Two fires disrupt harvest time in an isolated village, one on a nearby hill where some outsiders have camped and the other at Master Kent’s dovecot, which rapidly spreads to a barn. The latter is a bit of mischief by a couple of village lads that got out of hand, while the former “says, New neighbors have arrived; they’ve built a place; they’ve laid a hearth; they know the custom and the law. This first smoke has given them the right to stay. We’ll see.”
The narrator, Walter Thirsk, arrived with Master Kent as his manservant, when Kent came to the village to marry the daughter of the Old Master. Since then Walter has immersed himself in village life, working in the common fields with his neighbours, dancing to the pipe and fiddle, observing the age-old traditions of harvest followed by gleaning and the choosing of the Gleaning Queen to pick the first grain.
The two fires are only a foretaste of the changes coming to Walter’s village, a place where nothing has changed for as long as anyone can remember. There is the presence of an oddly shaped man who draws maps of Master Kent’s property, followed more ominously by Edmund Jordan, cousin to the late Mrs. Kent, who is laying claim to the property with the intention of enclosing the fields for sheep.
This richly detailed story immerses us in village life. Although a time period is not specified, it is most likely the late 18th century. The appearance of the strangers, most likely thrown off their land when the fields were enclosed, and the remoteness of Walter’s village lead me to think it is towards the end of the period of wholesale enclosure. Although I’ve read and thought about the changes—both good and bad—that followed in the wake of enclosure, I’ve learned a great deal from this book. It brought home to me what could likely happen during the process itself, the building distrust, the blaming of others.
It is a beautiful and disturbing book. It gripped my entire attention, immersing me in a way of life that vanished centuries ago. The portrait of that life that emerges is different from the Merrie England stereotype of singing ploughboys, an idyll of pastoral life before the Industrial Revolution swept the ploughboys and everyone else into the factories. There has been little to counteract this nostalgic view until recently when historians have begun examining the meager scrapings left behind by ordinary people, those outside the halls of power.
There is much here that speaks to our own time: the fear of change, the scapegoating of foreigners, the origins of our increasingly itinerant culture and its hordes of displaced people. Most disturbing to me is, as always, how easy it is to sway people. Walter says, “We’ve been ashamed, I think. And bewildered, truth be told. Bewildered by ourselves. These are not the customary village ways.”
I find myself thinking about how you can spend years making a place for yourself and still be an outsider. Although Walter has lived now in the village for many years and married and buried one of its daughters, he is still considered a foreigner.
As my friend Laura, who gave me this book, observed, these are the effects of isolation. It is no surprise that, as Robert Reich said in a May 25 2014 Facebook post, “Liberalism thrives near oceans and major ports; conservatism is mainly inland (the same holds true for other nations and on other continents as well), because each depends on the amount of contact with others who are different. Lots of interaction with differing cultures, religions, and points of view – such as is typically the case in coastal regions with major ports – generates looser rules and greater tolerance; less interaction means tighter rules and less tolerance.”
I agree. But this is also why I've made reading and writing the core of my life because they open our lives to each other. Through literature we can directly experience another person's life, which helps us develop empathy.
What book has most disturbed you?