J’s Take on Patience and Sarah

It’s been a couple of weeks now since I finished reading Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller. I totally should’ve written the review right after I finished it. Or, at the least, taken notes. I know this, yet I’ll probably repeat the same mistake anyway.

Patience and Sarah is a historical novel about two women on neighboring farms who find each other and start making plans to move out “West”. And I have to put that in quotes, because if upstate New York is out West, then why didn’t anyone teach me how to lasso a dogie when I was growing up?

What struck me when I first started reading it was the rhythm. It put my head in a calm sort of place and after my first session or two of reading, the book hung around in my head as I was doing other things. I don’t know if that’s the sign of a good book, the sign of a book that’s something new and different for me, or maybe the sign of a book that I’m reading at the right place and time for the universe to align. I won’t say it rarely happens, but it doesn’t usually happen when I’m reading a book, that the world and characters stick with me and I’m eager to go back to reading.

Patience is an old maid of 20-something (and if I hadn’t forgotten, I could tell you the exact number) living with her brother and his wife and their children. She’s got a pretty sweet setup, as her father cared enough about her to provide in his will for her. She’s guaranteed a room of her own and two cows and whatnot. Her only real problem is she doesn’t get along with her sister-in-law and feels obligated to help out with the chores rather than spend time painting as she’d like to. I started being interested in her at this point. She’s got an unusual setup and doesn’t seem to be all ‘woe is me, I’ll never get a man’. Breath of fresh air, that.

Then we, and Patience, meet Sarah. Sarah’s from a farming family that only managed to produce girls. So her father chose her as the biggest and strongest of the girls to turn into a boy. Their family doesn’t go to church or seem to interact much with their neighbors, so mostly being a boy means she helps out with the boy chores, and dresses in a practical boy fashion for doing so. Her hair’s long though.

They meet, they fall in love, they talk about moving to York State together, Sarah blabs about it, families get in an uproar. Sarah sets off on her own instead. And here’s the most annoying part of the book for me. I wanted them both to set off together and build a life together. I wanted the book to be about that. Instead we get Sarah going off as a man to make her way in the world and buy some land and set up a life for herself. But she’s rubbish at it. No one believes she’s 21. They all think she’s an escaped apprentice. So, rather than lie and say she’s 15 or a more reasonable age for a boy with no stubble, and make up a nice non-apprenticey story to go with it, she just keeps telling the truth and getting into trouble. But she meets up with someone who doesn’t care and her world is broadened. And then she goes home.

And Patience and Sarah clear up some misunderstanding or something stupid and angsty. And they start meeting regularly for makeout sessions on Patience’s bed. And here’s another annoying part of the book. Because I was never clear on how far they went. First base was obvious, second base is touched upon, but then it’s all vagueness. Grr. I don’t care if it’s all implied. Just make sure you’re implying in a way that’s clear to me.

More trouble ensues, but I’ll leave the rest in non-spoilery territory.

One very awesome thing in this book is the point of view. I think Miller actually taught me something here, as I came to realize what she was doing, rather than just noticing it. At first, the story is told by Patience in first person. She’s even the one to relate Sarah’s point of view, in a way that makes it clear Sarah must have told her about those parts at some point in the future. But she also slips in little comments about what Sarah must have been thinking or feeling, or how other characters must’ve been thinking or feeling, that contradict what Sarah told her about the situation.

When Sarah goes off on her own, we finally get her point of view straight from the horse’s mouth, and we see what we knew all along. That she’s not as ignorant and naive as Patience seems to think she is. Though she is a bit. It’s not a radical change.

Then when they meet up again, we get more of Patience’s little comments. So you come to really get a sense for Patience’s personality just from how Miller used point of view. Patience thinks she’s better than Sarah in a lot of ways; more well-bred, more sophisticated, older, smarter, wiser. You get the sense she’d like to think she’s in control of the relationship. While Sarah’s on the other side striving for equality and the give-and-take the relationship’s going to need if it’s going to last.

So, cool book. It’s one I’d read again. Even while wishing they’d gone out West to set up their little homestead in chapter 3. Maybe I’ll have to be the one to write that book.

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