If you’ve never heard of the early 20th century author Rachel Field, kindly know that Robin Clifford Wood has just published a richly researched, hybrid-structured biography/memoir of the extraordinary woman who became a Newbery winner, novelist, playwright, and Hollywood movie script writer in the early 1900s. Field was born into a socially prominent and accomplished New England family in the late 19th century. Yet so little has been written of the highly personable woman and her work and life that, though an avid reader all my life, I’ve only just discovered her in this account of Field’s brief life of just under fifty years.
In 2008, fourteen years after the author and her husband purchased the long-abandoned Field house, Wood began to “get serious” about knowing Field more deeply, aside from the numerous, meaningful artifacts left behind when Field moved to California. Wood commenced to research in earnest, reading Field’s childhood journals, college letters, and stories of her young womanhood. She also unearthed mysteries in Field’s life and built them into the story.
The Field House: A Writer’s Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine is a charming account of Field’s idyllic childhood on Sutton Island, where she connected so deeply with the place that it woke and nurtured her tender young psyche. In an early poem, Field writes:
Oh, you won’t know why, and you can’t say how
Such change upon you came,
But–once you have slept on an island
You’ll never be the same.
Wood framed this deeply moving story in a hybrid fashion of biography/memoir. As she completed each chapter about Field’s life, the author penned letters to Field detailing accounts of her own life during the same time period. These alternating chapters are a lovely structure within which we learn of early common threads between Wood and Field.
Both women, for example, wanted to be writers in their early lives, although they traveled much different journeys to meet that calling. As Wood and Field matured into young women, their two different worlds began to connect in small ways. “I found your Island poem (written on Sutton Island) tacked on to a wall in my great-aunt’s cabin on a small island in Big Wolf Lake (in the Adirondacks),” Wood tells Field in an early letter. Another time Wood’s mother found a copy of Field’s novel on a shelf at Big Wolf Lake with Wood’s great grandmother’s name written inside. She gave it to Wood for a Christmas gift, knowing how meaningful it would be.
The brief letters that Wood writes after each chapter richly personalize her memoir. Notable for me was the growing respect and affection for Field evidenced in the complimentary closings. The first letter was signed “Sincerely Yours,” but as the chapters increased and their connection grew stronger, the closings revealed a growing friendship.
There are so many beautiful moments in this story that I’ll long remember. Perhaps the one that shines most brightly is the deeply personal letter Wood writes to “Rachel” as she pens the final chapter and signs it as one would to a best friend.
I suspect this extraordinary book will be one of the best you read this year. It will surely be one of mine.