Seasonal Reading: Decoration Day

This is the time of year when I always give myself the treat of re-reading two seasonal tales: Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace and a short story by Sarah Orne Jewett called Decoration Day included in her A Native of Winby and Other Tales.

Image from here

Emily of Deep Valley is now available on Kindle here in the UK as well as in a couple of paperback versions. I love all of MHL’s books, but perhaps Emily has a special place in my heart because I read it first, and it’s about an orphan. It never fails to stir my heart-strings. Emily Webster lives with her grandfather in 1912 in a small town in Minnesota. The book starts with her final day of High School and unlike most of her class, Emily feels she can not leave her elderly grandfather to manage alone and go off to college. What I like most is Emily’s refusal to feel sorry for herself for long and her resolutions to develop her own program of study. Her respect for her grandfather and appreciation of the community spirit inherent in such local and national celebrations as Decoration Day (the old name for Memorial Day in the US which always used to fall on May 30th) shine through the book. It’s deeply charming and you’re cheering body and soul for Emily by the end. There’s lots of nostalgia and descriptions of clothes and patriotism and a Romance and it all has a satisfyingly happy ending (whereas poignantly in real life the woman Emily was based on, Marguerite Marsh, died two weeks after childbirth in 1925). For me this is, the perfect comfort read as I can get more out of every time I come back to it. However it isn’t for everyone. I remember reading A Captive Reader’s excellent and detailed review of this on her blog, and I see looking back she liked it, but not without quite a few reservations. Well the bits she especially dislikes (the patriotism for example) don’t bother me at all, but it’s interesting to read her point of view and hear what jars for her. I, on the other hand, love all the domestic details – the fashion, the clothes, the housekeeping, the different furniture in the homes we see, and not least Emily’s own daily routine.

Image from here

Like Maud Hart Lovelace’s stories, Sarah Orne Jewett’s all have a real sense of place. Whereas Emily is set in Deep Valley just before the First World War, Sarah Orne Jewett’s Decoration Day (my copy is in A Native of Winby and Other Tales, but it’s one you can easily read for free online here) centres on the revival of a parade to honour the fallen Union soldiers in the hamlet of Barlow Plains in New England in the second half of the nineteen century.  It’s not a heavy piece, but SOJ manages to add a layer of what honouring their dead does for the small community as a whole, and how grief and sorrow, when marked in a ceremonial and public way, allow more understanding and tolerance.  I love the way she captures the voices and conversation of the three farmers, veterans of the Civil War who sit outside and “chew the fat” with one another so frequently they usually know what the others are going to say before it’s spoken:

“Well, here we be ‘most into June, an’ I ain’t got a bush bean aboveground,” lamented Henry Merrill.

“Your land’s always late, ain’t it? But you always catch up with the rest on us,” Asa Brown consoled him. “I’ve often observed that your land, though early planted, is late to sprout. I view it there’s a good week’s difference betwixt me an’ Stover an’ your folks, but come 1st o’ July we all even up.”

“‘Tis just so,” said John Stover, taking his pipe out of his mouth, as if he had a good deal more to say, and then replacing it, as if he had changed his mind.

“Made it extry hard having that long wet spell. Can’t none on us take no day off this season,” said Asa Brown; but nobody thought it worth his while to respond to such evident truth.

“Next Saturday’ll be the 30th o’ May — that’s Decoration day, ain’t it? — come round again. Lord! how the years slip by after you git to be forty-five an’ along there!” said Asa again. “I s’pose some o’ our folks’ll go over to Alton to see the procession, same’s usual. I’ve got to git one o’ them small flags to stick on our Joel’s grave, an’ Mis’ Dexter always counts on havin’ some for Harrison’s lot. I calculate to get ’em somehow. I must make time to ride over, but I don’t know where the time’s comin’ from out o’ next week. I wish the women folks would tend to them things. There’s the spot where Eb Munson an’ John Tighe lays in the poor-farm lot, an’ I did mean certain to buy flags for ’em last year an’ year before, but I went an’ forgot it. I’d like to have folks that rode by notice ’em for once, if they was town paupers. Eb Munson was as darin’ a man as ever stepped out to tuck o’ drum.”

I know stories in any kind of dialect can be annoying to struggle through, but I always find Sarah Orne Jewett’s well worth the effort. She also is brilliant in her descriptions of the domestic details and attitudes of small town New England and, like Maud Hart Lovelace, I find her stories frequently touch the heart. So many now are available free online or on Kindle, I’m delighted to be discovering books of hers that were previously unknown to me.

2 thoughts on “Seasonal Reading: Decoration Day

  1. I adore the cover for Emily of Deep Valley – so gorgeous! I haven’t read any of Maud Hard Lovelace’s books (and what a wonderful name!), although I’ve seen a few reviews for her books online and they are on my to read list.

    • Isn’t it beautiful? My daughter’s childhood copy is in storage, and I’ve always been happy we managed to find that one. All of the Maud Hart Lovelace’s are so charming – hope you enjoy them too!

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