Monday, February 15, 2016

Bonfire, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

I learned about this 1933 novel from the letters of Dorothy Canfield Fisher. One in particular made me anxious to get my hands on a copy:
Why, you've broken my heart! I don't know when I've had such a shock as you gave me by the casual phrase in your letter, "I felt that the hero should have done something more essential and important at the end than the leading of an athletic parade!" I could lay my head down on my desk and weep that you should think that poor broken Anson Craft was the hero of Bonfire, he whom I intended as the ne plus ultra of a failure, the blackness of his defeat the night against which the soaring triumph of the heroine of the book, his sister Anna, rises...Was I mistaken in thinking that I was strong enough to take on as "heroine" the kind of woman in real life goes almost invisible, quite unrecognized? (Letter, Sept. 5, 1938)
Her strong reaction intrigued me, and I wanted to know more about this heroine she had created.

The story is set in a small town, Clifford, among the mountains in Vermont. As it opens, we're introduced to the physical setting, which is also drawn on the book's endpapers. We meet some of the town's residents, including a white cat named Henrietta, as the sun rises on an April morning. Many of the human residents are wondering if Anna Craft is really coming back to Clifford. She has been in France for two years, working as a nurse, but she has accepted her old position of district nurse again. Her brother Anson, recently qualified as a doctor, is returning as well, to practice medicine there where their father and grandfather did. Anna has supported him through his training and his residency. Her two years in France were meant to be a break and a change, but now she has come home again.

There are several threads to the story that Dorothy Canfield weaves from this beginning. On one level, this is a story of a community, a rural New England town, with its old rooted families, connected by blood and history. News flies around - so does gossip. People are classified by their families, with personalities traced back the line just like physical features are. Anna's quick temper comes as much from her Craft blood as her red hair, but it's tempered by the melancholy strain of the Knapp blood in her mother's family. Her neighbor Mrs. Foote is a Nye by blood, practical and unimaginative, but in her mercurial teen-aged daughter Isabel the Foote strain predominates. (Anna has some Nye blood herself.)

As we follow "M'Sanna" through her rounds, we meet more of the people in the area, from the prosperous farmers of Churchman's Road to the Serles Shelf folks, who prefer hunting to actual work. But even the Serles Shelf people look down on the "degenerates" at Clifford Four Corners. I really enjoyed this part of the story, particularly Anna's work, which involves far more than nursing the sick. On her first day back, she commits herself to finding a way to help the children from the poorer farms attend the local academy, the only high school.

We also learn more of Anna's neighbors in Clifford, those who live along The Street. One of the most interesting to me was Miss Gussie Kemp, an elderly lady who lives with her sister Bessie. Miss Gussie is almost completely deaf, and people soon give up trying to talk to her. Besides, the lively Miss Bessie tends to dominate any conversation going. But if Miss Gussie can't hear, she can see - and more clearly than almost anyone in town. "The deaf woman sometimes wondered if the clatter of sound in normal ears did not distract the eyes from seeing." There is a wonderful moment at a working-party to decorate the church for Christmas:
When she sat back in her chair again, the whole group, heavily seated women and fluttering young people, had stopped what they were doing to to laugh over some joke. Miss Gussie saw the mirth - inaudible to her but not invisible as to other people - as bright waves, eddying around and around the room, dashing up their rainbow sprays against the grey cliffs of people's faces, usually so stony and dry, now glistening and streaming with gayety. . . [After someone shouts the joke to her] Miss Gussie laughed then herself, and enjoyed the joke. But not more than the sight of those human beings ransomed from themselves for an instant by laughter.
And when she sees instead people in trouble, she tries to help, offering words of comfort or careful advice - which often go unheard. She is a lovely character, and I could have happily spent more time with her.

A second major thread of the story involves Dr. Anson Craft's return to the Valley. He would rather be working in a research lab, but he needs to make enough money to pay Anna back the money she spent on his education. Resentful and bored, he meets a young woman from Serles Shelf that his sister has been trying to help. Their surprising marriage, which dominates the middle of the book, is not a happy one. I found this part less interesting, partly because I wasn't sure what DCF was trying to say. It's explained in the end, and here again Miss Gussie saw more than anyone else, and tried to help. I much preferred Anna's parallel story, of work and service, friendship and love. I will re-read this book, with great pleasure, for her and Miss Gussie, and the world of the Valley and The Street.

The passage of time is another theme running through this book, and I'll end with one passage that particularly struck me.
    On New Year's Day every calendar, large and small, has the same number of dates. But we soon learn that the years are of very different lengths. Nobody knows beforehand which ones will swing along at the steady pace of seasoned soldiers, which ones will caper past like children at play, and which will crawl by, dressed in black, headed for an open grave and bearing something precious that was once alive.
    Sometimes the Clifford years slid forward as evenly as a clock ticking, from the brilliance of January axes flashing in snowy woods, through sap-boiling time with steam clouds veiling leafless maples, into summer thunderstorms, and around again before you knew it through September school bells to Thanksgiving strawrides and then to trips to the woods for spruce and hemlock greens to decorate the church at Christmas. And nothing had happened, nothing whatever, except that all the children were an inch taller and the requisite number of pounds heavier (or M'Sanna Craft would have a thing or two to say to their parents) and all the old people had stepped one rung lower on the ladder that leads down into the burying ground. Yes, there were years like that, when nothing happened to anybody. And then there were others. . . 

N.B. This book fills another year in my Mid-Century of Books.


  1. I've read one of her books for my own Century of Books -- 1921's The Brimming Cup -- and I really want to read more. I found her very interesting and relevant in her presentation of women's lives. This title sounds really great.

    1. I haven't read The Brimming Cup yet, though I read Rough-Hewn without realizing it's a prequel to it. She has become one of my favorite authors! I do wish more of her books were still in print.

  2. Another DCF book I haven't heard of! I agree with you, why aren't more of her novels in print?

    1. I'm surprised Persephone hasn't picked up more of her titles, or Virago - they had at least a couple, if I remember correctly.

  3. Wish my library had a copy of this one! But they only have Understood Betsy.
    Hey, did you know it's DCF's birthday tomorrow? Kind of a nice coincidence. :)

    1. I didn't know about DCF's birthday - thanks! Maybe I'll re-read Understood Betsy to celebrate :)

  4. I've never heard of this author and I'm wondering if she has been published on this side of the Atlantic. I'm always on the look out for good collections of letters because they are so useful for those times when you just have a matter of minutes to fill but have to be reading something. I might look for that before searching out the novels.

    1. I don't know about originally, Alex, but Persephone has republished The Home-Maker, and Virago has done a couple more, I think.

      Reading her letters was an excellent introduction to her work, because the editor chose many that dealt with her writing. I really enjoyed reading them.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!