A White Heron, Sarah Orne Jewett (1886) #ShortStorySaturday

The Story

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?

Notes

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!

Solis Press, 2013

Title: A White Heron
Author: Sarah Orne Jewett
Publisher: Solis Press
Date: 1886
Device: Trade Paperback
Pages: 11

Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton (1911)

efrome
This was a very depressing novel. Let’s just get that out of the way. Like another of Wharton’s New England novels Summer, which I read last year, she once again creates a character whose life has promise and potential, but bad choices made early on coupled with poverty and duty to family ruin any chance of freedom. Ethan Frome’s draining, joy-sucking life permeated every page.

Wharton creates a bit of mystery surrounding Ethan Frome in the opening pages. The unnamed narrator who arrives in town on business notes his somber countenance, “something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man,” yet he was only 52. The coach driver explained he has looked that way since ‘the smash-up.’ And with that, the strange, sad tale of Ethan Frome begins.

Frome is many years into a loveless marriage. He and his wife, Zeena, live in the Frome family home eking out a slim existence from soil that doesn’t yield much. He asked Zeena to marry him out of gratitude for helping him nurse his sick mother. Right after they marry her real or imagined ill health makes her unable to take care of the home, so she enlists the help of her young cousin, Mattie Silver, although it is soon clear she has no household skills.

Mattie’s youth and joy for life is Ethan’s one bright light and he begins to care for her deeply. When Zeena announces that her new doctor wants her to get a proper hired girl, because “I oughtn’t to have to do a single thing around the house,” Ethan is devastated. Mattie will have to leave because they can’t afford to pay for two girls, although she has no family to take her in. Ethan spends days frantically looking for a way to run off with Mattie, until he realizes its futility. The day he takes Mattie to the train station he stops to take her sledding. Both are distraught over their impending separation admitting they cannot live apart and make a pact to end their pain by sledding into a tree. They are severely injured, but both live. Ethan is left with a limp and a scarred forehead, but Mattie sustains a spinal injury that leaves her permanently disabled.

The action skips to the present when the narrator, who has only heard bits and pieces of this story is invited by Ethan to stay the night during a snow storm. When the front door is opened he hears more than one voice coming from the kitchen. He is shocked to walk in on both Zeena and Mattie sitting around the kitchen table.

When he goes back to his boarding house, run by a childhood friend of Ethan’s she explains that yes, after the accident, Zeena took Mattie back and nursed her as best she could and without any family to return to the three have lived together for 24 years. She tells him, “If she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”

Though the story is terribly tragic I admire Wharton’s writing. She is not sentimental or overly emotional, but matter of fact. The event happens or the choice sets in motion tragic consequences, the character accepts his or her fate and makes new choices and with them we move on. As in real life we have to get on with whatever hand we are dealt and this is how Wharton writes.

Except that I found it hard to just let go of Ethan’s fate. Is it too much to ask to give him a little happiness after having to leave college to come back home to care for his father, then his mother, then his wife and finally both his wife and unrequited lover? Couldn’t Wharton give him a little better financial situation or let his wife die young or…something?

However, like Charity, the main character in Summer, who similarly had to pit personal fulfillment against duty, what the reader finds here is reality. Both Ethan and Charity made foolish choices the first time they fell in love, which left them with life-altering consequences they could never break away from. And maybe that is the moral or the cautionary tale here; what you do when young comes back to haunt you. The whole trajectory of your life can change in an instant, so make good choices!

Right.

Try telling that to any young person in love!
____________________

My edition and plot summary.
Edith Wharton. Ethan Frome and Selected Stories. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004. Originally published in 1911.

Challenges: Classic Club List and Mount TBR

Hawthorne, Henry James (1879)

My Edition:hawthorne
Title: Hawthorne
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Device: Paperback
Year: Originally published, 1879. Published by Cornell U Press, 1997.
Pages: 145
For a plot summary

This is such an odd little book.

Like many people I enjoy reading comments and critiques from one writer about another. I relish the mention of a title or recitations of a sentence or two; when one well-known writer cites another and gives a passage some meaning in the context of a story. So when I saw this critique of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work by Henry James I was excited and intrigued.

James (1843-1916) wrote this as a contribution to the English Men of Letters series. He was the only American contributor and Hawthorne (1804-1864) was the only American subject. James wrote this in his mid thirties and had yet to publish much of his own great novels.

I have read several of Hawthorne’s novels—The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance and some short stories, but I have not read any Henry James. I have become particularly interested in Hawthorne and hope to read more of his work as well as those about him. So, while I came to this book a bit biased, I was not prepared for a James who was so patronizing, cutting, passive aggressive and snobby, and who seemed to be writing more about the provincialism of American culture and its inferiority to that of Europe using Hawthorne as an example, than of critiquing Hawthorne himself.

“…the flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep, that it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature, that it needs a complex social machinery to set a writer in motion. American civilization has hitherto had other things to do than to produce flowers and before giving birth to writers it has wisely occupied itself with providing something for them to write about.”(p. 2)

According to James it was a shame that Hawthorne wasn’t English, as his saunters and walks through a European wood and meeting men of a higher civilization would have “been a very different affair” in terms of his talent. America was missing all the points of reference that make for culture. In a famous list, James states the deficiencies of America that make it impossible to create culture. It has

…no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot! (p. 34)

And on and on like this for most of the first half of the book. Realism, the technique James is known for is absent from Hawthorne’s work he states and chides him for, yet also admitting Hawthorne probably did not know what it was. I found myself thinking this book is more about James, who is critical of a life that is missing something, the deficiencies, rather than what is.

The Blithedale Romance is James’s first critique of a novel, which is Hawthorne’s account of his months spent at the experiment in community living, Brook Farm. James describes the book as admirable and picturesque. Most of what James writes about,  however, are the Transcendentalists, calling Henry Thoreau, “a delightful writer” and Emerson, the only “writer in whom the world at large has interested itself.” (p.66)

He does call The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne’s masterpiece, “and will continue to be, for other generations than ours….” (p. 87) Which sounds positive until he states, “Something might at last be sent to Europe as exquisite in quality as anything that had been received…” From anywhere else, meaning all those other countries with sovereigns and courts and castles…Talk about a left-handed compliment. (p. 88)

It is often hard to follow James in this book. As soon as he compliments Hawthorne, there is always a caveat. “It cannot be too often repeated that Hawthorne was not a realist.” (p. 98) Yet, “He had a high sense of reality—his NoteBooks superabundantly testify to it…he never attempted to render exactly or closely the actual facts of the society that surrounded him.” (p. 98) The House of the Seven Gables for James was an ‘imaginative’ work. And that is up for debate, as this book must be one of the most detailed novels of period, setting and character of all time!

I confess I have not done research on James, which might bring some of his style and reason for writing this to light, as well as how this book was received when published and what is thought of it now. One of the unintended consequences is that it gave me a very negative view of James and will probably affect my future reading of his work. The word ‘jerk’ comes to mind, yet admittedly, the reason for his jerkiness is intriguing, which means I probably will at some point read more about him, as well as his novels…

This book qualifies for the Reading New England Challenge

The Three Weissmanns of Westport, Cathleen Schine (2010)

My Edition:threewesissmanns
Title: The Three Weissmanns of Westport
Author: Cathleen Schine
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, Giroux
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2010
Pages: 292
For a plot summary

Participating in the Reading New England Challenge this year has helped me discover books I might not have found otherwise. For this category, I needed a book with a Connecticut connection and while I started Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, I just could not get into it. O Mr. Twain, an editor would have been a good idea….but, that’s a post for another day. The Three Weissmanns of Westport, by Cathleen Schine was an unexpected, but fine discovery.

Betty Weissmann is 75 years old when her husband Joseph asks her for a divorce citing irreconcilable differences (“Of course there are irreconcilable differences. What on earth does that have to do with divorce” says Betty)? In his case, those ‘irreconcilable differences’ have to do with another woman and poor Berry is forced to change everything about her married Manhattan life, including leaving her home. When a distant relative invites her to live in his rental cottage by the sea in Connecticut, she accepts his offer and asks her two grown daughters, who have just suffered tragedies of their own, to move in with her just until the divorce, which Joseph is dragging his feet on, is finalized.

Annie, the oldest daughter, a mother of two grown sons who works at a small subscription library in New York City, is suffering from empty-nest syndrome and a stalled love affair. Though she has always thought of Joseph as more than a step-father, she is angry and shocked at his treatment of her mother, especially having cut off her funds and kicking her out of her home. Helping Betty is Annie’s priority, her finances in particular, since Betty will be on a budget for the first time in her life. She decides to sublet her apartment and commute.

Miranda, the second daughter has just made a spectacular mess of her literary agency business. Specializing in memoirs it has been discovered that two of her well-known, that is, financially-fruitful authors lied about their rags to riches life and their books are total hoaxes. To make matters worse she appears on Oprah where she tries to justify their literary license with an “everyone makes things up,” excuse. Oprah doesn’t buy it, shakes “her iconic head,” and Miranda is shamed. She loses everything.

As the three women spend these months helping each other through their losses, romance becomes an underlying development for both Annie and Miranda against the dissolution of Betty’s marriage. The relationships are surprising and progress gently, but they are real and stable, as steady as can be in real life.

And here I must mention the Sense and Sensibility connection. While this novel is loosely fashioned as an homage to this wonderful book, there are enough differences in many major plot twists to make it not matter. I say this because you don’t have to know the classic text to fully enjoy this book, and secondly, if you are disappointed that the novel does not follow the classic text, you will be critical of it.

This is my first Cathleen Schine and I found her strong in character development, thoroughly enjoying the journey each of the three Weissmanns have to undertake to find peace and acceptance in their lives. The supporting characters, too, are well-defined, each assisting or subverting the women along the way.

Schine writes with humor and intellect and I adored the mention of so many classic writers and their novels the sisters, both book lovers, mention at various times:

Then, invariably the sisters would quote Louisa May Alcott at each other—“She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain”—and move on to other things.

And when Miranda characterizes one of Betty’s lawyers named Mr. Mole, as Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, I howled!

The Three Weissmanns of Westpport is reading time well and happily spent.

The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett (1896)

My Edition:pointed firs
Title: The Country of the Pointed Firs
Author: Sarah Orne Jewett
Publisher: A Public Domain Book
Device: Kindle Fire
Year: 1896
Pages: 72
For a plot summary

When one really knows a village like this and its surroundings, it is like becoming acquainted with a single person. The process of falling in love at first sight is as final as it is swift…but the growth of true friendship may be a lifelong affair. [i]

Most biographical descriptions of Sarah Orne Jewett include the fact that as the daughter of a doctor, she accompanied him on rounds throughout their small rural town in Maine and grew close to the townspeople, the farmers and fishermen and developed an eye for the details of their behavior and the rhythm of their daily lives. It is apparent throughout this small book of “quietly powerful rhythms” (Ursula K. LeGuin), Jewett’s acquaintance with the variety of types who make up the small fictional fishing village of Dunnet Landing benefited from these encounters.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is not really a novel, but more a series of sketches tied together by an unnamed narrator, a writer, stopping for the summer at the home Almira Todd. It is with Todd, an herbalist with a well-stocked garden in the ancient manner of healers, that much of the action centers.

There were some strange and pungent odors that roused a dim sense and remembrance of something in the forgotten past. Some of these might once have belonged to sacred and mystic rites, [but now] They were dispensed to suffering neighbors, who usually came at night as if by stealth, bringing their own ancient-looking vials to be filled.[ii]

Fisher folk are the bulk of Todd’s neighbors. They know the weather, the tides, how to build and repair boats and how to read the water. They have lived long and see the world around them changing. They have been jilted at the altar and take on penance on an isolated island, they have lost the great love of their life, they stop everything for a neighbor’s disaster and they live for the next family reunion

One of the changes is spoken by Captain Littlepage, who spends time pondering the past as he sits and watches the shore from his home. He is disconcerted at the fact that men don’t put out to sea for the adventure and mind expansion as they once did. The town is “full of loafers,” he says…“who once would have followed the sea, every lazy soul of ‘em.” [iii]

“…that a community narrows down and grows dreadful ignorant when it is shut up to its own affairs, and gets no knowledge of the outside world except from a cheap, unprincipled newspaper…There’s no large-minded way of thinking now: the worst have got to be best and rule everything; we’re all turned upside down and going back year by year.”[iv]

Another character who features strongly throughout the books is one we never meet. Although, she has been dead for 22 years, she is often on the mind of Mrs. Todd and others of the town. “Poor” Joanna was to be married, but a month before the wedding her suitor fell in love with another woman and up and moved away. Understandably upset she turned her wrath on God to such an extent that in her own mind she became unforgivable and felt she must remove herself from society. Although the tiny island she moved to was visible from the mainland, she made it clear her friends must leave her alone, which they reluctantly did. Having heard this story, the narrator feels compelled to visit the island.

Later generations will know less and less of Joanna herself, but there are a paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over, –the world cannot forget them…the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance…In the life of each of us…there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong. [v]

And then there is the Bowden family reunion that brings in throngs of people for food gossip and to connect with far flung family. Mrs. Todd and her old mother invite the narrator along, who observes:

….when at long intervals, the altars to patriotism, to friendship, to the ties of kindred, are reared in our familiar fields, then the fires glow, the flames come up as if from the inexhaustible burning heart of the earth…. Each heart is warm and every face shines with the ancient light. Such a day as this has transfiguring powers…but it is the old who really value such opportunities; as for the young, it is the habit of every day to meet their comrades—the time of separation has not come. To see the joy with which these elder kinsfolk and acquaintances had looked in one another’s faces, and the lingering touch of their friendly hands… easily makes friends of those who have been cold-hearted, and gives to those who are dumb their chance to speak, and lends some beauty to the plainest face.[vi]

This is my first Sarah Orne Jewett, a work Henry James called, a “beautiful little quantum of achievement.” I was drawn into this book through the details of a way of life that for the most part no longer exists. It found me longing to know more, not only of the characters, but of the author herself.

 

**********

[i] p 1.
[ii] p. 2.
[iii] p. 9.
[iv] p. 10.
[v] p. 43 & 44.
[vi] p. 51.

This book is for the Reading New England Challenge and my Classics Club book list.