I don't know who is responsible for this rather odd book, but I lay it to the earlier generations of my family . . .
In the rather odd first chapter of this book, published in 1923, Dorothy Canfield suggests that many of us from our early years are story-tellers, creating vivid narratives woven together out of the messiness of our daily lives. We synthesize, we organize, we create order out of chaos. We may never write our stories down, or even share them with anyone else, yet they are a part of us. But there are also those who see the world only through other people's stories, through the prism of books they have read, art they have seen or lectures they have heard. In her view, that second-hand sight is really a type of blindness.
At least I think that's what she is saying. Anyway, her book is for the story-tellers:
[T]his is not a written book in the usual sense. It is a book where nearly everything is left for the reader to do. I have only set down for my own use, a score of instances out of human life, which have long served me as pegs on which to hang the meditations of many different moods . . . In this unrelated, unorganized bundle of facts, I give you just the sort of thing from which a novelist makes principal or secondary characters, or episodes in a novel. I offer them to you for the novels you are writing in your own heads . . . I have only tried to loan you a little more to add to the raw material which life has brought you, out of which you are constructing your own attempt to understand.
I found that first chapter a little difficult to follow (let alone summarize). I also started to wonder uneasily if I am one of the second-hand crowd, too caught up in books. I thought, "If the whole book is like this, I won't get too far with it." But the chapters that followed were a delight. They consist of vignettes, reminiscences of people and places, episodes in her life or in the lives of family and friends. Some are set in her childhood, others in adulthood. Many of them take place around her home in Vermont, in the small town where generations of her family had lived. Others are set in France, during her times there as a student, and then later during the Great War, when she was doing relief work.
There is an interesting variety in the chapters. I could see connections to other books of hers that I have read, particularly the sections on France in World War I, which fit right in with Home Fires in France. One tells the story of her friend Octavie Moreau, who in the third year of the war was sent to a prison camp in Germany, with 39 other women from their town, as a reprisal for something that supposedly happened somewhere else. I have never read anything about German concentration camps in the First World War, nor about civilian deported to them. Another chapter, "Scylla and Charybdis," is about little Cousin Maria Pearl Manley, an orphan moving back and forth between two branches of her family, happy in neither. I wish she could have spent some time with the Putney family from Understood Betsy. In the last chapter, "Almera Hawley Canfield," Canfield builds up a picture of the great-grandmother whom she never met, from the reminiscences of family members and old friends, which also show us something of the community in which she lived. It's really beautifully done. The Vermont sections made me think of Sarah Orne Jewett and her evocative stories of Maine.
I have so many of her books still to read, and I will be looking for these connections, to see if she used her raw materials in later works.
I found my slightly battered and foxed 1923 edition at Kaboom Books here in Houston, and it was $8.50 well spent. A previous owner, Ralph M. Pons, left his bookplate inside the front cover. He can't ever have read it, though: at least a quarter of the pages were unopened. So for the first time in my life, I found myself nervously separating the edges of pages. It was more difficult than I expected, and I was a bit clumsy at times, so the book is a little more battered than when I bought it. I don't mind, I'm just happy to have it on my shelves.