This was Dorothy Canfield Fisher's last novel, published in 1939. I started it two or three times before I really settled into reading it, but once I did, I could hardly put it down. It is such a powerful story, one that resonates with what is happening in this country today, but it is also a deeply personal story of one man's life.
Set in the small town of Clifford, Vermont, in 1934-1935, its central character is Timothy Coulton Hulme, the Principal of the town's Academy. I was well into the book before I realized that Clifford is the setting of another of Dorothy Canfield's novels, Bonfire. I was disappointed that Anna Craft and her neighbors don't appear in this book, because I so enjoyed meeting them in Bonfire.
In that book, Anna devises a way for young people in outlying farm communities to attend the Academy by working for their board in Clifford. The Academy is the only high school in the region. It scrapes by with funding from the town, voted on at the annual town meeting, as well as a tiny endowment and fees from students coming from outside the area. Timothy (T.C.) Hulme works long hours in teaching and administrative work, worrying constantly over maintenance and trying to stretch the limited funds. He also takes care of his elderly Aunt Lavinia, who spends her days (and sometimes nights) listening to classical music. We gradually learn more about Aunt Lavinia, and about their family history, which I found very moving.
Two major bombshells fall into T.C.'s busy but quiet middle-aged life. The first is meeting again a former Academy student, Susan Barney, now a teacher herself. He is immediately drawn to this young woman, and soon overwhelmed by the intensity of the feelings he develops for her. Widowed shortly after his first marriage, he had never remarried, or even thought of it. He is intoxicated by this new love, and with the possibilities it brings.
His happiness carries him through his days, and the daily struggles with the Academy. The second bombshell comes with the death of one of its three trustees, a self-made New York millionaire named George Wheaton. Wheaton would probably get along very well with Donald Trump. He has only the most tenuous connections with Clifford, but he has invented a family history with deep Vermont roots. He was elected a trustee in the hope that he would give money to the Academy. He does, but it comes a cost. He wants control, he wants the Academy to be a proper New England boarding school, and he wants it to be exclusive and Anglo. He harangues T.C. constantly about the few Jewish students enrolled, demanding that the school stop accepting them. T.C. steadfastly resists, agonizing over the rise of fascism and antisemitism in Europe, and fearing their spread in the United States. He is so clearly speaking for his creator here, and I wondered if she came as near despair as T.C. did.
Thwarted over his years as trustee, Wheaton makes a will that leaves the Academy a million dollars for an endowment and $200,000 for buildings. They are conditional gifts however, and that condition is the exclusion of Jewish students. The school's name must also be changed to "Wheaton Preparatory School." An additional sum of money is offered if the school will exclude girls as well. The decision of whether to accept the bequests will be made by the trustees. With Wheaton dead, another trustee must be elected to fill his spot, before they can vote on the bequest. The trustee will be elected by the town, and every single person living there has a vote, and a choice to make. This sets off a furious campaign, which I found fascinating. Many in the town want that million dollars. They want the jobs that will come with a bigger, wealthier school. They see hotels full of rich parents, and students with money to spend in the town. They aren't concerned with the handful of Jewish students already enrolled. T.C. and his allies throw themselves into the fight, which for him at least has implications far beyond their small school. They also marshal very practical arguments, pointing out that a "Preparatory School" will not welcome farm boys and girls, even if they are Gentiles. The locals are much more likely to end up working for the school than attending it.
I read a modern reprint of this novel, from the University Press of New England. It's part of a series with the evocative title "Hardscrabble Classics." The editor is Mark J. Madigan, who also edited the excellent book of DCF's letters, Keeping Fires Night and Day. In addition he has put together a collection of her short stories, The Bedquilt and Other Stories. The only reason I haven't bought a copy yet is that I have most of the stories in different collections. I did however find a copy of a biography that he cited in his notes, Ida H. Washington's Dorothy Canfield Fisher: A Biography. Having read most of her fiction, as well as her letters, I'm curious to read more about her life, and to put her writing into its context. I did note that T.C., like DCF, attended Columbia University, and he shares his middle name with her father.