I attended elementary school in a New Orleans suburb. Because we only had three seasons (summer, July and August), events like leaves turning colors in the fall or snow were theoretical concepts unless one traveled north. My only familiarity with fall and winter was a series of coloring books distributed at school, one for each month. The October one always included fall leaves, and either the December or January one would have pictures that included snow. I was always fascinated.
The changing of the leaves is one of the events that former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall describes in Eagle Pond, a collection of essays (and one longish poem) about New England in general and New Hampshire in particular, which I just finished reading. His mother’s family came from New Hampshire and it’s where Hall now lives, in a family farmhouse somewhat modernized but still close to what his ancestors knew.
As I read about the farm, the community and the state where he lives, I learned how important the sense of “place” is to him, and how it informs his poetry and writing. Place is as real to Hall’s writing as Port William is to Wendell Berry and Yoknapatawpha County was to William Faulkner.
As I read Eagle Pond, I was strongly reminded of a children’s book I read almost 50 years ago, and which I’ve learned is still in print today.
First published in 1916, Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher is still – remarkably – in print today, the latest edition published just last year. It’s the story of a 9-year-old girl from the Midwest who is sent to live with cousins in Vermont, the “terrible Putney cousins.” I was given the Scholastic Books paperback by my next-door neighbor, who had read it and wasn’t interested in keeping it. At the time, I knew it was a “girl’s book,” but it was about New England, with illustrations similar to those coloring books I worked on each month at school, so I read it. I didn’t tell anyone, but I enjoyed it.
That copy disappeared years ago during one of my mother’s garage sales. A few years back, I found a hard back edition from the 1940s at a used book sale and bought it, entirely for sentimental reasons (it was all of $1).
After reading Eagle Pond, I found my copy of Understood Betsy and read it. It’s charming, a product of its time that somewhat romanticized farm life and the one-room schoolhouse. (Little did I know, but the author is credited with introducing the Montessori Method into the United States and the schoolhouse scenes in the book are based entirely upon that approach.)
As I read it, the story came back, and vividly back. I began to remember and then anticipate the events of the narrative – how Betsy had been raised by fussy aunts and then sent to Vermont; how she got a kitten; her first day in school (“I’m second-grade arithmetic and seventh-grade reading!”); the wolf pit; and the county fair. I was surprised at how well I remembered the story, and its rather breathless prose.
I wasn’t surprised that it had made such an impression on a young boy living in a New Orleans suburb. It’s about a place, a specific place, and about the idea of place, in exactly the same way that Hall’s Eagle Pond is about place. Even when Canfield Fisher wrote Understood Betsy, the place she was writing about had changed forever (and to hear Hall describe neighboring Vermont, it’s now entirely inhabited by weekenders from New York and Boston who wear L.L. Bean plaid flannel shirts).
Hall says that it’s likely only native New Englanders and Southerners who truly understand this notion of place. Perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration, but I do know that when people ask me where I’m from, I always say “I was born and raised in New Orleans but now live in St. Louis,” even though I’ve lived far longer in St. Louis than I did in New Orleans.
But that’s what place does to you. That's what it does to Donald Hall, and what it did to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, writing almost a century apart.