Mothers and Daughters
(2011), a novel by Rae Meadows, follows three generations of mothers and daughters, all of whom have simultaneously loving, secretive, and emotionally fraught relationships with one another. The book has three narrators; new mother Sam, her mother Iris, and her grandmother Violet. The three women share bits of their own stories, from Sam's experience of motherhood in the 21st century to Violet's experience riding the Orphan Trains to the Midwest, where she tried to make a living at 11 years old after being abandoned by her mother, Lilibeth, a grieving opium addict in New York City. The book slowly reveals the love, resilience, and legacy of these three women, bound by blood and a shared history.
The novel opens on Sam, a young mother so consumed by her new baby she feels she might be losing parts of herself. In many ways, Sam revels in the joys of being a new mother. She loves holding her eight-month-old baby, stroking her head, smelling her skin. But Sam is also an artist, and she has made the decision to put aside her work to care for this child. As she grieves this lost version of herself, and her career, she is also grieving her mother Iris, who died just before Sam's baby was born.
Receiving a box of items from her mother's nursing home one day, Sam soon finds herself immersed in a history of her family that she never knew before. The book takes place over the course of one day but moves back deep into the matrilineal history of Sam's family. While Sam explores her mother and grandmother's histories, she is also contending with her own struggle to leave her baby, Ella, with a babysitter for the first time ever.
From the box of her mother's items, which arrives from the nursing home in Florida where Iris spent her last few months dying of cancer, Sam learns about her maternal grandmother, Violet. Violet had a contentious childhood, which Sam pieces together from clues in the box, her memory, and her own sleuthing. Violet was born in Kentucky to her mother, Lilibeth, and a volatile father. At 11, after Lilibeth has a traumatic stillbirth, mother and daughter escape Kentucky to start a new life in New York City. Lilibeth soon finds that her looks and her southern charm are enough to earn the support of a few men, who keep her in her new opium habit as well as food and clothing. However, there is no room for Violet in this new lifestyle, who frequently spends days on end alone, without anyone to care for her. She falls in with a gang of street urchins and paperboys, who take her in and support her as best they can.
Soon, Lilibeth starts talking to Violet about placing back in a “home” where someone will care for her. Instead, Violet asks for a ride on the Orphan Trains, which cart needy children from the city to the sleepy Midwest. Taken in by a baker in Wisconsin, she marries, becoming a relatively happy farm wife. She has several miscarriages before giving birth to a daughter, Iris. Iris struggles to connect with her mother, who keeps most of the story of her upbringing secret from her child. Iris knows her mother was an orphan, but not that Lilibeth signed Violet over to the orphan trains. Iris soon flees the countryside, moving to Chicago, where she tries to find a new life for herself.
Iris's story continues when she has a son, and then, unexpectedly, her daughter, Sam ten years later. Sam is grieving a miscarriage that came before Ella, and her mother, whom she cared for in the last days and moments of her life. Sam also struggles to navigate her parents’ divorce, which came only a few years before her mother's death, and the new, estranged relationship she has with her father, and her only living parent.
A Brooklyn-based writer, Rae Meadows is the author of five novels: Calling Out
, No One Tells Everything
, Mothers and Daughters
, and I Will Send Rain.
She has won a Utah State Book Award and has been shortlisted for a number of other book prizes. Mothers and Daughters
was released in paperback under the title Mercy Train