No Certain Home

Excerpts from NO CERTAIN HOME


Essay on Agnes Smedley

They Said It Couldn’t Be Done



“By God, this is a fine way to start off the new century!” Father shouted.

Agnes looked through the sunflower stalks at the man in the fancy buggy who waited outside the cabin. Two bluebirds flitted from an oak to an elderberry bush. A woodpecker, quick wooden clapper in the bell of summer, rapped on the trunk of a walnut tree. Inside, Mother was crying.

“You’ve been busy while I was away! Who is he? Who’s the father? Just tell me that! Everyone’s wonderin’!”

Agnes ran to the well and pumped a stream of water into the tin cup that hung on the post. She wet her face, then dried it with the floursacking of her skirt. Sometimes when she and Father stood here after supper he would point to the Missouri hills rolling one after another, like waves on an ocean, he said, and when she asked if he’d seen the ocean he said no, but he didn’t need to. He already knew what it looked like. He would tell her about his Indian blood which he’d passed on to her, then spit with contempt at the Rallses, Mother’s family, farmers and church-goers who would always be poor.

The Rallses didn’t bother to think about what was beyond those hills, he said. The Smedley line was different. The Smedleys, now, they had some imagination. Some spunk. And Father would tell about the opportunities farther west. How you could jump on the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul and be out of Missouri before you knew it. There was a fortune to be made out west in any number of enterprises.



Shortly after, she moved in with Thorberg, no longer married to the Rumanian.  It was a lovely apartment just off Washington Square, with a blue rug, a piano, fresh flowers, and diaphanous curtains that made the outside world look blurry and beautiful.  At first Agnes sat in the corner chair listening to brilliant Greenwich Village people discuss their writing, their painting, their politics, their restaurants and tearooms, their relationships, their neuroses.  Where did they find the leisure? she wondered.  Didn’t they have to work?

When Thorberg’s friends discovered that Agnes had grown up in mining camps, they sought her out.

“Did you live near Ludlow?” asked a young man, coming to sit on the floor beside her chair in the corner.  He stretched his long legs out in front of him, turned onto his side, and literally lay at her feet, his elbow braced against the blue carpet, his head supported by one soft, pale hand.

“I lived near Ludlow,” said Agnes.  She didn’t bother to tell him it was the Dalagua coal camp where she’d lived.  Dalagua would mean no more to him than the North Pole.  Another young man who smoked a pipe joined the first young man, and then a woman with cropped hair who wore a sack dress and brown socks and sandals came to sit on the floor, and soon all three were firing questions at her and she found herself telling them that yes, she’d been in Colorado, very near Ludlow, in fact, on the day of the Massacre, when actually she hadn’t been anywhere near Ludlow but was teaching typing in San Diego.

“John Reed took a trip to Ludlow to see the site of the strike and Massacre,” said the first young man, shifting his long, lean body on the blue rug.  “He gave a talk at the Liberal Club.   He said even now, two years later, the damage, the charred ground, is positively devastating.”

Agnes closed her eyes.  During a strike in 1914 the government militia had poured coal oil on miners’ tents and set fire to them.  Women and children were trapped and burned to death.  Thirty-two people died, people like herself and Mother and the children.  Thinking about it now, her hard shell of work and will power disintegrated and she felt weak as jelly.

She changed the subject.  “Who’s John Reed?”

“You don’t know who John Reed is?” murmured the young woman in the sack dress.

“John Reed is a brilliant reporter, a Socialist, an activist,” said the man with the pipe.

Suddenly Agnes blurted out, “I wasn’t living in Ludlow at the time.”  The truth was important in this pretty room.

“But you said you were there,” objected the woman.

“Well, I wasn’t.  I wasn’t anywhere near.  I was teaching typing in San Diego.  But I did live in Dalagua and Tercio, and miners do spend their lives underground so mine owners can stay rich.”  Her passion seemed too strong for the room, too personal.  Her speech was too western.  There was a silence.

Half-interested, half-embarrassed, the man standing by her chair took his pipe out of his mouth.  “Thorberg says you’re working at The Graphic.”  At least he was still standing, the only one of the three not wallowing on the floor.  Agnes nodded.

“You must come over to The Masses,” said the one who was stretched out on the carpet.  He looked as if he might fall asleep from superiority.


“It’s a splendid paper,” said the woman.  “Socialist.  They have the courage to speak out against the war.  The government is forever hounding them.”

“Are you in the editorial department at The Graphic?” asked the prone man lazily.

“I’m a—book reviewer,” said Agnes, and she got up from her chair before the woman could ask what books she’d reviewed.

“Charming girl, eh?” she heard the man with the pipe say as she left her corner for Thorberg’s room where she would wait out the party.  She shrugged with annoyance.  She did not want to be charming.  She had no intention of being charming.  She didn’t keep up her grueling schedule, typing by day, attending classes at New York University by night, to be charming.



Agnes, edgy with stage fright, started down the aisle that the soldiers opened up for her.  Someone fixed her in a flashlight beam.  In the center of the bare dirt stage she began to sing “Streets of Laredo.”  As she cast the American tune out onto the Chinese night, the mountains of Colorado seemed as near as Shaanxi Province.  Lit by music, time, and distance, her youth now felt happy and luminous.  She sang all the verses.  When she finished, Ding Ling came down the aisle.

“They want a speech!” she said.  “They want to hear you talk!”  Agnes was now into the swing of things.  She addressed the audience who had never seen an American woman before.  With Ding Ling translating, she told them about her own country, about the American Revolution, the nationalist struggle in India, about fascism in Germany, Japan, China.  She ended with something she knew well: tenant farming in Missouri.  Coal mining in Colorado.

“Your speech was very fine,” Lily Wu said in fluent English later that evening.  She had invited Agnes to her cave.  “Everything in China is confused, but you are not confused.”  In the lantern light she rose and poured tea.  Agnes was opening her notebook to record the conversation when footsteps sounded outside on the narrow terrace that snaked up from the river bank, passed the caves of Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Mao Zedong, went into a hairpin turn, and continued on to the second level which held more caves, Lily’s and Agnes’ among them.

“It is Mao,” Lily breathed.  “He wants to meet you.”

The footsteps stopped.  “Miss Wu?”

Lily stood and pulled back the padded cotton drape that fit over the mouth of the cave.  The moon seemed exactly suspended above the mountain, and the night sky was bright with stars.  A tall man in a great coat stood in the darkness.  He bent his large head, stepped into the cave, and looked at Agnes with still, distant eyes.

“How do you do,” she murmured in Chinese, omitting any title.  “Thank you for the opportunity to visit the Red Army.”

Mao Zedong reached for both her hands.  His own were long and slender, like a woman’s.  His lips were full.  The small brown mole just above the upper lip looked oddly like a beauty spot.  Lily pulled a straight chair toward him.  He motioned for the two women to sit first.  When they had settled themselves at the table he loosened his great coat, sat down, and looked into space with a remote expression on his large face, as if he gained nourishment not from food but from his own thoughts.  Agnes waited for him to say something.  When she had studied his sensitive face, studied Lily Wu’s pretty features again, studied the white-washed walls of the cave upon which the flickering lantern light projected Mao’s profile, she spoke.

Lily translated.  “It is not easy to reach Yan’an.”  Mao looked mildly interested.  She continued.  “The military blockade and the news blockade are both effective.”

There was a long silence that she was just getting ready to break when he said in a voice that was higher than expected, “It appears there are few blockades that can stop you, Miss Smedley.”  He smiled coolly and continued.  “The blockade does us great harm.”  As soon as Lily translated he looked directly at Agnes.  “We welcome our journalist friends to Yan’an.  We welcome the end of the blockade.  I solicit help from the West for China.”  He moved his head slightly, as if to affirm his own statement.

“I will write letters and articles,” Agnes said.  “We will take the story of the Red Army to the world.”  She knew several writers who would come to Yan’an if safe passage were offered.  “Can you provide an escort from Xi’an?”

“We will provide an escort.”  He turned to Lily Wu.  “The American woman is far from home.”

Agnes understood without translation and answered quickly, hotly, “My home is wherever people resist oppression.”

Mao seemed unmoved by her emotion.  “I believe you have spent several years in Shanghai.”

Agnes nodded.

“You were in Germany.”

“I have lived in Berlin.”

“Many of our comrades have studied in Germany,” he said thoughtfully.  “I, myself, have never been outside China.  I understand my country.  I talk to the people about China, not about Marx and Lenin.”  He studied Agnes more openly.  “You have been away from America for many years.   Do you still understand your country?”

“Yes,” Agnes said.  “I understand that America gives aid to Chiang Kai-shek.  I understand that she sells scrap metal to Japan.”  She looked into the lantern, eyes narrowed against the direct light. “But there are many Americans who would understand your reform movement if they knew about it.”  She leaned forward and looked closely at Mao.  She was not sure she liked him.  There was something soft, almost effeminate, about him.  Exotic.  She liked men who were physically tough.  Men who had their feet on the ground, like the cowboys she remembered from Colorado and Arizona.  Like Big Buck and other men her father had known.

“There is another great country struggling for independence and unity,” she said.  “Do you know India?  Do you know Nehru?”

“I do not know this great leader.”

“I became acquainted with him in Berlin.  I will write him a letter of introduction to you.  Perhaps India can contribute to China’s efforts.”

Mao looked away, then back.  “Have you been to India?”

“No, but my husband was Virendranath Chattopadhyaya.”  She waited for recognition.  “Perhaps you have heard of the Indian nationalists who lived in exile in Berlin?”

Mao made a noncommittal gesture with his slender hands.  “You are an internationalist, I believe.”

“Yes.  Oh, yes.”

“Your speech interested us tonight.”  He wrapped the skirt of his great coat closer about his knees and studied her.  “Like the poor of China, you are turning your weak position into a position of strength.”

Agnes was stunned by the insight.  Did he guess that she hadn’t finished grade school?  That her family was the poorest of the poor?  She looked into his face.  This man knew too much.  He seemed to know that she, like his soldiers, had no home.  That she lacked what they had: the Red Army for a family.  She stared down at her notebook.  When she looked up again, Mao and Lily were talking.  The expression on his face was animated.

“Ask Miss Smedley if she is married,” Mao said.  Agnes waited for the translation.

“No,” she answered.  “I have been married in the past.  But I do not believe in marriage.”

Mao frowned, puzzled.

“The benefits go to the husband.  He can love other women, but the wife must remain faithful.”

“I have read of love in Western novels,” Mao said after a silence.  “Have you experienced this one, true love?”

“My Indian husband was the love of my life,” Agnes said, surprised at herself for saying so, and knowing it to be true.  Surprised, too, at Mao’s childish curiosity about men and women.

“Why?” he asked.

“We combined work and love,” she answered.  “Still, I suffered.”

“How did you suffer?”

“He wanted to control my thinking.”

Mao sat in silence for a moment.  “In a marriage of equality,” he said, “who makes decisions when there is a disagreement?”

“Whoever can marshal the best evidence.”

Mao smiled slightly.  “Political theory.”  In the flickering light he turned toward Lily again.  Longing was in his face.  Agnes hoped Mao’s wife was not sitting in a cave waiting for him to return.  She hoped the wife was visiting a lover this very moment.  The lover would be wearing Red Army fatigues. He was probably shorter than Mao.  Most Chinese were shorter than Mao.  The two of them would be sitting in a cave, talking, like Mao and  Lily.  There would be a bed in the shadows.  Agnes’ eyes wandered to Lily’s bed.  She wondered if, when she left tonight, Mao would stay.


They Said It Couldn’t Be Done

By Marlene Lee

“You can’t just drive to San Diego on the spur of the moment and expect to learn anything,” said two friends when I described my impulse to turn the weekend into a spontaneous research trip.  “You have to call ahead, locate materials, reserve time in rare book rooms, look at old photographs.”

“I’ll take a chance,” I said, and left Orange County, California for San Diego before daylight.  Stopping for coffee in a town off the freeway, I made a wrong turn and got lost.  My friends are right, I thought.   I should have made plans.  I can’t even find San Diego.

Anyway, the school where Agnes Smedley had taught business and typing from 1914 to 1916, almost a century earlier, would be gone.  No one now living would remember it.

“Old Town,” said a freeway exit sign as I approached San Diego.  Since “Old” was what I was looking for, I followed the off-ramp to a crooked street where I saw an old man walking an old dog.

“Excuse me, sir,” I called through the open car window.  “Do you know where I can find the old normal school campus?”

The dog lay down in the grass beside the sidewalk.  Dropping the leash, the old man came closer.  “Normal, you say?”  Reviewing the past century, his rheumy eyes  rested on the redundant leash; that dog was never going to run again.  “There’s a Normal Avenue about a mile up ahead,” he said.

Normal Avenue!  Probably named after the teachers’ normal school!  I might be in the right place after all! 

When I first met Agnes Smedley in the biography section of a small library in Washington State, she’d caught my attention, like an unplanned glance in a mirror.  I’d read everything I could find about her and her world.  In fact, my historical novel was a way of trying to be Agnes Smedley.  I’d already followed her footsteps to her birthplace, Sullivan County, Missouri; to the mines in Colorado where her father found work; to New York City where she was politically radicalized; to Germany, Denmark, and China.  But I hadn’t been to San Diego where, as a young woman, she’d taught in the normal school.

The crooked street finally emptied into Normal Avenue, just as the old man had said.  By now it was nine o’clock in the morning and the sun was bathing both sides of the avenue in nostalgic pink.  I approached a complex of modern brick buildings, the largest of which bore the sign, “San Diego Unified School District, Since 1854.”

I brightened.  Compared to 1854, 1914 was only yesterday.  But these buildings had been constructed years after 1914.  As I scanned the acreage I saw, back behind the newer brick, a tall, dirty-white structure with columns and pediments, a whiskered old man among youngsters.

I wound my way back to the boarded-up building and parked on gravel behind the soiled back wall.  Passing through dust stirred up by my tires, I began to circle the building until I reached the cornerstone beside the front steps and read the Roman numerals: MCMXIII.  1913.

This building was standing when Agnes Smedley taught here!

I imagined her climbing the steps to teach her classes, then descending them at the end of the day.

But where did she live?  Probably nearby.  She was too poor to own a car.

After spending a long moment considering Agnes and the present as child of the past, I walked back to my car and set out looking for the neighborhood (no, a neighborhood) where she might have lived.  For this, I had no facts.  No address.  This wasn’t research in the classic sense of the word, but factual terrain for the imagination to roam in.

I began driving randomly, un-research-like, no destination in mind.  I now knew that the normal school where she had taught every week day from 1914 to 1916 was located on property near the San Diego Back Bay and that her workplace had smelled a little fishy, a little salty, and had often been a little damp and a little foggy, as it was today.  Driving through the surrounding neighborhoods lined with wooden bungalows, I could surmise the kind of street and house where she’d lived.

Maybe I can write a scene, I thought, where her estranged husband finds her on one of these sagging porches, washing a window (I knew from my reading—classic research—that she was a demon worker), and where they sit in the old kitchen drinking cheap wine and discussing their failed marriage (a fact picked up in her autobiography), and the bedroom where they try again—and fail—to make love because Agnes Smedley is terrified of sex.  (There is much evidence to support this fact.)

That afternoon, floating north along the freeway, San Diego scenes came to life and I felt deeply satisfied (not to say smug) that I had learned exactly what I needed to know for my historical novel.








Holland House Books

Literary Fiction

Marlene Lee

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