of lazy about it – I’d pull books from the classroom shelves and as long as the subject matter didn’t appear to contain anything educational, I’d dive in.
That’s how I discovered Jean Kerr. I grabbed a copy of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and, once I’d determined that it involved no discussions of floral botany, I couldn’t put it down. The book had no plot but was a collection of essays about the inanity of being a mom in the suburbs. Jean’s observations were so funny that I hunted down her later books and devoured those with equal speed. I would like to think that her sense of humor influenced my writing, but all it really did was cause me to delay having children for about as long as biologically possible.
Erma Bombeck also mined suburban life and came up with a treasure trove of humorous newspaper columns and best-selling books. Although I loved reading about her life as she described it, I didn’t actually read any biographical information about her until I started writing this post. I found it encouraging (in a twisted way) to learn that in college, Erma’s writing was rejected by professors and the school newspaper, despite the fact that she had journalism experience. Writing is such a subjective art. Millions of enthusiastic fans find her way with words truly outstanding, and yet her style was not appreciated by the “experts.” It gives hope to all of us in the face of criticism.
It’s hard to tell how much of my sarcastic outlook on life can be blamed on the influence of these ladies.
When I was reading about Erma Bombeck, I learned that her family established a bi-annual conference for humor writers that is so popular that registration usually sells out in a few hours. So she’s still a rock star decades after her death.
Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder also remain rock stars, though they might find the comparison demeaning. I read the Little Women and Little House on the Prairie series at a young age also. Did they influence me? Probably. It’s hard to avoid influence. Most of us are like Silly Putty – whatever we come in contact with tends to imprint itself on us to one degree or another.
But I did not pick up their ability to depict the struggles of life with heart-wrenching poignancy. Instead, from Little Women I learned that you can’t marry the man you love. From Little House on the Prairie, I learned that if you lose a library book, you have to pay for it out of your allowance and if you later clean your room and find the book, the library won’t give you your money back.
I did not end up paying attention to the first lesson, despite my parents’ warnings. I married the man I loved and moved to suburbia and lived a life worthy of celebration by Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck.
However, I did take the second lesson to heart. Now, whenever I lose a library book, I ignore the overdue notices and open a new library account under the name of one of our goldfish. It’s a good thing they have a short life span.
I hesitated to include the link for the Erma Bombeck conference because I may end up competing with you for a seat. But maybe there will be room for both us!
My books that show the most influence of Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr are probably the Karen Maxwell Mysteries. After all, Karen is a suburban soccer mom. George Washington Stepped Here is the first book in the series.