It’s February; Time to Break Out the Ethan Frome

February 7, 2017

I remember my brother reading Ethan Frome first.  I remember how he agonized over it and the high school English teacher.  She was a tough teacher, he said.  The book was dense, he said.  I never found so many things tough with school as my older brother did.  I realize now we have much different minds, and my approach to schoolwork is dangerously nerdy.

So when I took on Ethan Frome many years later, I didn’t find it so tough.  (Full disclosure: I had a much easier teacher, but I think it still had more to do with me being a book nerd.)  I found the book rather odd.  Why would you try to kill yourself by driving into a tree on a sled?  How was this a smart idea?

I re-read Ethan Frome now every February.  There’s something about the cold, bitter air that drives me to it.  When I first read it, I was a teenager in Western New York, and I thought winters in New England sounded bleak.  (As a child of lake effect snow, I realize the irony here.)  Now I live in New England, and I read it and think New England winters are not that bad.  It’s funny how perspective can change things.

But what’s changed the most is a result of the research I’ve been doing for my latest work in progress, a historical fiction story that takes place in 1880s and 1920s New York City.  The story straddles the time of Edith Wharton, a fascinating woman who defied the era.  Now when I read her work, I see what she said without words, through the subtle clues of her stories and the affront to her contemporary society.  Now when I read Ethan Frome, I don’t see the cold winter.  I see a writer who’d grown frosty to the world she lived in.

The Mount
The Mount
Photo credit: davedash3 via / CC BY (Click for license)

The hubby and I visited Wharton’s estate, The Mount, in Lenox, MA, and I swore never to visit a dead person’s home again.  To say it was creepy is to say Stephen King writes scary stories.  Wharton was clearly a woman who lived outside the society she scorned, and it was evident in the remains of her estate, held in place from a time long gone.

The Library at The Mount
The Library at The Mount Photo credit: Beinecke Library via / CC BY-SA (Click for CC license)

I encourage you to pick up a copy of Ethan Frome this winter and look past all the cold and snow.  Think about the people of the story, Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena.  I wonder which one Ms. Wharton thought of as herself.

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