New Hampshire in the early 1830s was still part of the United States frontier, a wild and semi-civilized land of farmers fighting the elements and the harshness of their lifestyle. Though Joan Blos's A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-32 is fiction, she admirably captures these elements, recreating life in a different era.
Catherine Hall is the daughter of a farmer, and older sister to the girl Matty—the girls's mother died four years earlier. Their father, Charles, is a good father and a hard worker, but the locals wonder why he hasn't remarried. They even conspire to have him meet and fall for the Shipmans's Aunt Lucy (the Shipmans being the Halls's neighbors, and Cassie Shipman her best friend).
All these things and many others, from maple harvests to ice breaking to phantom runaway slaves, are recorded in great detail in Catherine's diary. Despite the fact that the Halls and their neighbors and friends enjoy a very simple life, Blos clearly invested much time in historical research and makes early American pioneer life quite vivid.
This attention to historic detail extends even to Catherine's writing style. Blos composes each sentence very much in an early 19th century, New England dialect, with enough Bible references, snatches of poetry, and homely proverbs to make us think we're reading an actual eyewitness document.
Blos does slip a bit when it comes to how her characters, particularly Catherine, would have thought. A strong subtext in the book is the brewing slavery problem, and some of the ways the girl questions accepted attitudes toward both slaves and the institution of slavery seem a bit more influenced by the 20th century than pre-Civil War New England.
Fortunately these moments are rare, and mostly we get a convincing taste of farm life before the Industrial Revolution had really taken over (though its shadow looms in the fact that the girl Sophy is sent by her father to work in a mill). We also see Catherine's growth from wariness to acceptance of the wife her father brings back from Boston after a trading trip, and her mourning process following Cassie's death.
Regarding Blos's ability to conjure a place and an era, she absolutely deserved a Newbery Medal for A Gathering of Days. It's her abilities as a storyteller that are more in doubt. There's a nagging sense throughout the novel that we aren't really getting to know any of the characters intimately (including Catherine), so that their joys and trials don't affect us very much.
Perhaps this is due to the fact that A Gathering of Days was only her second book, and her first as sole author. Perhaps it's the fact that she clearly spent so much time in research that she forgot she was writing about "real" people. Whatever the case, this is an excellent glimpse into early American farm communities, but not much of a glimpse into the human soul or psyche.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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