Like Rough-Hewn, this is a story of young people finding their way into their lives. It centers on Sylvia Marshall, whom we meet on the first page as a child of seven. DCF described the book in a letter to her publisher, Henry Holt:
I mean, you see, how there isn't any "story" except my Sylvia, and that what I'm trying to do is to tell what sort of clay she was made of, and into what sort of vessel she was finally shaped by the moulding of circumstance.It seems to me that she comes from the best sort of clay, a strong and loving family - though a bit of an unconventional one. (DCF did stack the deck by making both parents from Vermont.) Sylvia lives with her parents in a small midwestern town where her father teaches economics at the state university. Their family includes a younger sister Judith and a brother Lawrence. Their life in a small house in the unfashionable part of town sets them apart from most of the faculty families, who disapprove of their simple way of life. Mrs. Marshall works in the kitchen and the garden, and Professor Marshall shares in the cooking and housekeeping. He is also a caring and involved father. The children attend the local public school, where they mix democratically and happily with the town children - though not with the African American children, who are segregated in their own neighborhood and school.
Of course in that sort of a book, the "plot" in the Victorian sense, isn't the important thing: and the thread of the story does not run through a sequence of events but connects one phase of inner development with another.
From an early age, Sylvia knows that her family is different, and sometimes this bothers her, even as a young child. The visits of her father's sister, her Aunt Victoria, bring this into sharp focus. Victoria is a wealthy widow, having married money after the siblings lost their family fortune. She calls their home life "idyllic," but there is a sting to her words. Sylvia is fascinated by her glamorous aunt, always beautifully dressed, living in luxurious hotels on her travels. She begins to grow dissatisfied with the things of home, as she moves into young adulthood. College brings only more questions, including the biggest one: what is she to do with her life? Where is her place? Her aunt invites her on a long visit to her summer home in Vermont, where Sylvia falls into her life of ease, and a possible answer to those questions.
In this book, DCF tackled some big topics, including racial discrimination in American society, the limited opportunities open to educated women, and economic inequality. Sylvia and her mother have a discussion of relations between the sexes that while never graphic feels very grounded and real - one that I found surprising in a book written in 1915. One character struggles with chronic alcoholism. Two characters make a disastrous marriage, which society approves because she is rich and he is a man of culture. And this is the first of DCF's books that I've read to address faith and belief, if only briefly and late in the book. Though I have seen her books described as didactic, and I can understand why, they don't feel that way to me. Perhaps it's because she creates such strong, three-dimensional characters who carry the story. They are never just puppets or straw-men for her ideas.
I can't quite decide on the meaning of the title. Is Sylvia is the twig, growing away from her parents' strong roots, and warping a little in the process? But for DCF, parents eventually have to stand back and let their children go, to find their own way and make their own mistakes.
As I mentioned elsewhere, I discovered that a book of DCF's letters has been published, and I am already deep into it. This book and the letters have inspired me to look for more of her writing. I think though that (also like Barbara Pym) she is not an author to rush through.
N.B. I read a "School Edition" of this novel, republished in 1939. I've never seen an edition like this before. It includes an introduction (by a teacher) with a section "On the Development of the English Novel" and a brief biography of Dorothy Canfield Fisher. It also includes "Notes and Suggestions" at the end, with topics for themes and selections for class reading. One section instructs the student reader to "Look up what is meant by a strophic circle." Another suggests, "Make the following words a part of your working vocabulary" (including askance, welted, and abysmal). I wonder what I would have made of this story in high school.