Book Review: In Unusually Told Biography Writer Rachel Field Relives



In his new book, “The Field House”, a biography of writer Rachel Field, Robin Clifford Wood takes an unusual approach. She examines Field’s life as she reflects on her home in Maine and the profound influence it has had on it.

Field died in 1942 at the age of 47. During her short and prolific life, she had nevertheless received numerous awards for her books, including a Newbery Award, a Caldecott Medal and a National Book Award. In 1994, writer Robin Clifford Wood and her husband bought the house on Sutton Island where Field had spent much of his life. As Wood explored the house and read its story, she became more and more intrigued – and eventually started working on a biography of Field. “The Field House” is the result of this effort.

“The Field House,” although much of Field’s life story, is juxtaposed with Wood’s account of how she came to write the book and the parallels she discovered between her own. life and that of its subject. Wood is inspired by Field’s experiences as a woman who went against the grain of her time, and she describes how the two found a welcoming home for Maine artists. Like Field, Wood has faced the challenges of balancing the life of writing with family life.

Wood uses an epistolary device to make these connections, alternating chapters that describe Field’s path to literary fame with letters that Wood addresses to an absent Field. Since the biographical portions of the book cite an array of correspondences from Field, the two sections are stylistically consistent – although some of Wood’s letters link the two women more strongly than others.

It helps that Wood has a keen eye for detail. A first passage describing the house that the two women called their home decades apart is full of singular images, including “a pegboard shopping list including alum, lamp wicks and lard”. And here, Wood’s own fascination with life on Sutton Island echoes what she describes as the transformational effect that life on the Maine coast has had on Field. The “roots and background of her Stockbridge ancestors vanished once she discovered Maine,” Wood writes.

Life in Maine was central to Field’s life and work. Her home in Maine provided a space for her to focus on her writing, a process Wood recounts here. Some of his books have also used Maine as a backdrop, notably “Calico Bush” from 1931, set on the coast of Maine in 1743, and “God’s Pocket” from 1934, based on the life of Captain Samuel Hadlock Jr. of Cranberry Isles. . The New York Times called it a “strange and most entertaining little book” when it was published.

But his life in Maine is not the only focus of this biography. “The Field House” features a few forays into the literary world of 1930s New York City, which found Field crossing paths with the likes of Ford Madox Ford and Theodore Dreiser. It is also here that Wood recounts Field’s close relationship with writer Lyle Saxon. Later, when Field’s fame grew and brought her to Hollywood, there is a particularly memorable account of her growing friendship with Bette Davis; the two bonded over their New England roots.

Wood provides insight into how Field wrote books like “Hitty, Her First Hundred Years” and “All This and Heaven Too”, including extrapolating what elements may have hinted at the life and history of Field. A bittersweet quality permeates the end of the biography, where Wood mentions that many of Field’s books are out of print, with the exception of his works best known to young readers.

“The Field House” does a great job of explaining the details of Field’s life and his steady path to success. But readers may miss a more in-depth analysis of Field’s writing. The book makes little sense of how his work relates to that of his peers or what a contemporary reader might gain from it. It sounds like a missed opportunity – if Field is, in fact, a writer waiting for a revival, this book would have been a great place to defend him.

Field lived an interesting life, one that crossed paths with other equally intriguing people. (His great aunt, Henriette Deluzy-Desportes, provided the inspiration for “All of this, and Heaven, too.”) Wood’s biography conveys the breadth of this life and is a compelling and empathetic tribute to a writer who left this world far too soon. .

Tobias Carroll, a New York resident, is the author of three books: “Political Sign”, “Reel” and “Transitory”. He has commented on books for the New York Times, Bookforum, Star Tribune and elsewhere.

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