Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

Memory certainly works in mysterious ways. I was reading Abide with Me, by Elizabeth Strout, author of one of my favorite books, Olive Kitteridge. Abide with Me follows Tyler Caskey, the minister of the small, New England town of West Arnett in the winter of 1959. Burdened with grief, he lives with his young daughter, Katherine, in a farmhouse a little ways outside of town while his younger daughter, Jeanne, lives with his mother in the nearby town of Shirley Falls. Katherine has barely spoken since her mother's death and is struggling with school.

With a deft touch Strout draws the complex and shifting relationships of small-town life, alliances made and abandoned, even as she makes the reader feel the isolation of a New England farmhouse. I love the quick details that paint a character—a red knit dress, pink walls like Bazooka gum—and her descriptions of winter:

It was still October when the first snow fell. It came in the afternoon, light as white dandelion thistles being dropped from high in the sky. They took their time reaching ground, so light and sparse they floated. But there was a quiet steadiness to the snow, and by late afternoon, a soft covering lay over places where the ground swelled.

I've known snows like that. Strout's perception of her characters and her grave and steady use of the scalpel to reveal them rivals Anne Tyler. One of the interesting touches is the voice that starts the book and returns occasionally. It is the voice of a storyteller, some unnamed local person, who is telling you, the reader, about what happened to Tyler that winter. It shouldn't work, but it does. This is a wonderful book that I highly recommend.

Reading it, I thought, as I mentioned, of Anne Tyler. Because it was about a minister, I thought about Marianne Robinson's Gilead and Home, although this book is less about religion and faith than those two books.

And I thought about Ethan Frome, a book I haven't read since middle school. I remembered being bored by it then and dismayed by the unrelenting New England winter so vividly portrayed, not that that stopped me from later falling in love with New England winters myself. But I remembered the book being about a grizzled and cantankerous old man holed up in an isolated farmhouse with his young daughter, a bit like Tyler and Katherine.

Imagine my surprise when I started rereading Ethan Frome to find out that it is not the book I remembered! Frome is indeed grizzled, though only 52, and he does live in an isolated, New England farmhouse. The story also shares Strout's voice of being recounted by someone years after the events of the story, though here the narrator is identified: a visitor to the town of Starkfield.

However, it is not the story of a man and his daughter, but rather of Ethan and his wife, Zenobia, called Zeena, and her young cousin, Mattie Silver, who comes to live with them almost as a servant after she is left penniless and alone. Young Ethan meant to leave Starkfield behind, taking a year-long course at a technical school in Worcester, MA, but his father's death brought him back to the hard-scrabble farm and mill. His mother gradually drifted into dementia and his cousin Zeena came to help him with her.

It's a story of wanting more than you have, seeing your dreams just out of reach but grasping for them anyway. Although I prefer Strout's cautious optimism to Wharton's inevitable tragedy, I am glad I reread this book.

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