Book Review: Friends For A Lifetime: The Saga of a 63 Year Quaker Love Affair, by Don and Lois Laughlin

REPRINT from 2-29-2012 (originally printed in Cannon Beach Gazette)

This book chronicles the seemingly mundane lives of a Quaker couple in small town Iowa, of course, there is nothing mundane about a love affair that lasted 63 years and produced six children! Even lives that appear on the surface common or uninteresting are often riveting if one bothers to peel the layers back and take a deep look inside, and the real lives of Lois and Don Laughlin are anything but typical or mundane! 

As a young teenager, Lois was packed off from her home in Oakland, California to rural Iowa to stay with relatives for a year following the death of her mother, there she meets Don Laughlin, a few years older, and son of a Quaker farming family. The two began to date (both felt “necking” was cheap), until she was unceremoniously called back to California because her father had remarried. The couple subsisted on letters for the next three years while they attended school.

The story is told in alternating voices – Lois speaks from dozens of journals she kept since childhood, and from Don, who offers his side of things, and elaborates on some entries that might need explaining. His side is told from an elder’s look back at his life and marriage after Lois’ death in 2008. His entries often reveal honest surprise at Lois’ words and the feelings she had. He is also quite uncomfortable with her candid admissions about their sex life. 

Let me say this book is not what you expect, this is not the cheerful reports of a child’s first step, or religious preaching, nothing of the sort. Their story is full of twists and turns that a long, full life brings, the sorrows and the joys. I found myself cringing at some of their choices – When they let down Don’s parents by leaving the farm to go back to teach at a Quaker school for very little money – Why? I demanded to myself. But, I am sure we have all made those decisions that seem selfish or wrong from the outsider’s perspective.

As far as the children, aside from the pregnancies and Lois’ feelings of being an inadequate mother they figure into the story very little, especially as children. As far as God or Quaker faith, that figures in even less. I didn’t know much about Quakers before I read this book, and I cannot say I know any more after reading it.  Though both Don and Lois agree early on in their marriage that they do not believe in god as a personification, they are committed to living a Quaker life. They eat healthy, they are not materialistic, though Lois once wishes the children had more toys, they conserve as much as possible – long before it was a trend – even when at the end of their lives they plan their dream trip to Alaska, they wonder if they deserve to use so much gasoline and create so much carbon!  

Both are strong pacifists. So much so, that Don ends up in prison for refusing to file a draft card. Humorously, when an FBI agent pays him a visit at Scattergood School where he manages the farm and teaches, Don tells the agent he’ll have to question him while he cleans out the chicken house, nearly rendering the agent unconscious from the smell!  (Don received a presidential pardon in 1963).  At 60 years of age, Lois traveled to Nicaragua as part of a group called Witness For Peace to protest the U.S support of the Contras. In addition, Lois requests for leniency for the murderer of her daughter, saying to punish the killer with death does no good, and does not bring Ruth back, who more than any of their other children followed in her parents footsteps as an activist for peace and equal rights, and a strong opponent of nuclear weapons. 

Though they sound like over the top do gooders, this book is not preachy, in fact anything but. Lois is often angry in her journal entries, feeling unfulfilled and insecure. The time in which she lives more than anything else, makes it impossible for her to realize her dreams, she steps into the role that is expected of her – to be a wife and mother, having five children by the time she is 30! Don works very hard farming and teaching, and puts himself through college in order to become an engineer. He later becomes a designer for medical instruments.

Maybe it sounds like a bit of a downer, and sometimes it is, but it’s the down that we can all relate to – feelings of uncertainty, loneliness, and the fear of pushing forward in life without a map. In the end, it went places I never expected, and taught me a lot about myself, life, and the enduring wonder and pain of love. Don regrets little things that at the time seemed so unimportant, but built walls between the two at various times in their marriage. He wishes he had been more open, more cerebral.

Lois secretly mourns a career she never had, and admonishes herself for not being a committed or successful writer, or having more accomplishments in life, though a quick google search reveals she has an archive at The University of Iowa Women’s Archive, it contains 40 volumes of journals and measures 2.5 linear feet in size!

‘Friends For A Lifetime: The Saga of a 63 Year Quaker Love Affair’ is not a suspense novel, and does not pretend to be. At the same time, it is fascinating for the inside peek at an enduring marriage, a rare look inside small town Iowa farming life, and the messiness of life in all it’s beauty, it’s sadness, it’s day to day simplicity, and how all of that adds up to remarkable no matter how typical it may seem on the surface. It was a beautiful story, and a wonderful book for young and old alike. Perhaps the perfect book for couples planning to marry, more than any “how to” or “self help” text around.