Tag Archives: poverty

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published during the Second World War (1943) and was an instant success in the US. It sold many copies, especially as it was published in an edition suitable for the pockets of uniforms. A film was made of it, directed by Elia Kazan in 1944 – his first. It’s been adapted for radio (1947), as a musical (1951), and again as a film in 1974. 

But this was Betty Smith’s one-hit wonder. Although she wrote other novels and plays none of her subsequent work achieved the popularity of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Thank you to Jennifer for recommending it to me, even if it was several years ago and she may not remember.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The success of this novel is due to the main character, Francie. She is 11, going on 12, at the start of the novel in 1912, and we follow her life until 1917, when the US became involved in the First World War. The character of Francie is very well realised, and she matures gradually throughout the events of the novel. 

Her parents are the children of immigrants. Her father is from an Irish family, and her mother’s family have come from the Austro-Hungarian empire. The immigrant experience is a constant theme, with the hardship of newly arriving in New York being mitigated eventually by the second generation. But the struggles of both families in the promised land are harsh and enduring: language (Francie’s maternal grandmother never learns English); access to education (seen by the same grandmother as the key to their successful settlement, but a struggle for Francie in the local school); cultural differences in clothes, rituals, religion, employment, attitudes to foreigners, and marriage. Francie wins through, a kind of delayed success for the American Dream.

We can infer that Francie’s experiences are drawn to a greater extent from Betty Smith’s own life. She was the daughter of parents of similar origins as Francie’s, and she too struggled to find a decent education, inveigling herself into a better school at a young age. Her father also died from alcohol-related illness and left the family struggling to survive and needing the two older children to leave school early.

Francie’s mother had three sisters who lived nearby, although the one who took orders is only briefly mentioned. The other two make lives for themselves and their children, support their sisters’ families as best they can, and provide more colour in the lively but poverty-stricken immigrant life in Brooklyn. One of them is Sissy, who loves men, marries (but does not divorce) frequently, and is illiterate but manages to provide essential support for Francie more than once. They had no access to telephones, so the family depended on the insurance money collector to take messages between them.

Francie has loving parents. Her mother is harsh, and at pains to avoid showing that her son Neeley is her favourite but determined to help Francie be a strong young woman. Her relationship with her father is touching. He has a beautiful voice and a very loving nature, but he is unable to support his family in his work as a waiter, a singing waiter, because of his alcoholism. His early death affects the family in different ways. Francie’s grief is hard, but she eventually comes to see that her father is present in her siblings, and even in herself.

The novel opens in the summer of 1912 with a typical Saturday in Francie’s life. She has chores, some of which provide a meagre contribution to the Nolan family’s finances, collecting and selling scrap, for example. She must bargain and outwit the shopkeepers when running errands for her mother. In the afternoon she visits the public library, where she can borrow books and read them for no cost. Sadly the librarian is impervious to her young customer, and when Francie asks her for a recommendation a ritual is played out.

“Could you recommend a good book for a girl?”
“How old?”
“She is eleven.”
Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child’s face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. […]
Francie trembled in anticipation as the woman reached under the desk. She saw the title as the book came up: If I Were King by McCarthy. Wonderful! Last week it had been Beverly of Graustark and the same the two weeks before that. She had had the McCarthy book only twice. (22)

Francie sits on the fire escape in the sun and spends the afternoon reading about the 15th century French poet, François Villon, in If I Were King. The only vegetation she can see is the umbrella tree that survives despite everything in their back yard of the house. Its persistence provides the metaphor and the title for the novel.

Much of the first half of the novel is a series of vignettes from Brooklyn in the first 15 years of the twentieth century, eg shops, customs, transport, poverty, rituals and so forth. In particular we observe Francie struggling in the overcrowded public school, where her flair for reading and writing are treated with the same indifference as the librarian treated her love of books. 

In her new school Francie, now aged 14, usually got As for her compositions, but she wrote three stories about her father, because she missed him so much, which the teacher graded as Cs. She explained that it was the subject matter that caused her to lower Francie’s grades.

“Poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit that these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”
“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.
“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”
“What is beauty?” asked the child.
“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’”
Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”
“Nonsense!” exploded Mrs Garnder. Then softening her tone, she continued. “By truth we mean things like stars always being there and the sun always rising and the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country,” she ended anticlimactically.
“I see,” said Francie. (315)

A dialogue follows between the insensitive teacher and Francie’s silent replies. One could say that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Betty Smith’s response to the original version of Mrs Garnder.

There is so much more in this detailed and endearing novel; a horse that pees on its handler; generous Sissy who frequently rescues the family; the downtrodden grandmother who encourages reading a page a day of Shakespeare and the Protestant Bible; the story of the would-be rapist; how Francie’s heart is broken; the effect of the US’s entry into the First World War on the neighbourhood and so on. There is love and persistence, heartbreak and struggle. Just what one wants from a long read.

Betty Smith

Betty Smith in 1943

Born in Brooklyn in 1896, Betty Smith lived to be 76 years old, dying in 1972. She was involved in community drama from her teenage years but later began writing fiction. She wrote four novels altogether but had success only with her first. Like her protagonist Francie, Betty Smith struggled to complete her education. 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, first published in 1943. I used the edition from Arrow Books. 483pp

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Ghost Signs by Stu Hennigan

It starts out being an account of delivering food parcels to people in Leeds during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020. But as this book goes on, it becomes about poverty in the UK. The reader must conclude that this poverty will have been made worse by the pandemic and today has become ‘a cost of living crisis’. I believe this phrase, so beloved of politicians and the press, is a synonym for ‘even more poverty’. 

I had already thought of this book as the equivalent today of Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (published in 1937) which exposed the dreadful living conditions in the industrial northern towns just before the Second World War. I have since discovered that others have made the same connection. 

Like many readers, despite the warning of the subtitle – poverty and the pandemic – I was shocked by this account of Leeds in the pandemic. Shocked and moved, for Stu Hennigan is a very sympathetic writer. He has succeeded in putting human faces to some of the more general descriptions of Covid. 

Ghost Signs: poverty and the pandemic

In April 2020 Leeds Council recruited volunteer drivers to deliver food parcels from the Food Distribution Centre that had been set up to provide for people in difficulties in the lockdown. Unable to work at his usual job as a librarian because of the lockdown, and stuck at home, Stu Hennigan decided to volunteer. 

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw during those months. I took on the driving role thinking it would simply be a useful way of spending lockdown – delivering parcels and having a chat with whoever I met along the way. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was an emotionally draining experience, stressful and bruising at times, unutterably sad at other, always tiring, and with an intermittent threat of violence that took me completely by surprise. I saw some things that will stay with me forever, plenty of which I hope to never see again. (4) 

After a couple of weeks, the drivers were also required to collect and deliver prescriptions for people who could not get out. The book is the detailed account of his first 9 weeks as a delivery driver. This was the first day.

Friday 10th April
Leeds is like a scene from a sci-fi movie. Across the Eastgate roundabout I can see the bus station, empty and silent as the tomb of Christ on this Easter weekend. In the middle distance there’s the brand new John Lewis and Victoria Gate shopping centre with its multi-storey car park, built on the site of the old Millgarth nick, which was bulldozed to make way for it a few years ago as part of the plan to modernise the city centre. […]
It’s like aliens have come down in a spaceship and removed all the people; I’ve lived in this city for thirteen years and been a visitor here for most of my life, but I’ve never seen it like this before; it’s freaking me out already. The stillness, the silence, the complete lack of sound or motion from anything but my own car, the feeling that we’re in the midst of something completely unique and epochal, wondering where the fuck all this is going to end up – it’s a real head trip and I haven’t even started the job yet. (6-7)

Reading this passage, describing a scene from 30 months ago I realise how quickly we forget. Perhaps it’s because we don’t want to revisit the fears and strangeness of that first encounter with the Coronavirus and the mandatory social isolation. But it was strange, even in the middle of the countryside it was strange and frightening.

Driving and delivery food and medicines around Leeds, the author soon comes to see that there was a huge amount of poverty in Leeds even before the pandemic. Many people had nothing, no furniture, no food, no decent clothes, no decent roof over their head, no-one to help and instead a huge suspicion of authorities and officials. Very quickly he understood that people could not afford food, were starving in some cases, and everywhere the social and economic outcomes of poverty and drug abuse had pulled down lives.

He meets gratitude from people, especially when they understand that the service and the food is free. Also, indifference and resentment. And terrifying dogs or hostility when he searches for an address for a delivery. Many people are on the very edge, and some need much more assistance than is being supplied, like Leslie who has collapsed in pain, needing her morphine. Stu Hennigan brings her food parcels, but he is required to do so much more for her as she is quite unable to help herself. Help arrives from within the community, and eventually from paramedics too. It’s a shocking episode, poverty, ill-health, inappropriate housing dependence upon services that are not forthcoming in the pandemic and perhaps not even in normal times. It is with the episode when he helped Leslie that Stu Hennigan chooses to end his narrative.

We have met countless people in dressing gowns or ‘trackie’ bottoms, sick and gaunt from drug abuse, lonely, helpless, resentful, and apparently abandoned. He has cheery, grateful conversations with a few. Being thanked is rare and always affects him.

And what I asked as a reader is – will all of this improve at the end of lockdowns? Of course it has not. Poverty was widespread before Covid-19, and the infrastructure to provide for the needy was already failing. 

By placing individual people, including his own family, in his account of lockdown he brings home the immediate effects, but raises questions about the long-term effects of lockdown, especially on young people.

Ghost Signs: poverty and the pandemic by Stu Henniganpublished in 2022 by Bluemoose Books. 208pp

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Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

Hurricane Season has been sitting in the pile of books I’m planning to read for some time. It has sat there in its handsome Fitzcarraldo Editions blue jacket for some time having come to my attention earlier this year. And now it has come to the top of the pile, and I am glad to have read it and glad too that the reading is over, because it is quite a tough book. But also very exhilarating, because of the headlong, hurtling style of the writing. 

Fernanda Melchor is a Mexican writer, and this is her second novel and her first book available in English translation. The novel won an English PEN Award, and it is an important and outstanding book. It was translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes and is a remarkable achievement in itself.

Hurricane Season

The novel is set among the inhabitants of the small Mexican village of La Matosa. The village is impoverished despite the highway than runs nearby, carrying the huge trucks of the oil industry. 

In the opening chapter the body of a witch is found by children in an irrigation channel near the village. The crime was committed by two young men, both of whom are losers. Neither the question of who did it or why are central to the meaning of this novel. The crime is almost incidental in the lives of several people. We enter into five lives in turn, having learned something of the background of the witch herself, an isolate living in a house outside the village, providing cures and potions for the sick and afflicted, and wild parties for the young men. 

In turn we read of the inner life, inner voice of five characters who are associated with the death of the witch. Yesenia had grown up with her stepbrother, Luismi, but hates him and the special attention their grandmother gave him. She observes him loading the body into the van and shops him to the police. 

Luismi is a pathetic and hopeless young man who has rejected his grandmother and moved in with his mother and her husband. He has not got much going for him. He has no employment but believes that he will be offered a lucrative job in the refining business, promised by ‘a friend’. It is clear that this potential job will never materialize and Luismi is drifting until he meets Norma. 

Munra, is his the stepfather who drives a van, involved in the crime. Munra used to be a fit and good-looking man but was hit by a truck in an accident and is now unable to work. He lives off his wife and what he earns from driving his van. He has no future either. 

Norma is 13 and running away from her impoverished home. She has been taking care of the children her mother has by different fathers. She is much neglected and dismissed by her mother. Her stepfather, Pepe, grooms her and eventually makes her pregnant. She runs away, as far as the town near La Matosa, where Luismi finds her in the park. It is as far as her money will take her. Luismi and brings her to live with him in his shack, unaware of her pregnancy. Luismi’s mother takes Norma to the witch for an abortion. She bleeds so badly she goes to hospital where she refuses to accuse anyone of making her pregnant and so is detained.

Brando is the most deadbeat and hapless of all these characters. He appears to have no redeeming features, no moral compass at all, despite a mother heavily influenced by the church. He is high most of the time and earns money as a male prostitute. His aim is to escape La Matosa and plans to steal the witch’s money in order to do this. He is ready to kill his accomplices too, but the police catch up with him before he can do this.

Everyone seems to believe the witch has heaps of money hidden in her house. The truth is much more macabre.

 

Fernanda Melchor

The writing of Hurricane Season

This is a bleak novel for it is clear that the lives of these people are dominated by drugs and poverty. Sex work is the major employment for women and boys. Violence is endemic. Parents hit their children, boys hit each other, women are hit by everyone.

The writing that conveys this unstable environment is breakneck, headlong. The chapters have no paragraph divisions. Some are more than 50 pages long, requiring the reader to continue without a break. 

The language is coarse, colloquial, full of invective, curses and colourful insults. Since we are largely within the heads of each of the main characters, we are unable to escape the contempt in which people hold each other, their fury at broken hopes, their grinding misery. It is vivid and very raw. The translator Sophie Hughes is to be congratulated for achieving this effect in English without it appearing stilted or contrived. Here’s an example.

It made Yesenia’s blood boil whenever she got to thinking about it, with an anger that made her guts throb, every time she thought about that ungrateful little prick and what a fool Grandma had been to tell Uncle Murilio she’d bring him up, when she knew full well that the slag he was seeing was a professional whore who’d open her legs for anyone with a deep enough pocket. (38)

And another example:

And the Witch, who throughout the whole exchange just carried on tinkering about in that noxious kitchen with her back to them, turned and stared at Norma, her eyes sparkling behind her veil, and after a long silence she said that before doing anything she had to examine Norma, to see how far gone she was; and right there on the kitchen table they laid her on her back and hitched up her dress and the Witch pressed her hands all over Norma’s stomach, roughly, almost angrily, perhaps enviously and after a few minutes of groping around the Witch told them it was going to be tricky, that she was already really far gone … (150)

That second extract is all one sentence which doesn’t finish for another 25 lines. 

The story is not told in a linear way, but rather through the involvement and back stories of those five characters. 

And in this way the author lays bare the wretchedness of this element of Mexican society, where drugs are supreme, and the currency is sex. Violence is everywhere, especially towards the weaker people, the women and girls. 

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor first published in 2017. The English edition was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2021. 226pp

Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes 

Winner of English PEN Award, shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2020

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Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

The world is a little out of kilter at the moment. A novel by Barbara Comyns seemed an ideal choice for the times. But although other books by her have very odd almost magical properties, this one, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, is more straight forward than her later novels.

This is by no means the first of her books that I have reviewed on Bookword. You can find links to the others below.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

The central theme of this novel is poverty and the misery it causes. Here are the opening sentences of the novel, reassuring us that her story is grim but got better.

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried. In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries, he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. (1)

She frames the book as the story she told Helen, mentioning the importance of Sandro, how she regrets ‘lovely little Fanny’ and remembering ‘Charles’s white pointed face’. 

Having married another artist, Charles, very young and impetuously, Sophie lives in Bohemian London in the 1930s, in poverty. Her husband comes across as a selfish man, putting his own wants above others’, so she has to earn pennies sitting for artists while he stays at home and paints. There is no suggestion he should do the housework and cooking except as a favour. 

Sophie becomes pregnant which means she has to give up her work as a model. It also means that she has to endure childbirth in a charity hospital. The presence of their son, Sandro, puts a great deal of pressure on their finances and on their marriage. Charles’s family say that she is selfish to have a child and expect support from Charles. 

Their relationship, deteriorates and she begins an affair with the sleazy older art critic, Peregrine Narrow. She has a second child Fanny, fathered by Peregrine, but this child dies of scarlet fever just as Sophie leaves Charles and she has to stay in hospital to recover from the disease. This is her lowest point and Sophie only begins to recover when she finds a job as a cook for a farming family. She and Sandro live happily in the country for three years. It is here that she meets Rollo, another artist, and they live happily ever after.

Some of the most shocking passages concern the relatives who look after Sandro during a period of difficulty. They are Charles’s relatives and their strict rules are in contrast to the haphazard way in which he has previously been brought up. It proves hard to rescue him as Sophie rarely has the money for the fare.

In one sense this is a novel about a young woman gaining control over her own actions and decisions.

There is plenty in this novel about the lack of a public health service and the provision for people in poverty, expectations of women in marriage, child care and London in the 1930s.

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (1907 – 1992) was brought up in Warwickshire on the banks of the River Avon. She wrote many novels and is perhaps best known for Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Vet’s Daughter. Her early adult life was characterised by poverty, and she tried to earn her living by dealing in poodles, upmarket cars, antiques and by renovating pianos. 

She knew about poverty and insecurity. There is a strange note on the copyright page:

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.

Chapters 10-12 are the ones set in the charity hospital and describe Sandro’s birth. Childbirth was not a subject dealt with in much detail in fiction at the time.

Then I was enveloped in a terrific sea of pain, and I heard myself shouting in an awful snoring kind of voice. Then they gave me something to smell and the pain dimmed a little. The pain started to grow again, but I didn’t seem to mind. I suddenly felt so interested in what was happening. The baby was really coming now and there it was between my legs. I could feel it moving and there was a great tugging in my tummy where it was still attached to me. Then I heard it cry, so I knew it was alive and I was able to relax. Perhaps I went to sleep. (52) 

Emily Gould in the Paris Review (in October 2015) suggests that her writing style was deliberately destabilising. There is a simplicity to her writing, but it has a dark side and more complexity that is largely masked. It was intended to knock the reader off balance. Perhaps it is a suitable book for our time, after all.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns first published in 1950 and republished as a Virago Modern Classic. I used the 2013 edition with an introduction by Maggie O’Farrell. 196pp

Other books by Barbara Comyns reviewed on Bookword

Here are links to reviews of some of her other books:

Who was Changed and Who was Dead (1954)

The Vet’s Daughter (1959)

The Juniper Tree (1985)

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The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

The current trend of using ‘girl’ in titles continues to rile me. It carries more than a trace of condescension. This novel is the story by a woman in her 80s, hardly a girl. However it was recommended. It does not present as a potboiler, or who dunnit, so I gave it a go. 

The Boston Girl  is the 42ndin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. This novel was recommended to me twice recently: by someone who read my blogs on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative in August, and by my sister, who kindly sent me a copy to read.

The Boston Girl

An 85-year-old woman, Addie Baum, is asked by her granddaughter to talk about how she got to be the woman she is today (in 1985). In reply she narrates the story of her life, lived mostly in Boston. Addie was born in 1900 into an immigrant Jewish family. They were poor and had already lost two children. When Addie begins her story her older sister, Betty, has not long left the family home to live on her own. A second sister, Celia, is frail and much protected by her father. Neither parent finds happiness in Boston and there is little kindness in their household. Addie is the only one born in the new country. She is determined to do well despite their tragedies and their poverty.

Addie does well at school, but the family are so poor that she has to leave after only a year at high school. Things improve slightly for the family when Celia marries a widower, Levine, inheriting his two young sons. But marriage, step-mothering and keeping a household are beyond Celia and she commits suicide.

Gradually the events of Addie’s life improve due in part to her friendships with other young women, which last a lifetime and which sustain and motivate her. There are her failed love affairs and then her meeting with her future husband, a lawyer defending children in employment. Her own employments begin with office work and moves into journalism, and finally to social work in support of children. The author refers to the significance of Abbie’s resilience on her website. But her connections and the necessity of earning a living seem to be as important in determining her decisions.

The final years are swiftly dealt with. The interest is largely in her life before her marriage.

The chief influences are of immigration, Jewishness and being female. This novel is not about an older woman so much as what happened to this older woman before she arrived at the age of 85.

Addie Baum at 85

The granddaughter’s question is not answered in any depth: how Addie got to be the woman she is today. Her Jewishness, her gender and the times she lived in which she lived are hardly credited with being part of the answer. At heart this is a feelgood novel, a young girl finds her way to eventual happiness despite early poverty and some bad experiences. The short chapters make it an easy and enjoyable read.

Reading it did provoke me to wonder how I would answer the same question. 

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant, first published in 2014. I read the edition by  Simon & Schuster. 392pp

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford (guest post)

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

This might have been a morality tale, a warning of the dreadful things that happen when your marriage turns sour, or when you consider committing suicide. But this is written by Edith Wharton, when her own disastrous marriage was at an end and she had fallen in love with Morton Fullerton and was living in Europe. The year was 1911, and society still found it easy to condemn people who found it hard to remain committed to a bad marriage. Edith Wharton was independently wealthy enough to afford a separation. She writes about people who did not have the means to do anything but stay married.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

The story is set up by an unnamed narrator who is intrigued by what happened to Ethan Frome. The ‘author’ is in the well-named Starkfield, a small town in Massachusetts. 

It was there that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but a ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the “natives” were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed; it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of lameness checking every step like the jerk of a chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear he was not more that fifty-two. (11)

The narrator is informed that 

“He’s looked that way ever since he had his smash-up; and that’s twenty-four years ago come next February”. (11)

If you are the kind of person who does not want to know how a story ends then perhaps you can just take my recommendation to get acquainted with this book and leave the post here. For others, who do not find their enjoyment spoiled by revealing the story but have other reading interests, please read on.

The ‘smash-up’ is not quite the climax of the story. It begins twenty-four years before the time of the Author’s Introductory Note. Ethan Frome is struggling, as are all the inhabitants of Starkfield, to make a living out of his farm. He inherited it from his parents, and more or less inherited his wife too. His mother was nursed by a cousin, Zenobia, known as Zeena, and Ethan marries her when her nursing duties are over. She is an unappealing woman, although she had been kind enough as a nurse. She is a hypochondriac and a complainer and would have liked to live a more glamorous and stylish life. But although Ethan had hoped to provide this, they are trapped by the smallness of the farm’s income. 

Zeena has a cousin, Mattie Silver, who comes to live with them for she has nowhere else to go.

Zeena took the view that Mattie was bound to make the best of Starkfield since she hadn’t any other place to go; but this did not strike Ethan as conclusive. Zeena, at any rate, did not apply the principle in her own case. (39)

In this novella, both men and women are trapped by social conventions. With no one to provide a roof for her, and with little to recommend her as a servant, Mattie is one step away from prostitution. She must act as an unpaid servant for the Fromes to justify living with them.

Both Ethan and Mattie live lives of drudgery and both suffer from the effects of Zeena’s apparent ill health. Even more, Zeena wishes to hold her head up in Starkfield society, meagre though it is.

Both living in their own lonely worlds, Ethan falls for Mattie, and she for him. When Zeena goes away overnight to consult a doctor the pair enjoy a cosy evening and between them a bond grows. When she returns Zeena ratchets up the tension.

“I’ve got complications,” she said.

Ethan knew the word for one of exceptional import. Almost everybody in the neighbourhood had “troubles”, frankly localised and specified; but only the chosen had “complications”. To have them was in itself a distinction, though it was also, in most cases, a death-warrant. People struggled on for years with “troubles”, but they almost always succumbed to “complications”. (65)

Zeena plans to eject Mattie, and Ethan becomes desperate. Mattie will have to make her own way in the city, which means prostitution. The two feel they have no escape except to toboggan into a tree at speed, killing them both. They set off as if for her train and stop to find the sledge. Then comes the smash-up.

Instead of dying, the lovers are badly wounded. Mattie is confined to a wheelchair and Ethan suffered dreadful injuries. Zeena did not succumb to her complications, and instead the trio live together, tied to each other and to the town where the author meets them after a quarter of a century.

I think Edith Wharton was writing about the damage done by being trapped in a loveless marriage. Ethan and Zeena have very little economic power, but are tied by social convention, and any affection has evaporated between them. 

Edith Wharton had endured twenty-four years of a dreadful marriage with a man who was mentally unstable and who embezzled her money to set up his mistress. The ideas and development of the novella occurred at the time she was leaving him and developing her own passionate affair with Morton Fullerton.

Although Ethan Frome lives in a very different social milieu to Edith Wharton or to the characters in House of Mirth  the themes of the necessity of marriage for women, and of the restrictions of marriage and of marriage conventions are not so far away.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton was first published in 1911. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition from 1991. (103pp). I bought it for £1 second hand in a National Trust bookshop at Dinefwr while in Wales recently.

You can find The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1906) here

A film of Ethan Frome was released in 1993, with Liam Neeson in the title role and also starring Patiricia Arquette and Joan Allen.

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Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

The Fossil girls have talent and are enrolled by Madame Fidolia in the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. The three girls have been adopted by Great Uncle Matthew and left in the care of his niece Sylvia while he goes off on another expedition. He is absent a long time and the money he leaves runs out, so their guardian takes in boarders and the girls find work on the stage. How will this work out for them? Published in 1936, Ballet Shoes  is a classic of children’s literature.

This is the fourth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. One theme has emerged and is continued in this classic. This theme is the absence of parents. A second theme is the economic precariousness of girls’ lives in the inter-war years.

Ballet Shoes

The novel is set in London in the period between the world wars. Three orphan girls are collected by Great Uncle Matthew like fossils (after whom he names them). He leaves them in the care of his niece, Sylvia, who is helped by Nana, Cook and the maid, Clara. Pauline was rescued from a sinking ship, has acting ability and very good looks; Petrova’s Russian parents left her to GUM, and she can act but prefers cars and aeroplanes; Posy’s mother cannot look after her while following her career so she leaves her a pair of ballet shoes and gives her to GUM’s care. Posy is an exceptionally talented dancer.

GUM expected to be away for 5 years, but his absence extends much longer. When the money he provided runs out the girls and their guardians must make difficult decisions. All along they have known how important it is not to show that you are poor, but now they have to face losing their home. The girls find they must decide to do things they don’t want to do, like accept parts they don’t want or approach adults about parts they need.  

Each has lessons to learn about not getting too bumptious (Pauline), or finding ways to follow her interests (Petrova); or to seize every occasion to further her passion (Posy). 

The girls are assisted in their struggles by the boarders that Sylvia takes in: Theo who introduces them to the Dancing Academy and assists with their practice sessions; the two female academic doctors who teach them what they are missing by not being at school; Mr and Mrs Simpson who own a garage and a car and ferry them about from time to time. The sewing skills of Nana are frequently called upon for outfits for classes and auditions.

In the final pages, after several years of penury, taking parts for the money, scrimping and making do, the girls go their separate ways: Pauline to Hollywood with Sylvia, Petrova to learn about aeroplanes with GUM and Posy to Prague to study with a ballet master accompanied by Nana.

Ballet Shoes  reveals to young readers that hard work, loyalty to your aims, not being selfish and willingness to learn are essential to achieving your ambitions.

Ballet shoes in a shop window near Covent Garden

Noel Streatfeild

Noel Streatfeild was another prolific writer, like the others in this series, producing nearly 30 books for children and 16 novels for adults as well as many non-fiction books. She lived from 1895 – 1986. She spent time in the theatre but later turned to writing. She also did war work during both wars. 

Ballet Shoes was her first book for children, and it was an instant success. It has never been out of print. 

Despite what my spellchecker keeps telling me, that is how you spell her family name.

1st edition, 1936

Ballet Shoesby Noel Streatfeild was published in 1936. I used the Puffin edition from 2015. 326pp. Illustrations are by Ruth Gervis, who was Noel Streatfeild’s sister.

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a choice from 1940-49. Suggestions for decades are welcome.

Here are the links to the first three books in this year’s Decades Project, which were 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) And just a small note, that at one point Sylvia reads The Secret Garden  to the Fossils in Ballet Shoes

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

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