Plot Summary and Review of "A Mother of Five" by Bret Harte

Bret Harte in 1862 
"A Mother of Five" by Bret Harte begins as a shocking story of an overly young mother. It only takes a few sentences for it to evolve into the story of a quirky young girl who has a fondness for the strangest of dolls. Wrapped up in this evolving story is a glimpse of the wonder of children's imaginations and how a nine-year-old girl with five oddly constructed dolls can fancy herself a mother of five children. In the end, it is the story of how easy it is for a child to leave behind her childhood, but also of how difficult it is for the adults who loved her to do the same.

The titular character of "A Mother of Five" is a nine-year-old girl named Mary. Mary has a motley crew of dolls that the men of her neighborhood help her maintain. She imagines her children are the progeny of a gentleman who lives in a fancier neighborhood. The adults around her play along with her story and encourage the strange, neglectful maternal instinct of the girl. Bret Harte makes it impossible not to be amused by the way these men humor her. The characters are of the best sort -- kind, perhaps a little odd and utterly indulgent of childish whims.

As the "A Mother of Five" wears on, the reader learns of Mary's habit of leaving her children out in the cold. People find them in all kinds of odd places, such as snow banks. They have their fair share of run-ins with both wild animals and farm animals. This does not stop Mary's admirers from helping her care for her children when they come back damaged, nor does it stop them from indulging her fantasy. Bret Harte skillfully introduces the reader to Mary's neglect, but does so in a way that the reader acknowledges Mary's utter trust that her children will be fine.

In the end, Mary must grow up and go to school. At this time, she must choose a single doll to bring with her. To everyone's surprise, the mother of five chooses the least strange of all her children. This is odd because her taste had formerly run to the strangest of the bunch. Her admirers imagine that this is a sign she is growing up and realizing how best to fit in. She gives her other four children to four men who promise to care for them and allow her visits, but she eventually has to move out of state and leave her children behind. Much to the reader's amusement, the men keep her dolls for her in her absence, but when she returns as a young woman, she is completely disinterested in dolls. She has moved on, but Bret leaves our poor "foster fathers" adorably embarrassed that they expected the same Mary to return.
Overall, "A Mother of Five" by Bret Harte is well-written, heartwarming, enlightening and playful. The language is dated, given the age of the story, but it is still quite relatable as girls have not given up their mothering of decrepit dolls and men have not given up indulging them. In a word, the story is timeless.

Shelly Barclay 

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