I just coincidentally read two books about widowhood that were worlds apart situationally, yet managed to raise some interesting questions and draw curious parallels nonetheless. Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth and On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins delve into the hearts and minds of two very different widows whose widowhood affected them each in profound ways.
Widowhood Scenario 1: Child Bride
Imagine yourself being engaged at 4, Married at 10, and awaiting the day when you would be old enough to leave your parents’ home and move into your husband’s home. Of course it seems outrageous, but there was a certain comfort, a certain sense of belonging, that seemed to eliminate much emotional angst that comes with the self-doubt and uncertainty that are part and parcel of the dating process. It’s a side I’d never thought to consider, the positive aspect of arranged marriages. Leela was happy, beloved by her family, and welcomed by her husband’s family. She even developed a tendre for her husband, comforted by the knowledge that he was devoted to her.
And then he dies (it’s revealed on the back cover, so don’t hate on me for the spoiler). In fact, the title Keeping Corner refers to the tradition of widows staying indoors for a year of mourning when their husband dies. It is this custom, and the double standards accompanying it, that are brought into sharp focus in this riveting ya novel.
Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth is set in an Indian village in 1918, well before India achieved independence from Britain. The context is the growth of Gandhi’s freedom movement, as well as India’s involvement in World War I. While Leela is expected to follow tradition, farmers across India strike against unfair tariffs during a drought, the headmistress at Leela’s school comes to privately tutor her during her year of mourning, and Leela questions the fairness of her life sentence of widowhood.
What I especially like about this book is how, despite being set 100 years ago, staying in the context of one villager’s particular unfortunate situation, Keeping Corner allows you to question convention in a global context. A loving father doesn’t recognize the irony in his own choices. A mother and aunt show love and support within the boundaries of accepted societal rules without daring to challenge the rules. And a brother fights with everything he has to help his sister. This is the story being told.
The fear of societal censure is a strong motivator, often to the detriment of the individual. Thoughts of fairness are considered rude and selfish, while gossip and judgment are overlooked and accepted.
This is a powerful story of man versus society where everyone can’t help but examine their role in allowing an unjust society to rule. A touching tribute to the author’s grandmother, it is also a call to action.
Widowhood Option 2: Barely Married
In Kristan Higgins’s On Second Thought, Kate is married to Nathan for only a few months before he dies (and yes, this too is public knowledge, and really just sets the stage for the story). Delving deeply into her thoughts, the devastation she feels not only at the loss of her husband but at the realization that there was so much about him that she didn’t know and never would know, is moving.
Her sister Ainsley (step-sister, as her mother constantly reminds everyone) has struggles of her own (see, no spoilers, though there’s a lot I could talk about!), but moves in with Kate and the two help each other. Indeed, before Ainsley moves in, when Kate is first left alone in the home she had shared with her now-dead husband, she feels lost, reluctant to be so alone yet not feeling particularly social. It is, in fact, the kind of scenario that Leela never had to worry about in Keeping Corner because of the custom of one year of mourning in the family home.
Questions About Widowhood
So how long should Kate mourn? Is a year the socially acceptable period, even if she hadn’t known him that long? Was a year unreasonably long for Leela, or did the growth she experienced by resigning herself to her “sentence” justify it? Would a shorter mourning period correlating to the length of the marriage mean Kate didn’t love Nathan, that she didn’t deserve anyone’s sympathy? These stories, read together, raise questions about customs and traditions. Widowhood isn’t easy, and I can’t say I can imagine what it feels like. It’s easy enough not to consider the difficulties faced by others until confronted by them ourselves, but that’s the beauty of fiction; stories can open our eyes to points of view we never thought to consider. And bringing the compassion elicited for fictional characters into the real world makes it easier to connect to others.
These books don’t serve as a how-to primer on how to support a widow. It doesn’t make widowhood easier. Both books happen to discuss cases where the widow barely spent any time with her spouse. But both narratives point out the jarring effect of watching the promise of a particular future and dreams of togetherness shatter. I can’t say I’ll be a better friend or offer more comfort to a widow, though I certainly hope I’ll be of some service. At best, I will share this one passage from On Second Thought:
“I’m so sorry.” She squeezed my shoulder. “I’m going to email you every week and invite you out for dinner, and you can turn me down as much as you want, but when you’re ready, we’ll go somewhere fabulous with huge drinks, my treat. And you can tell me about him, or we can talk about bridezillas or gossip or go to a movie. We can talk now if you want or we can get down to work.”
I should type up what Jenny just said and send it to everyone who said I just don’t know what to say. This. This is what you say.