Now for a classic, and another edition of “I Can’t Believe I Didn’t Read This As A Kid!” It’s even a Newbery Medal winner! Again: I was maybe too busy rereading every book in the extended Baby-sitter’s Club universe rather than reading books that would improve my moral fiber or whatever.
A Gathering Of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-32, Joan W. Blos, 1979.
Now, I didn’t have this exact edition, but I know every elementary-school library had a copy with a pattern of leaves around the edges. For some reason my passion for historical fiction and diary-style books never led me to this one in particular. God only knows why. I think for a long time I was possibly confusing it with Catherine, Called Birdy, which was the other diary-style book I never quite managed to crack open. They couldn’t be more different, though, because while Catherine, Called Birdy is irreverent and humorous and wittily charming, A Gathering of Days is much more plodding and frankly, depressing. It’s realistic, which is nice—wonderful verisimilitude is never something to sneeze at—but it feels much more like School Assignment Reading. As usual, here is the question: would I have enjoyed this more as a kid?
Anyway, we also have a Catherine as our protagonist, here, and I wonder if part of the reason I don’t recall reading it as a kid was that I read the first page and watched as the story stalled out before even going anywhere. Books like this are the reason every story I wrote as a kid started out with an exhaustive recounting of the protagonist and their family and their life story. Because that’s how this one starts out—Catherine lives with her father and younger sister Matty in New Hampshire, her best friend Cassie lives on the adjoining farm, and they go to school together with a strict but good teacher. I’m bored already.
It’s fall as we start out, and they’re going to school and preparing for Thanksgiving and the long winter ahead, and Cassie’s aunt has come for a visit when Catherine’s lesson book goes missing—only to reappear the next day with a mysterious message—“PLEEZ MISS TAKE PITTY I AM COLD.” She thinks it has something to do with a mysterious figure she’s seen in the woods and took for a phantom, but Cassie’s brother Asa convinces her it’s to do with the boot print he saw. But who? A runaway slave? An indentured servant fleeing his indenture? Catherine and Cassie take an old quilt and leave it in the woods at the same place she found her lesson book, and Asa reports back that the quilt has disappeared, so they think whoever the mystery person is must have taken it after all.
Winter comes in earnest to New Hampshire, covering them in piles and piles of snow, and their teacher brings Boston newspaper to school during the long months to bring up the question of slavery among the scholars. Because this book was written in the 1970s, it’s very very presentist—no one in the book has even the slightest notion that slavery might be acceptable, and while it does take place in New Hampshire, it leans very heavily on the “how could anyone ever believe in slavery?” for a book set in the 1830s. Even a slightly lighter hand would have helped!
As spring comes lurching slowly towards them, Catherine and her family and friends all go sugaring in March, and then exchange keepsakes when school lets out in April. Catherine and Matty go to stay with Cassie’s family for a week while their father goes to Boston to trade his furs and maple syrup and buy the things they all need. He’s longer than his promised week, and comes home with the earth-shaking news that he’s going to get married! (Can you imagine getting married to someone you’ve known under a week?) Her name is Ann Higham, and she has a son just Catherine’s age, and she’s been widowed many years, and she’s eager to have two daughters. They’re set to marry at the end of May, which Catherine has very mixed feelings about. Mostly negative.
Catherine’s father goes off to Boston to get married, and Catherine notes only on their wedding day “On this day in Boston, they married. I will not call her Mother.” In fairness, her own mother has only been deceased for three or four years, and she remembers her very well, while Matty doesn’t remember her at all. When Catherine’s new stepmother and stepbrother come home, she’s surprised to see that they’re much different from how she expected—the new Mrs. Hall is small and plain, and Daniel is tall and plain. Things are very awkward at first—up until now her stepmother has been working in her brother’s store in Boston, and has never been a farm wife before. Catherine is very critical of her for this, even unjustly so, while her stepmother adjusts to all the different things that need to be done there.
Catherine and Matty and Cassie all go to summer school, but Daniel and Cassie’s brothers stay home to work on the farms all summer. When they come home one day, they find that the traveling weaver has come to make a coverlet, and while discussing all the bedding Matty spills Catherine’s secret about the quilt she stole and gave to the mysterious person. Mrs. Hall is surprised to hear this, but mostly just worried that Catherine could have gotten herself into danger, and she and Mr. Hall decide that Catherine will sew them a replacement quilt as punishment.
Poor Catherine is very torn—her new stepmother is a very stern taskmistress and very demanding, but at the same time she takes Catherine’s side in family disputes. But she’s a little discomfited to see Matty taking to their new stepmother very quickly—well, Matty doesn’t really remember their real mother, after all. As a compromise, Daniel comes up with a name they can call her—“Mammann,” combining both Mamma and Ann, and Catherine addresses her as such—addressing her directly for the first time, actually.
The summer continues on hotter and hotter, and after they go berry-picking Cassie is struck with a summer fever. While initially it isn’t very serious, she suddenly takes a turn for the worse, then recovers, and then dies very suddenly during the night. Catherine is, obviously, devastated—to go from picking berries with her best friend one week to burying her the next week would be horrible for anyone, let alone a 14-year-old. Catherine is struck by how much she misses Mammann—who spends a lot of time over at the Shipmans’ house helping them through the worst of their grief—and also by how much Daniel is affected, since he had become very fond of Cassie too.
As September comes, Catherine gradually grows more accustomed to her hurt, and at the end of the month she receives a small packet in the mail—two pieces of crocheted lace and a note that reads “Sisters Bless You. Free Now. Curtis. In Canada.” So it was an escaping slave! But then she realizes that the two pieces of lace were meant for her and Cassie, and then she’s depressed again. Catherine begins the winter school term again, lonelier now, and is disappointed to find their new teacher more or less worthless. So Mammann decides that her daughters (!!!) will not be attending school taught by this clown, and she will teach them at home instead. Changes everywhere.
During the summer, Cassie’s aunt Lucy had married their former teacher and both of them had moved down to Exeter. And just before Christmas, Catherine gets a letter from them—Lucy is due to have their first child early in the spring and wants Catherine to come to stay and help with the baby. Her father and Mammann agreeing, they arrange to send Catherine off in March after the weather breaks. At the end of the book, Catherine thinks on how different things will be from when she started her journal, and how different they will be again in the future.
Rating: B. Hmm. Hmmmmmm. Well, there’s a lot to recommend this book—it’s just stuffed with detail about Catherine’s everyday life, their home and schooling and food and clothes and everything. As I said, the verisimilitude is fantastic. It’s very well-written, and the whole arc of Catherine growing to understand her stepmother more and losing her best friend is very, very well done. What’s keeping it from a full-on A rating? To be frank, it’s a little boring. It was a little bit of a slog to get through it, which is not something I like to admit in the books I review! It’s not necessarily a bad thing—not every book has to be a rollicking adventure of a page-turner, some are better served by being a little slower and more reflective, and this is definitely one of the latter. So while I won’t necessarily say it’s a bad thing, it didn’t particularly help my enjoyment of it. This is one of those books I think I would probably make available, but I don’t know if I’d press it on a kid in my acquaintance. Is that a stellar review? No. But it’s not a bad one.