Eight-year old Sylvia came to her grandmother’s house in the woods a year ago to help the old woman with farm chores. She has taken to this new life very easily and now, as her grandmother says, “There ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creatures counts her one o’ themselves. Squer’ls she’ll tame to come and feed right out o’ her hands, and all sorts o’ birds….
In the evenings her job is to bring home Mistress Mooly, the family cow, from the neighboring woods. The cow’s love of her freedom is often a game of hide and seek and when Sylvia finally finds her she leads the girl on a begrudging walk home. On a particularly difficult night with Mooly, it is late when they start for home. A young hunter intercepts the pair asking Sylvia for food and a place to sleep for the night. Sylvia is wary, but her grandmother welcomes him as a guest. At dinner Sylvia is an enthusiastic listener as the guest speaks of his life as an ornithologist who hunts birds for study and display. He is in this area in search of the elusive white heron he believes is in the vicinity and has promised ten dollars to whomever can lead him to it.
Sylvia is a little unnerved at this but because she knows the woods so well accompanies him the next day. Ten dollars is a fortune to her impoverished grandmother. She has seen the great bird flying above the tree tops and may know where its nest is located, though if she leads him to it, he will kill the bird.
But she is excited to see if she is right and steals away in the early morning and climbs the great pine in hopes of finding the nest. At the top she is stunned into silence as the bird lands on a branch close to her and calls to its mate in the nest Sylvia can see is nearby. In companionable silence “with murmur of the pine’s green branches in her ears,…they watched the sea and morning together.” As she climbs down the tree, she wonders how the day will go when she tells the stranger how to find his bird and the ten dollar reward given to her grandmother.
As Sylvia comes to the farmhouse the guest is ready for the day and both he and her grandmother, who discovered she was not in her bed, are waiting for her to tell them where and what she found.
Here she comes now, paler than ever, and her worn old frock is torn and tattered, and smeared with pine pitch. The grandmother and the sportsman stand in the door and question her, and the splendid moment has come to speak….He can make them rich with money; he has promised it, and they are poor now. He is so well worth making happy, and he waits to hear the story she can tell.
This is a moral dilemma no 8-year old should have to face. Sylvia loves her grandmother and knows what this money would do for her. Yet, she came here from a city life full of fear and loneliness where she was bullied and neglected and now finds safety and peace and a life with purpose. And most importantly, an easy friendship with the animals and birds of the neighborhood, beings she has come to love, who acknowledge her as friend, who wait for her each day outside her front door. And now she must answer which is more of value, the worth of the magnificent bird’s life or money in her grandmother’s pocket. What will she do?
When the editor at the Atlantic Monthly turned down “A White Heron” Jewett writes that “her friend, Mr. [William Dean] Howells, explained to me that this age frowns upon the romantic, that it is no use to write romance any more [sic], but dear me, how much of it there is left in every-day life after all….but what shall I do with my ‘White Heron’ now she is written? She isn’t a very good magazine story, but I love her, and I mean to keep her for the beginning of my next book.”
And she did-right at the beginning-to great acclaim by both readers and critics alike. A critic for the Overland Monthly singled out “A White Heron” as a “tiny classic. One little episode of child-life, among birds and woods makes it up; and the secret soul of a child, the appeal of the bird to its instinctive honor and tenderness, never were interpreted with more beauty and insight.”
What to make of editors and critics, eh? Writers take note….trust your guts, stand by your work and don’t give up!
Title: A White Heron
Author: Sarah Orne Jewett
Publisher: Solis Press
Device: Trade Paperback