Reading New England Challenge Wrap-Up

One of the highlights of my 2016 blogging year was participating in the Reading New England Challenge hosted by Lory of Emerald City Book Review. I read 12 books from specified categories, including one from each New England state.

I only started book blogging the previous September and was still getting the lay of book-blogging land when I saw the announcement for the challenge. I thought it would be a good way to read some classics I’d missed along the way.

I could not have chosen a better first challenge. Not only did I finally read Little Women and The House of the Seven Gables, I forced myself to read a horror novel and a book by someone I’d never heard about. I even bought a map of New England to track where the books were set!

One of the benefits of doing a challenge like this is being introduced to writers with whom you are unfamiliar.  If you were to tell me when I started one of my favorite experiences would be reading the aforementioned horror story, I would have called you daft. Or, that The Country of the Pointed Firs, a book by an author I’d never heard of would end up my favorite book of the challenge, I’d have been stunned. But both are true. I will be reading more of H.P. Lovecraft next year (during daylight hours, of course 🙂 ) and I have already read a short story by Sarah Orne Jewett (“A White Heron”) that was beautiful.

Other highlights for me: “Our Town,” Little Women, getting to know Nathaniel Hawthorne through The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, discovering one of my favorite films “The Haunting” was based on a book, The Haunting of Hill House and enjoying it as much as the film, and while I had mixed feelings about A Separate Peace I now know why a close co-worker finds it to be his favorite book.

 

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Thank you, Lory, for all the work you put into this. It was a great experience with lasting effects!

Here is what I read:

January: New Hampshire
A Separate Peace John Knowles

February: Fiction
The Blithedale Romance Nathaniel Hawthorne

March: Maine
The Country of the Pointed Firs Sarah Orne Jewett

April: Poetry and Drama
Our Town Thornton Wilder Thornton Wilder

May: Vermont
The Haunting of Hill House Shirley Jackson

June: Nonfiction
Hawthorne Henry James

July: Massachusetts
Little Women Louisa May Alcott

August: Children’s Books
The Witch of Blackbird Pond Elizabeth George Speare

September: Rhode Island
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward HP Lovecraft

October: Speculative Fiction and Mystery
Looking Backward Edward Bellamy

November: Connecticut
The Three Weissmanns of Westport Cathleen Schine

December: Readalong or free choice
Summer Edith Wharton

Our Town, Thornton Wilder (1938)

 My Edition:ourtown
Title: Our Town
Author: Thornton Wilder
Publisher: Harper and Row, Publishers
Device: Hard cover
Year: 1938
Pages: 74
For a plot summary 

 

Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God

 

I have always found Thornton Wilder’s, Our Town fascinating. From the bare stage void of props and the only furniture benches, chairs and ladders, to actors miming a lot of the action, to the Stage Manager speaking directly to the audience and calling all the shots and especially to the “strawberry phosphate” that, to my 16 year-old self, sounded more like a science experiment than a soda fountain drink.

This 1938 play has a seemingly simple premise: a group of actors portray small town (population 2,642 “at the moment”) Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire during the early years of the 19th century through births, daily life, marriage and death. “The way we were.” The characters names are well-known in pop culture: Emily and George, the Webb and the Gibbs families, the Stage Manager.

Small town though this may be, there is an awareness that it is part of the vast greatness of the Universe. The characters are always looking up at the moon or the stars. They know their little lives in this little town is part of the collective of the larger world.

However, this awareness is unconscious until they die. When Emily, who married George and then died a few years later, tells the other inhabitants of the cemetery she wants to go back to the living for just a day, she has a rude awakening. She realizes in  life, no one looked at each other; they just went about their lives, going through the motions. “Mama I’m here. I’m grownup. I love you all, everything—I can’t look at everything hard enough.” “Let’s look at one another.” Finally, she pleads with the Stage Manager to take her back, “I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.”

In this rereading I noticed something I hadn’t before. In one scene, the Stage Manager calls for Mr. Webb to give the audience “the political and social report” of the town (he’s the editor of the paper). Mrs. Webb calls to the Stage Manager to say her husband cut his hand on an apple, he’ll be right out. There are other times the Stage Manager starts and stops the action when something occurs to him that he wants the audience to know; or he feels the actors aren’t going fast enough so he stops them. That’s what you do at lectures or presentations when you have actors dramatizing certain points you want to make.

I suddenly had this thought: the play is actually a show, maybe a road show for people to come and learn about the town (representing Anytown, USA?) as evidenced when the Stage Manager invites the audience to ask questions.

What an odd idea. Our Town as a touring stage show to present to the moderns of 1938 an America on the brink of a really terrible war and what they would be fighting for? What America really stood for? What they have forgotten and need to rediscover?

The depth of the play obviously belies its simple plot and universal appeal. In fact, as I was finishing it yesterday morning, I got word that a friend of mine had died. I immediately thought about a passage of the Stage Manager’s and wrote it out to send to our mutual friends. It touched a chord in all of us.

Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars. . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.

Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938. It just closed in Reston, Virginia, is on this season’s calendar at the prestigious Shaw Festival in Canada and if you hurry you can still get tickets for tomorrow’s production at the Eagle Theater in Hammonton, New Jersey. In modern parlance, it is safe to say, “this thing never gets old!”

 

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