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 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.
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.