I sometimes think I read too many novels of suspense and thrills. They ruin me for other stories with their tricky plot twists. When a story is quiet and thoughtful and not much really happens I tend to stop and think that I missed something. Surely there must be more, right? That's what I was thinking this weekend when I read Mary Wilkins Freeman's "A New England Nun". (I decided to stick with Fifty Great American Short Stories after all and am so glad I did).
Freeman straddles two centuries--she was born in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s and died in 1930. Maybe because her story comes just before one by Sarah Orne Jewett in the collection I think of Freeman (who I am not at all familiar with) as a regionalist. Is it just me or are so many 19th century American women writers considered regionalists? (Even Willa Cather!). Not that there is anything wrong with that in my book, but it seems to sort of pigeon-hole them and send them to a lower echelon of the literary sphere. But I am digressing here.
"A New England Nun" is indeed a quiet, thoughtful story where not much happens, and it left me wondering initially, but the more I think about it the more I like it. It is very spot on when it comes to showing what life is like, which is mostly quiet and thoughtful and in actuality that is a much better thing than the twists and turns crime novels take a reader on. I think I much prefer normal regular routine (most of the time anyway) to pure, adrenalin-drenched drama. At least in real life. And maybe I like the story so much because my own life is not such a stretch from that which Louisa Ellis lives in the story.
Louisa Ellis's life is very routine, maybe even a little staid. She has her home just as she likes it--each thing in its place and a place for everything.
"Louisa was slow and still in her movements; it took her a long time to prepare her tea; but when ready it was set forth with as much grace as if she had been a veritable guest to her own self. The little square table stood exactly in the center of the kitchen, and was covered with a starched linen cloth whose border pattern of flowers glistened. Louisa had a damask napkin on her tea-tray, where were arranged a cut-glass tumbler full of teaspoons, a silver cream-pitcher, a china sugar-bowl, and one pink china cup and saucer. She used china every day--something which none of her neighbors did."
Everything she does seems measured and thoughtful. Some might even say a little boring verging a little on the eccentric. She has an old dog that she keeps tied to her house and one day she hears a voice calling out to him. It's a voice from someone who was near and dear to her and who she has not seen in many, many years. Fifteen to be exact. Joe Dagget arrives and the two share pleasantries about his mother and the things that have kept him busy on his farm.
He seems a nice enough man, though he fills the space of her cottage and fingers her things and shifts them about unconsciously in ways that bother her just a little. She straightens the books he touches and remarks to herself on the dust he has tracked inside the house which she will now need to clean up. It's been a long time since they have seen each other and the two seem a little restrained, so it is surprising to learn that the pair are engaged. As it turns out Joe set off for Australia to earn his fortune just after the two were betrothed. He hoped it would not be for long, but in order to marry and live a comfortable and respectable life, he needed to earn money and save it--however long it took. Joe worked and Louisa waited.
And she waited. And she became comfortable in her life and the way she kept her home and prepared her meals and the china on which she ate. Joe is an honest, hardworking man who when he sets out to complete a task does it well, no matter how long it takes and is serious about his responsibilities. So when one night she is out walking Louisa overhears him talking to another woman from the village with whom has has obvious fallen in love with and that emotion is obviously reciprocated, it does not pain her to let him go. As a matter of fact she is surely secretly happy that they have both been released from their earlier commitment. It's a relief for them both.
On the surface it seems a little sad and melancholic, doesn't it? But I find it very poignant and even pleasing. Is it a narrow life she leads? Maybe, but maybe not considering the times (the story was published in 1891), and the fact that Louisa was living an independent life. But it is a happy one, and likely far happier knowing her limitations and desires and how it is meaningless to be with someone you don't love in order to just not be alone. I think the story says a lot about happiness and contentment and that solitariness and being alone is sometimes better than being with someone else just because it is expected of you.
I liked the story a lot. So much more to think about despite nothing much happening. Next week is Sarah Orne Jewett's "The Courting of Sister Wisby" which sounds interesting and perhaps a good story to compare with the Freeman.
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I'm a bit behind in my New Yorker short story reading but I hope to catch up this week. I did manage to read Allegra Goodman's "Apple Cake" this weekend from the July 7/14 issue earlier this month (so only two issues behind now). Feel free to read along if you like. I love the Q&A with Goodman for the light it sheds on the story, and the subtle bit of humor I got out of it. I have long wanted to read Goodman (I seem to have collected several of her novels . . .), so this was a nice quick taste (and no pun intended considering the title of the story) of her writing.
This is another really excellent story which perfectly describes the death of a youngest (at 74) sister who so obviously isn't ready to die yet has lung cancer and is spending her last days at home in hospice care. Her family is gathered around her and they are like any normal family you might imagine--meaning despite all best intentions of all parties involved there is still conflict. Death is so inconvenient--both for the dying and especially for those waiting for death (well, the reverse actually especially for the dying). If you are lucky you get to say goodbye. In the case of Jeanne, who is on her deathbed, she gets to say goodbye numerous times as she tenaciously hangs on while everyone else thinks 'this is it' she's ready to go, and then she lives another day and another. It's a well done story, serious yet with a light touch. Must read more of her soon.