Reading the naturalists

Of the 59 books I read in 2022, two-thirds were nonfiction, and one-third were from the naturalist canon. Although this has been a focus for the past seven years, I continue to be surprised by new discoveries in this genre.

Among the authors I read for the first time were Terry Tempest Williams, in advance of her talk at the University of Rhode Island in November, Edward O. Wilson, and Sigurd F. Olson. I also finally read Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” Each of these in its own way broadened my appreciation of the natural world and inspired me to keep working on my own essays.

But I also returned to some revered authors, including Bernd Heinrich, Henry Beston, Edwin Way Teale and Joseph Wood Krutch. And the more I explored these writers, the more they began to talk to each other. Sometimes literally – Teale, for example, was an admirer of Krutch (and good friends with Roger Tory Peterson and Rachel Carson). Dillard quotes Teale extensively, especially from his debut, “Grassroot Jungles.” All of the above, at one time or another, invoke Henry David Thoreau. In fact, you could construct a Kevin Bacon game out of those references.

But these writers talk to each other figuratively, too. From the top shelves of my bookcase, where the honored naturalists reside, their books send out invisible filaments, like a spider rappelling to a new home. Wilson’s ant experiments make me think of the two hours Teale spent at the Cape Cod National Seashore, watching ants and recording their movements. I can’t think of Cape Cod, of course, without being reminded of Thoreau’s trips there and Beston’s stay at the Outermost House. As for the latter, a friend loaned me the delightful “Journey to Outermost House” by Nan Turner Waldron, who stayed longer at the house than its famous resident and provides an insightful history of its construction, its use by birders and eventual demise during the Blizzard of ’78.

And as their threads cross and recross, these authors complement one another. I believe that all naturalists contain three identities, in varying degrees. There is the naturalist-philosopher, like Thoreau, who uses the natural world as both counterpoint and metaphor. There is the naturalist-scientist, like Heinrich and Wilson, whose first allegiance is to observation and experimentation. Finally, there is the naturalist-writer, who comes to nature first as a chronicler and lyricist. Each of these writers contains elements of all three, with one trait usually dominating.

Heinrich, for example, is a biologist who taught for years at the University of Vermont. His accounts of living in a cabin in Maine – including “A Year in the Maine Woods,” “The Trees in My Forest” and “One Wild Bird at a Time,” among others – are girded in scientific observation. But Heinrich also is a writer of lyrical power, and his words sometimes transcend scientific fact. “Much of nature is subtle, and it is difficult to appreciate it if one is used to the grandiose,” he notes in “In a Patch of Fireweed.”

Teale (1899-1980) came to nature writing as a wordsmith. After obtaining a master’s degree in English literature from Columbia, he began work at Popular Science Monthly, a grinding job he grew to hate but which exposed him to scores of scientific ideas and anecdotes. This experience, combined with a love of Nature, served him well as he went on to write more than 25 books, one of which won the Pulitzer Prize. Like Heinrich, Teale’s prose can ascend into the lyrical and the philosophical.

After a frustrating day testifying on behalf of a conservation bill in Hartford, he returns home to walk in the rain. “… I feel myself expanding,” he writes in “A Walk Through the Year.” “I am returned to my proper habitat. Worlds away seem the cramped quarters of that narrow room as I strike out across our open land; worlds away the dead rebreathed air as I take in deep lungful after lungful of the moist, fresh air of the country.”

Other writers, like John Cowper Powys, are philosophers at heart. In “A Philosophy of Solitude” (1933), Powys explores the power of Nature to heal our souls. He offers it as a substitute for God in a Godless age. “Those thrice-fortunate persons whose dwelling is in the country have at their disposal, every day and every hour, a wide-open spacious gateway into the receding Unknown,” he writes. “These lucky ones have a scene at their very threshold, made up of earth and air and clouds and grass and trees, such as, isolated by the brooding mind from the rest of the landscape, is soon found to be impregnated, as they fling their spirit into it, with a lovely, withdrawing, recessive magic.”

But of the all the writers on my shelf, Sigurd F. Olson (1899-1982) impressed me the most this year. He also is the most difficult to categorize. A former college dean and professor of biology, he preferred to spend his time as a wilderness guide in Minnesota and the lake country of Ontario. More than any of these writers, Olson was a man who made a life in the wilderness.

He also was the finest writer in this elite group. In “Wilderness Days,” a compilation of his work published in 1972, he writes of the North Woods with an explorer’s knowledge and a seeker’s intensity. Emulating the voyageurs who opened the country to fur trading, Olson brings us into their world, and his, with an ear for sight, sound, and sensation.

“The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind,” he writes. “Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats: the sky, the water, the shores. In a canoe a man changes and the life he has lived seems strangely remote.”

The chapter titles together form a sort of prose poem. Here are some: “Witching Hours,” “Silence,” “Stream of the Past,” “Ghost Camps of the North,” “Falling Leaf,” “Smoky Gold,” “Coming of the Snow,” “Dark House.”

As I look ahead to 2023, I am happy to have more nature writers on my shelf. I just picked up Olson’s “Of Time and Place” at a used bookstore, and have begun Joan E. Strassmann’s new guide, “Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard,” which promises philosophical as well as scientific insights. And if my to-be-read pile dwindles, I have Thoreau’s unabridged journals, which I picked up in Concord this summer. Nature is the mirror that shows us both ourselves and the world we live in, and as such is an inexhaustible subject.


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A trip back in reading time

As the old year winds down, I’m taking a look back at the year in books – which was in itself a trip into the past.

This spring, I embarked on a project to read beloved books from childhood. I chose the time period of fifth and sixth grade, only because I have a record of everything I read in that time in my five-year diaries. I did slip in a few from fourth grade as well.

Before reading even one page, I wondered what re-reading these beloved classics would be like. Would I enjoy the characters and stories as much as I did then? Would the books’ plots be engaging from the adult perspective? I ran the risk of spoiling a dear childhood memory if one of the books proved a disappointment 50 years later.

In fact, I began with a book I recalled struggling with. Three times I took Rachel Field’s “Hitty: Her First Hundred Years” out of the library. This story told from a doll’s point of view, a doll who has adventures throughout modern history, across oceans and continents, held great appeal. Dorothy P. Lathrop’s illustrations of the calico-clad Hitty also lured me back to the book again and again. Yet each time I was disappointed. I’m not sure I ever finished it. Maybe the language was too adult, the sentences too long. Or maybe there was something about Hitty that I could not connect to. As an adult, would I at last be able to enjoy this story?

Although I had no problem finishing the book, I was left ambivalent. As a child I might have expected Hitty to be a benevolent figure, a universal friend to all of the little girls who adopt her. But as soon as she is separated from one child she moves on to the next, scarcely missing her former home. In truth, there is something too adult about Hitty. If she could talk, she would have a sharp tongue. Perhaps she reminded me too much of the sarcastic grown-ups I encountered at school. She is so strong, and so proud, it’s hard to worry about the fixes she gets into.

I proceeded to “The Borrowers,” Mary Norton’s delightful fantasy of the little people who live beneath the floorboards in an English manor house. Now I can see the political overtones of this charming tale, which depicts the humble Clocks – Arrietty, and her parents Pod and Homily – in contrast to the proud and doomed Overmantels and Harpsichords. But in fifth grade I had a child’s fascination with anyone wee, as we all feel small at 10 or 11. I loved their tiny, repurposed objects, the hazards of borrowing, the threat of the wild, outdoor world just beyond the door. Surely I must have identified with Arrietty, who is bolder and more adventurous than her mother, and I must have understood her mother’s fretfulness at the loss of cousin Eggletina, as I had seen how the loss of my sister had changed my mother. Fifty years later, “The Borrowers” holds up, and my enjoyment of it only deepened.

I soon felt the same about a pair of historical novels, “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” by Elizabeth George Speare and “Caddie Woodlawn: A Frontier Story” by Carol Ryrie Brink. I remembered both only vaguely, almost a mood rather than a story. But I found myself again engrossed by their strong characters – Kit, an outsider who finds it difficult to conform to the Puritan Connecticut town where she has washed up, and Caddie, a spirited girl who comes to the defense of a local Indian tribe in frontier Wisconsin. But each denouement was conventional: Kit marries the sailor who befriends her, and Caddie gives up her tomboy-ish ways to become a lady – “a beautiful and precious” responsibility that she “was ready to go and meet.”

In the regional novels of Lois Lenski, I found more strong female characters. These girls, many of whom were poor, gave me courage to be myself. In “Judy’s Journey,” Lenski tells the story of a migrant family in Florida in the 1940s. The Drummonds leave their Alabama tenant farm hoping for a better life in the Sunshine State, but soon find themselves migrants, picking beans, potatoes, celery, tomatoes, cucumbers and, eventually, strawberries. They live in squalid camps, sleep in tents or their car, endure the prejudice of the locals and dream of a better life. Lenski visited the camps and interviewed migrant children, and although we would find the dialect she reproduces to be exaggerated today, the book has the ring of authenticity. When Judy is not invited to a birthday party because she has no shoes, any child who has ever been excluded can relate to her despair.

For sheer pleasure I re-read two more of Lenski’s books, “Prairie School,” set in the Dakotas during a brutal winter, and “Strawberry Girl,” about a family living in the pine barrens of Florida. These books, too, were the products of prodigious research, and by focusing on regional children, Lenski vividly evoked the American experience in a multitude of ways. Although all of her characters are white, she includes Black characters, pointing out for example in “Judy’s Journey” that in Beantown, the whites worked inside the canneries, while the Blacks toiled in the fields. In 1947, this was a bold admission of inequality.

My most beloved childhood book was “Hurry Home, Candy,” by Meindert DeJong. The story of a lost dog who endures abuse and months in the wild struck a chord with me in fifth grade, when I sometimes was the butt of various teachers’ wrath. All these years later, I had never forgotten the scene where Candy’s owner terrorizes him with a broom. By the time I made it to the happy ending, I was as much of a puddle at 62 as I had been at 11.

There were other books on my list. I started the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series and reread one of the “Henry Reed” books by Keith Robertson, about a young inventor in New Jersey and his escapades. I could not omit the classic “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” by E.L. Konigsburg, about the brother and sister who run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art – an adventure that captivated me as a child but only incited worry as an adult. (They were gone for a week! Their poor parents!) And I still have titles to read, including the tale of that other strong female, “Harriet the Spy,” by Louise Fitzhugh.

Five of these books were Newbery Award winners. Despite occasional lapses (I could not get over the dialogue tag “sparkled” in one novel), in general the writing was strong, the characters captivating, the plots engaging. I wonder, however, how many children still read these titles. In a 2013 thesis, Erin J. Kennell found that 46 of the 95 librarians surveyed would weed out a Newbery title if it hadn’t circulated recently. Her results suggest that as these books age, literally and figuratively, they are disappearing from libraries.

I also suspect some of them are no longer politically correct. Pioneer children and poor white protagonists have faded in popularity as writers and publishers aim to be more inclusive. Hitty’s description of the South Seas islanders who kidnap her as “brown men” and “savages” would never survive an editor’s pen today.

So the answers to my original questions are yes, I did enjoy rereading these books from my childhood, and yes, I did have adult insights into their weaknesses. Overall this experience reminded me how reading children’s fiction helped develop my empathy, provided an escape from my everyday existence, and stretched my imagination. I can only hope that today’s children reap similar benefits from their school libraries.

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Spinning silver into gold

As in most household chores, one thing leads to another. I decide to clean out the cutlery drawer, which somehow leads to cleaning out underneath the kitchen sink, where I find the oven-cleaning kit (passing it to my husband) and end up polishing silver.

It’s meditative, this polishing. Each spoon must be handled one at a time. Front, back, concave, convex. Glimmers of light reflect off the handle. I set to musing.

Where did they come from? Aside from a set of iced-tea spoons I bought at a flea market years ago (silverplate, “Queen Esther”), they are all solid silver. Teaspoons, soup spoons, baby spoons (evoking that old saw, “Born with a silver spoon in his mouth”).

Maybe this is the same cutlery that my mother meant, when recounting her meager inheritance: “All I got was a thousand dollars and a set of teaspoons.” She knew the family farm was worth much more, but she and her siblings had signed off their rights to the property so their brother, who was living there, could borrow against it. His son ended up with everything, developed it, and just sold the property for more than $20 million.

Poor mother, I thought, shining up the bowl of a spoon. She always wanted her ship to come in, but someone else sailed it away.

Some of the stems have a cursive “L” and the baby spoon the name “Larkin.” Is this Larkin House, the long-ago Watch Hill hotel? Or a family name?

Others have no marks at all. But a large serving spoon catches my eye. On one side is a “C,” on the back, “Hotel Commodore.”

There was a hotel by this name in New York City. The “commodore” was Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose grandson and namesake built a grand summer estate in Newport – the Breakers.

Where did this spoon come from? Did my sister or parents pick it up at an auction? Or did someone swipe it from the hotel?

My great-grandmother, Lovina Jane (Holland) Crandall, and great-grandfather, Charles Henry Crandall, traveled across the country by train in 1915. They did pass through New York state, but the Hotel Commodore wasn’t built until 1919.

I polish and wipe, shine and buff. I switch hands when I get tired.

My mind drifts to a slower, more elegant time. Tea on wide porches: Cucumber sandwiches, iced tea sprigged with mint. Ladies wearing white linen, shading their faces with broad-brimmed hats.

Once, I used these iced-tea spoons in my glasses of Nestea. But that was forty years ago, and most of their silverplate has chipped off. The Queen Esther pattern, introduced in 1935, is all over eBay.

The other spoons are pure silver. A full service goes for thousands of dollars. I doubt a few spoons are worth much, though. My mother was right to be miffed.

For me, what’s minted in them are stories. The places they take my imagination. I line them up, one after the other, on a lace runner.

A serving maid works at an old hotel. It is hot in the summer kitchen. She folds linen napkins on a tray and heads to the dining room.

A cranky woman with a jowly neck sits alone next to a window. She clinks the spoon against her china cup. The sun glints off the silver.

Who does she see out the window? Whose sailboat is that on the bay? What words is she about to speak?

The maid is sweating. She is tired of this rich old woman and her demands. She wants away from this seaside resort. Maybe, each night, she hides a place setting in her bag: Fork, knife, spoon. But how can she hock it when the hotel’s name is inscribed on each piece?

A narrative knot. I nest the spoons together and put them back in the cupboard, until next time.

After the polishing. Instead of harsh chemicals, I use toothpaste or a mixture of white vinegar and baking soda.
All set for a fancy tea.
Silver teaspoons engraved with “L.”
Soup spoon has Hotel Commodore engraved on the back.

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The woes of my lingering malady

If I were writing a 19th-century account of recent days, I might begin something like this:

For the past month I have suffered an injury to my shoulder that has restricted my movement most awfully and, worse still dear reader, afflicted my very ability to write.

Or, in 21st-century parlance, I have tendinitis in my shoulder. And it sucks.

I don’t know how it happened. I didn’t fall down the stairs or pick up a bowling ball or pitch a softball game. Two out of three of those things are quite unlikely, anyway.

All I know is that sometime before Easter, my right arm started to ache. I was whipping up some blueberry muffins and it hurt to stir the batter. Then I had trouble lifting my arm over my head. Eventually I noticed a golf ball-sized lump on my shoulder.

Nineteenth-century digression: Why are bodily swellings always compared to the circular equipment of athletes? Why isn’t the lump the size of poor Yorick’s skull? Or Oliver Twist’s empty bowl of porridge? Or Amy March’s pickled limes?

No, there was no inciting incident. The truth is that my neck, back, and arms have not been well since I started teaching a decade ago. As an adjunct, with no real office, I was always schlepping around campus with my valise, crammed with books and student papers, slung over my arm. What I thought would make me stronger had the opposite effect. For the past three years I’ve used a rolling bag, but undoing the damage of all that toting and lifting has been difficult. Visits to the chiropractor and physical therapy helped, until this latest episode, that is.

The pain and lack of mobility worsened as the semester crawled to a close. I took the precaution of emptying my rolling bag before removing it from or returning it to the car. I began to use my left arm to open doors, pick up plates, empty the washing machine. My husband became my de facto servant, buttoning buttons and picking up dropped pens and carrying books out to my car.

Nineteenth-century digression: But no ladies maid to dress oneself – no cook or housemaid – no gardener even!

None of that, the housework or gardening or wardrobe challenges, bothers me as much as the difficulty of writing.

Why does it have to be my right arm? So that holding a pen sends shooting pains to my shoulder, and using the mouse pulls on the swollen tendon.

Because as all you writers out there know, this has not stopped me from writing.

I can type fairly well – the shoulder remains locked into place next to the body. It’s using the mouse that proves difficult. Writing by hand can be excruciating. I weigh every word. Some days I simply stop in mid-sentence. All of that is the antithesis of journal writing, which should be free, expansive, even rushed as the hand tries to keep up with the brain.

And I know I shouldn’t complain. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and beloved children’s writer Louisa May Alcott both wrote through the debilitating symptoms of mercury poisoning.

Alcott, nursing Civil War soldiers in Washington, D.C., came down with typhoid fever. The remedy of the day was calomel, which contained mercury. For the rest of her life she would suffer intermittent symptoms of this poison.

Alcott wrote “The Old-Fashioned Girl,” she reported, “with left hand in a sling, one foot up, head aching, and no voice.”

Beecher Stowe also suffered myriad symptoms, including chills, a cough, vomiting and what she described as rheumatism. Some of this was probably caused by her treatment. Visiting her brother in Indianapolis in 1844, she wrote to her husband that she was “reduced to calomel & gruel.”

Depressed and worn out from having four children in seven years, in 1846 she moved to Brattleboro, Vt., for nearly a year, to take the “water cure.” This may have had the unintended effect of flushing the mercury from her system.

Both women wrote their greatest works after the onset of their symptoms. So I soldier on: It could be worse.

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A trip back to 1950

It took some digging. Some scrolling and head-scratching. But at last, there they were, on Enumeration Map 5-1, page 55: S. Warren Thayer, Eleanor C. Thayer, and Mary Jane Thayer.

The 1950 census records were made public this week by the National Archives. For genealogists, the digitized pages are a treasure trove of locations, ages, and occupations.

For the merely curious, such as myself, the 1950 Census is a trip back in time. It doesn’t tell us anything we probably don’t already know. But it inspires interest, nonetheless.

Before I found those three names, I paged and paged through the wrong, adjacent census tract. It was like driving down a street of familiar names. There was Dr. Howard Laskey, the family doctor who practiced in a building next to his home in Carolina.

He was 47 in 1950, and among his children was listed Patricia – who now has a trail named in her honor behind the former Laskey home. He was something of a pioneer, a father who didn’t believe in kindergarten, an organic gardener who eschewed pesticides. How well I remember his waiting room, the chairs a bright orange vinyl.

There were the Tougases, two of them already working as “grocery clerks.” When I was growing up they operated the Pioneer Store in Shannock.

Chester and Irene Whitman were 25 years old and living in Shannock village. They only had one child at this point, a daughter, and eventually divorced, but not before having more children, including a son, Richard, in 1961. He was a great friend to me, a math genius, an able guitar player and a real wit. He died way too young, in his 40s.

A lot of Shannock names sounded familiar: the Sonntags and Westons, the Richards who lived across the street from us, and my neighbor Bob Jordan, 5 years old when the census was taken.

So many names! The life of the town spread out before my eyes. Wave to Charlie Link, who would become the town’s building inspector. There’s heavy equipment operator Wallace Burdick, the insurance agent Walter K. Shute, and contractor LeRoy Grinnell and his wife, Lillian. All names I grew up hearing, people who floated in and out of our lives.

And the families! The Flynns, the Pirhonens, the Websters, the Mageaus. Many of their children my mother taught in school, including Jim Mageau, 11 years old when the census was taken.

And there, at last, were my parents. My father, S. Warren Thayer (the S stood for Silas, a name he never used), 26 years old. He had been out of the Army since 1946; his occupation was listed as “saw operator” at a “sawmill” (which was in his backyard). My mother, Eleanor C. Thayer, 30, a “grade school teacher” at the “grammar school.” She reported working 30 hours a week, my father 40. They only had one child at that point: Mary Jane, not quite 2 years old.

My grandfather, who lived down the road, I found two pages later. Henry H. Thayer was 55 years old and listed his occupation as “lumberman” at a “lumber camp.” He had worked 32 hours the previous week.

Of all the marital statuses, his stood out: “Sep.,” or separated. He and my grandmother had not lived together for years; she, in fact, was seeing someone else, Howard Perkins. Eventually she would scare up the money for a divorce and marry Howard, but my grandfather carried a torch for her his entire life.

She, too, was listed as “Sep.” She was living in the house in Tug Hollow, Richmond (the census says “New London Turnpike,” although she really lived nearby on Dawley Park Road), where they had raised their children; she listed her occupation as “burling and sewing” at a “wool cloth manufacturer” – although she had not worked in the previous week.

So many things had yet to happen, in 1950. My sister Andi and I did not exist. My parents were still living in the cottage on Route 2, a three-room shack with no indoor plumbing (eventually my father added two bedrooms and a bathroom). We had yet to move to Shannock.

Charlestown was a smaller place.

Almost all the houses down to the beach were vacant when the census was taken. The year-round residents knew each other, and they knew most of the summer folks, who returned like robins every year.

If I were to review the 2020 census, how many names would I recognize? I certainly don’t know any of the summer people, and after moving back to Shannock in 2018, I barely know any of my neighbors. I still refer to houses by who used to live there.

1950. A snapshot in time. And for those of us looking back now, it might as well be an episode of the Twilight Zone.

Visit this link to start your own census search.

What we always called “The Little House,” on Route 2 (South County Trail) in Charlestown, R.I. This picture was probably taken in the mid-1950s when my father was building the addition. The family car was a Hudson.
Mary Jane, taken about the time of the 1950 Census. She died in 1967 at age 19.

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The Secret of Nancy Drew

The covers pop out beguilingly, a sea of blonde hair, lurking men, and mysterious objects. I wouldn’t normally write “beguilingly,” or any other unnecessary adverb, but it’s fitting for my subject: The Nancy Drew mystery books of my childhood.

They were full of adverbs. No one gazed unless wistfully; no question could be asked unless curiously; no retort came out save indignantly. The only places absent this puffery were the titles, which were a master of concision – so that they beckoned, I hate to say it, alluringly.

Last week I finished a jigsaw puzzle of Nancy Drew covers. As I tried to match the shade of a puzzle piece to Nancy’s hair (platinum? Golden? Or, as some of the early books describe it, Titian?), the titles and familiar images began to take shape, each one a vague but evocative memory of a beloved childhood reading experience.

My first Nancy Drew mystery – indeed, my first full-length chapter book – was The Secret of Red Gate Farm. I still remember the basic plot, as Nancy foils a group of counterfeiters posing as a wacky nature cult called the Black Snake Colony. Looking at the artwork now, the ghostly figures look suspiciously like the Ku Klux Klan.

Like a chocolate bar, one Nancy Drew mystery led to the next. Soon I was reading down the shelf of our tiny village library: The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery, The Whispering Statue, The Clue in the Diary, The Secret of the Wooden Lady.

On and one they went, a litany of secrets, clues, and mysteries, each one irresistible.

By opening their covers I had been initiated into a club to which my older sisters already belonged: There is even a picture of Andi visiting me in my crib, as she clutches The Secret of the Golden Pavilion.

The puzzle map features more than 20 Nancy Drew covers from 1930s artwork. The manufacturer is Cobble Hill; the puzzle is available at the Vermont Country Store.
Detail from the finished puzzle.

What was it about these books that fascinated? There is no one answer. It’s all wrapped up in the character of Nancy herself, an independent teen-ager with a driver’s license, no mother to hamper her adventures, and an ability to negotiate the scariest situation. To enter a Nancy Drew book is to experience frightening scenarios in a manageable way. No matter the peril, Nancy always escapes danger and solves the mystery.

In his one-act play The Blizzard, David Ives attempts to get at the power of the mystery genre. His characters are trapped in a cottage during a storm when a mysterious couple show up, who may or may not do them harm. Ives plays with our expectations by introducing all the tropes of the haunted-house story, yet he never resolves them – he purposely does not reveal what malice, if any, the guests intend. But before all that, the wife in the play takes pleasure in their being stranded, and says: “I think the reason people like murder mysteries is that, in a murder mystery, everything is significant. The people in murder mysteries are living in a significant world. A world where everything is there for a reason.”

Nancy Drew’s world was like this. Every encounter, every object held meaning. Each scene led, inexorably, to the climax, where Nancy inevitably would be kidnapped, tied up, or in some other way menaced by the bad guys.

But the Nancy Drew stories were not murder mysteries. The antagonists, although they had the appearance of thugs, were typically guilty of property crimes, such as theft, counterfeiting, or extortion. Nancy would catch them by dint of her superior reasoning (aided by Socratic conversations with her father, the lawyer Carson Drew) and daring sleuthing (which often included eavesdropping, spying, and trespassing).

I loved all of it: the frantic pace, Nancy’s deft handling of her sleek roadster, and the settings that were at once familiar but strange: sea-filled caves, haunted mansions, creaking ships.

And the books were full of words I didn’t know, like sleuthing, and pursuit, and a strange thing called luncheon. Nancy’s world was not mine; she had no mother but a housekeeper, the fretful Hannah Gruen, and her father treated her like a peer. Instead of sisters or friends she had two “chums” – the cousins George Fayne, described as “an attractive girl with a boy’s name,” and Bess Marvin, whose weight was a constant source of teasing.

I inhaled these books, one after another, until one day they (mysteriously!) disappeared from the middle shelf of our village library’s children’s section. They also could not be found at our school library. What was going on?

The American Library Association, it turns out, frowned upon the series. The books were no longer considered appropriate fare for grade-school students. I was crushed.

The books had never enjoyed much support from adults. The early editions, beginning in the 1930s, were full of racist stereotypes and language, and were rewritten for later editions. Those are probably the ones I was reading; they had bright yellow covers. But something else about them must have rankled. Were they not “enriching” enough? Were the crimes considered too lurid for youngsters?

In recent years I’ve snapped up some older copies at used bookstores, and I reread “The Secret of Red Gate Farm.” Alas, the magic of discovering Nancy Drew could not be replicated. You can only read a book for the first time once, and I was no longer nine years old. The world of Nancy seemed contrived and full of coincidence, the writing hackneyed.

But there was something about these books that turned me, and thousands of youngsters like me, into readers. We rode along with Nancy in that roadster, looking for the evil cult, the missing jewels, the secret entrance. How could a statue whisper? Who stole the ship’s wooden lady? Who is ringing the mysterious tolling bell?

The books were not perfect, but Nancy’s independence and daring inspired girls into believing they could be heroines of their own stories. And that’s enough to earn the Nancy Drew books a rightful place on any child’s bookshelf.

Even as a baby, I was curious about books. Andi holds The Secret of the Golden Pavilion.

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A journal of one’s own

After reading the submission criteria for a host of literary magazines, I’ve decided to start my own.

I’ll call it The Grist Mill. It will grind up your submissions very fine and spit them back at you. Or maybe, once in a while, it will pluck one out of the slush pile and plump it up into a jonnycake.

What are we looking for? We are the journal for anyone left out of all the other literary magazines. In particular, self-identifying Swamp Yankees. It might help if you are female, older than 60, underemployed as an adjunct instructor, and a Capricorn. We might be willing to take a few people on the astrological cusp – a Sagittarius or Aquarius, but only when the moon is full and we are feeling magnanimous.

It will help if you are from New England. But not lobster-island New England, as in Maine, or mountain New England, as in Vermont and New Hampshire, or Yale New England, as in Connecticut, and not even Providence New England, which might as well be its own state.

Don’t submit your best work, or your worst work, or your weird stuff. Send us the piece you have been reworking for years that you are pretty sure will never see the light of day, or the printed page.

Here is our editorial calendar for the year, all metaphorical of course: 1. Tuxedo cats. 2. Dead ends, driftways, byways, dirt roads, ditches. 3. Long-dead distant cousins. 4. Vintage cars and trucks. 5. Anxiety in the age of the Weather Channel.

We might not have five issues, but take your chances. We might not even follow this editorial calendar. We might instead, on a whim, ask you to write about whatever flew into your head that day.

We probably won’t publish anyone’s work. We’ll just sift through the pile of slushy, hopeful entries and comfort ourselves with the notion that we are not the only writer out there sending her Swamp Yankee, January-born, Baby Boomer, nostalgic-but-not-edgy work out into the world in search of an audience.

But we are like all the other journals in one respect: At this time, we cannot pay you for your work.

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When storms came with no warning

It may seem hard to believe in this age of the Weather Channel, radar, and 24-hour news bulletins, but there was a time in the last century when hurricanes came with virtually no warning at all.

Such was the case on Sept. 21, 1938.

“It was a typical September day – almost picture postcard perfect,” remembered Margaret Terry of Matunuck in a reminiscence written for the South County Independent at the hurricane’s 60th anniversary. “The puffy clouds in the blue sky, the brisk wind, and the bright sunshine gave no hint of what was to come.”

Or, as writer Everett S. Allen put it in his 1976 book, A Wind to Shake the World: “What you have to remember first is that nobody expected anything to happen.”

At the Crandall farm in Westerly, it was just another Wednesday. My mother boarded the train in Bradford, headed for Rhode Island College of Education in Providence, where she was a sophomore studying elementary education. Her typical class load included Italian, mathematics, music, English, political science and health education.

I imagine her carrying her satchel of books and notebooks, then looking out the train window, perhaps daydreaming about a poem she was writing. She had no idea what a harrowing return journey awaited her.

Her sister Marg was at Rhode Island State College in Kingston (what is now URI), her sister Dot and brother Charlie were home on the farm, and her brother Tene was in high school. Their oldest sibling, Ruth, was married and living with her husband in Bradford.

With the weather good, my grandfather would have been working around the farm with Charlie. My grandmother was canning pears, just another in a long list of chores that filled her days.

In Richmond, my father, though 15 years old, was still in the primary school (eighth or ninth grade), along with his younger siblings. My grandmother would have been either working at one of the many textile mills where she labored or home baking the pies she sold to the summer colony of Narragansett.

All across South County, people went about their business. “Watch Hill on that fateful Wednesday was totally oblivious to danger,” wrote Charles F. Hammond in his Seaside Topics periodical. “Its shops were open and many cottages still occupied by those who love to stay on into the Fall.”

The women of Christ Episcopal Church in Westerly were having a picnic at a Misquamicut cottage. Housewives hung out laundry. People played golf, went to the movies, ate lunch.

The headlines in the Providence Journal that morning were the usual mix of politics and social news, and the ominous drumbeat was not of the weather: A Providence attorney had just given a talk on the Hitler menace; Warwick recorded its first case of polio (“infantile paralysis”) of the season; three men had escaped a Kennebec, Maine, prison by “elbow[ing] their way” past a guard.
The weather map, crudely hand-drawn, gave no indication that a cyclone was barreling its way toward Rhode Island. The marine forecast, in one of the greatest understatements in newspaper history, mentioned a gale offshore and called for “overcast weather with rain Wednesday.”

We all know how quickly this “overcast weather” became a Category 3 hurricane, with winds peeling off shingles and flattening barns, a storm surge washing away Napatree Point and other coastal settlements, and so many deaths that old Westerly High School had to be converted into a morgue.

By the time my mother boarded the train home, Providence streets were flooded. It took nearly six hours for her to travel the 45-mile route, as downed trees and flooded tracks slowed the train’s progress. By the time she reached the Westerly Train Station, the town was pitch black – power had been out for hours – and no one was waiting for her. She stumbled in the dark to her grandmother’s apartment on High Street, where her father rather nonchalantly came to claim her the next day.

Meanwhile, my father got off his school bus at the height of the storm. The driver let the students off at the intersection of Route 3 and Dawley Park Road, where they soon discovered live wires blocking the road. My father, as the eldest of the group, guided the younger ones on a lengthy detour down Tefft Hill Road.

My mother’s diary of this time records only the storm’s aftermath, the harrowing search for bodies (her father was among the few people who still had a boat), the days without electricity, the utter devastation at Weekapaug and Misquamicut. She wrote: “Charlie and Daddy came in last night from looking for bodies. They found none in Winnapaug Pond, although the Sanitary Corps with a big crew chopping through debris found many, including one without a head.”

In later life my mother was hyper-vigilant. The least sign of tropical weather would prompt her to fill jugs of water and get out the hurricane lamps. Although we made fun of her for this, I cannot fault her for it now.

Anyone who lived through that time – when an ordinary Wednesday turned into a cataclysm – would have behaved the same. She instilled that fear in me and my sisters. It’s no stretch to say that my Weather Channel obsession could be traced to a childhood of watching her line up hurricane lamps on the kitchen table.

And years later, when my son Perry got his master’s degree in emergency preparedness, he acknowledged that all those years of watching the Weather Channel with me must have rubbed off on him – the latest link in a chain stretching all the way back to 1938.

Today, as you fill up your car with gas or stock up on bread and milk, take a moment to think of the thousands of people in the path of that deadly hurricane, who had no time at all to prepare.

The writer’s mother, Eleanor Crandall, in 1938 before the hurricane. In this photograph by her sister Dorothy, she is standing on the dunes of Weekapaug, which were destroyed by the storm.
Seaside Topics details the suddenness with which the storm arose.
Eleanor Crandall’s yearbook photo, Rhode Island College of Education, Class of 1941.
The Crandall barn, from Dorothy Crandall Bliss’s A New England Childhood.

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What happened to fashion?

Recently I did a little online clothes shopping, an experience that quickly becomes discouraging. On the web site of a discount retailer (OK, it was Old Navy), I scrolled and scrolled and could find nothing that I had any desire to buy.

If the clothes don’t look good on the models, why would anyone want to wear them?

Old Navy puts absolutely no effort into their online catalog. The models all stand with a blank backdrop and in similar poses. The shirts and dresses either hang off them limply, giving no definition to their bodies, or cling stick-tight to their waifish figures.

What ever happened to fashion? Clothes that were well tailored, with style?

When I was (much) younger, there was a retailer called FBS – for French Boot Shop. Based in New Rochelle, N.Y., it was a mostly mail-order business started by a man named Murray Gerstein.

The FBS catalog was a master of marketing. It appealed to young, aspirational women who wanted to wear clothes that did not look off-the-rack but were nonetheless affordable.

FBS put an enormous amount of time and money into those catalogs: the fashion shoots were all in exotic locales like the Bahamas, Haiti, the Dominican Republic.

Gerstein, a silver fox who always appeared in at least one of the catalog layouts, was a savvy retailer. He knew that women wanted to picture themselves in the clothes, and he and his team obliged. The FBS woman could be seen stepping off an airplane, lounging on a hotel balcony, strolling down an exotic street.

Each layout contained a provocative message. “This summer get off the ground.” “This summer get your message across.” “This summer pull yourself together.”

Interestingly, the FBS catalog was shot in black and white, but this did not detract from its impact.

The clothes were a mix of bohemian smocks and tunics with wide-legged pants alongside tailored, double-knit suits and dresses. It was the seventies and the influences were myriad: India, 1940s film noir, bohemian chic.

The clothes, of course, were better made, and I would argue, far more attractive than the cheap, formless garbage women are being sold today. And they were modeled as an ensemble – with jewelry, hats, jackets and shoes.

It wasn’t just FBS that understood the importance of modeling. In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, catalogs like JC Penney, Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck took care with their fashion layouts. The only comparable retailer I can think of today would be LL Bean, which at least produces glossy catalogs that show people having fun.

Back in the day, my sister and I would pore over catalogs like FBS and India Imports, finally settling on the one item we could afford: a t-shirt, say, or cotton shirt. The item’s arrival was an occasion. Wearing those new shirts we would ascend into a new understanding of ourselves.

This is what I mean by aspirational: clothes may not make the woman, but they can expand her idea of who she might become. In one’s teens or early twenties, when identity is still being formed, a sharp-looking cotton suit or double-knit dress helps solidify an adult image.

But even “mature women” like me want to look good. And by that I do not mean wearing sweatshirts with lighthouses on them, or skinny jeans designed for women half our age.

Murray Gerstein is dead, and so is FBS. But if someone were to bring back its funky mix of cotton smocks and safari suits, its double-knit stripes and panama hats, I would be first in line to buy.

FBS founder Murray Gerstein in a 1974 spring/summer catalog shoot.
FBS, Summer of 1974, when clothes had style.

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Heat waves of yore

Have the dog days come to June?

It was 96 degrees on our side porch at 9 o’clock this morning.

It should not be this hot. We have yet to watch Fourth of July fireworks, go to the beach, pick blueberries.

Growing up in this old farmhouse, we did not have central air or window air conditioners. You fought the heat with one creaky black fan. My mother opened the windows for a cross breeze, closed the shades to keep out the sun.

Here’s my account of a hot spell in August, 1975:

A heat wave has enveloped its sticky claws around us all. It was 105° in Providence, and our RC Cola thermometer registered 117° this afternoon. There is nothing to do but sit dormant on the sofa, wearing nothing but a sheer nightgown, and grasping a tall glass of iced tea. A deep, cool bath helped, but no sooner did I step out of the tub than the sticky air sent trickles of sweat pouring over me. Andi took refuge in the damp, cool cellar, and later, despite my fear of spiders and other bugs, I went down, too.

My father’s only concession to the heat was to take off his shirt. Too dangerous to work in shorts, when you’re hauling lumber and felling trees and operating a sawmill.

In the off hours when he did don shorts, we laughed at his comically white legs.

My mother believed in doing less. She sat in the darkened living room in her cotton shirt and polyester shorts, tackling the crossword puzzle or reading a book or watching Merv Griffin.

We would have a cold supper. Sliced tomatoes from the garden, cold cuts.

She watered the garden in the early morning or evening. Chores like laundry and ironing could be postponed.

We had no air conditioning in our car, either. The boat-size Pontiac Starchief and Mercury Montclair did not come with such amenities. You rolled down the window and let your hair blow in the wind.

Nights, especially upstairs, must have been brutal.

I read books about summer: “Summer of ’42” and “The Sound of Summer Voices.” Dandelion Wine” and “The Moonflower Vine.” “Delta Wedding” and “Nightmare County.”

When it was too hot to walk to the store for an ice-cold Pepsi, we languished in the house, playing Monopoly or Yahtzee. The neighbor girls, Deb and Karen, joined us. Sometimes my mother even played a game.

The mood was laconic. No one was in a rush to do anything. My mother would not leave the house for days at a time.

Now I wear a sweater in the icy central-air-conditioned house. The windows stay closed. When we do venture outside it feels like a blast furnace.

I would not give up this 21st-century comfort, but I know something has been lost when you no longer have to reckon with the elements.

Circa 1974, my father poses for a picture because wearing shorts was such a rarity.
The RC Cola thermometer lives on, although the bulb of mercury is long gone.
Another ancient thermometer we saved, this one now on the outhouse. Registering 100 degrees at 3 in the afternoon.

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