31 March 2018

Around the Seasons With the Clarks

Between 1947 and 1956, Vermonter Frances Frost wrote four "Windy Foot" books about a (presumably) Vermont farm family that saw them around the year, starting at the late summer/early fall county fair, continuing at Christmas and in the spring, and ending on Independence Day. They are not only fun to read, but give a picture of a bygone era: a family-run farm rather than a giant agrobusiness; living with only electricity and a telephone and a radio, with food cooked on a woodstove and winter heat provided by the stoves and a fireplace; one vehicle only, otherwise the family uses horses for transportation; lots of hard work but lots of fun times, too: community dances and carol sings, fairs, parties with dancing and games, sleigh rides, skiing, hikes in the woods, stargazing, fishing.

Modern-day children reading the books will also be surprised and perhaps aghast at the freedoms allowed in those days. Lead character Toby is twelve and can be entrusted with driving his little sister back and forth to school many miles each day as well as taking care of the titular pony, Windy Foot. He chops wood and helps his father milk cows, can be trusted to stay home and guard the animals with a small rifle when a bear prowls around, can properly tap maple trees and is learning to boil sap to make maple syrup. Even more amazing, he and his nine-year-old sister are allowed to snowshoe and hike in the woods alone, no one worries when they drive into town and back that they might be assaulted or the buggy might turn over. Toby is allowed to defend himself in a fight with a bully and his mother doesn't panic and immediately rush him to a hospital; neither does six-year-old Johnny get rushed to the doctor when he falls off the banister while sliding down the stair rails and gets a bump on his head.

I read the first two of these books in elementary school and found the third some years later. I didn't even know the fourth existed until I saw it on the internet and hunted down a copy. A city kid, I lived vicariously through Toby and his friend Tish: horseback riding! gathering Christmas greens in the woods! carol singing around a big community tree! maple sugar parties! I was less enamored by the youngest Clark sibling, little Johnny who makes up rhymes when he's happy; sometimes I just wished he'd shut up, just like a real older sister.

While all the books describe some seasonal happiness—and the occasional seasonal drawback, like a broken leg from skiing—the most exciting and the saddest of the books, Maple Sugar for Windy Foot, takes place in the spring, from before St. Patrick's Day to Easter Sunday. It opens with busy times on the farm: the first sugar snow has fallen! Those unfamiliar with maple syrup production may not know this process happens in the early spring when the days start to get warm, but snow is still on the ground and nights are cold. The sap in the maple trees begins to run before the trees bud (once the tree buds the process is stopped so the tree may grow) and it is then when sugaring off begins.

Today the process has been simplified: clear plastic tubing runs from each of the "tapped" maple trees to a vat where the sap is collected; when enough sap is collected it is run through pipes to a facility that does so. There is less skimming and cleaning of the sap needed because it goes directly from tree to vat.

Maple Sugar For Windy Foot illustrates the old-fashioned way of sugaring off, when for several weeks in March the family with the "sugarbush" had little sleep. Everyone pitched in to tap the trees (you tried not to tap the same trees every year, to give a chance for the tapped trees to heal), hang tin buckets (early in the century the buckets would have been wooden) under the tap, and check the buckets several times a day, using an old-fashioned yoke and a team of horses pulling a small sledge (better for traveling in the woods than a vehicle) to transport the sap to a log sugarhouse near the maple grove. Twenty-four hours a day, the sap would be boiled at a very specific temperature so that the water evaporated and the sweet maple syrup remained. The person boiling the sap had to know his business. The sap had to be skimmed and then strained multiple times before it was fit for human consumption.

When "sugaring off" was over, then it was time to play. In the book, Toby and sister Betsy invite classmates and their schoolteachers over for a sugaring off party, where the kids poured hot maple syrup on snow to make delicious toffee-like candy, and also ate doughnuts and sour pickles to offset the sweet. (You will probably read these books amazed at all the food Toby eats; he already has a stereotypical teenage appetite. All the kids seem to eat a ton, and then they go outside and exercise it off. Overweight people are rare in this era's farm country!) After eating they play games and dance.

This happy opening gives no clue to what will happen once sugaring season is over and the snow begins to melt. Runoff and days of rain bring the river that passes through the Clark property to higher and higher levels. At first it only overflows its banks and wets a bit of the farm property. But it keeps raining...and raining. The fields are covered and now the water begins to creep up to the house, and the barn. The whole family works together to save their animals and themselves...but there may be no way to save their property.

When the crisis comes, both Toby and Windy Foot do their part in averting a total family disaster as well as helping their neighbors. Unlike the other books, which have minor crises as part of the plot (an exciting rescue after a skiing accident, a family member's injury, an attempt at sabotage in a sporting event, a lesson for Toby), this episode in the lives of the Clarks will touch your heart and make you cry. For a spring story with a difference, this one can't be beat.

Sugaring Off

25 March 2018

Rudolph Day, March 2018

"Rudolph Day" is a way of keeping the Christmas spirit alive all year long. You can read a Christmas book, work on a Christmas craft project, listen to Christmas music or watch a Christmas movie.

I'm still in "read a book for Rudolph Day" mode, but got a little delayed by James' hospital stay, which started out in a frighteningly abrupt manner that brought him to the ICU and ended up somberly twelve days later, with new protocols and routines for both of us. However, since it was Women's History Month, I decided to read something on that subject, and came across this little volume, which I had read before, but apparently had never mentioned in this blog.

"May Your Days Be Merry and Bright": Christmas Stories by Women, edited by Susan Koppelman
There is a genre of literature called "occasional stories," which, many years ago, were written for magazines, whether for sensationalized pulps such as "Black Mask" or "The Shadow" or for staid newsstand favorites like "Redbook" and "The Saturday Evening Post." Many of these "occasionals" were written for women's magazines and of this subsection there was a smaller genre of Christmas stories that usually revolved around home or family. You've probably read many of these if you are an aficionado of Christmas literature.

These are, in general, more obscure tales from noted writers like Edna Ferber and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, bookended by the Christmas chapters from Little Women and the story "Christmas for Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo," who are the "little women" one hundred years later, three daughters of a traditional Gullah weaver who was widowed in wartime. In between are such treats as "Old Mother Goose," about a despised woman from the wrong side of the tracks who longs to see the famous singer Thamr√®—who is keeping a secret of her own), the enjoyable "Mrs. Parkins's Christmas Eve" (a bit of a cross between "A Christmas Carol" and the Christmas tale "The Water Bus") in which a parsimonious woman has a telling lesson on the day before Christmas, the chilling "The Twelfth Guest" wherein a family accidentally sets an extra place at dinner only to have a lost child show up at the door to fill it, the Damon Runyon-ish "The Nth Commandment" about an exhausted shopgirl supporting a sick husband and a child and the raffish man pursuing her, and Edna Ferber's pointed "No Room at the Inn" which rewrites the Nativity story as a modern-day refugee tale. The rest of the stories are swell, too, especially Fisher's often amusing "As Ye Sow" about a woman who discovers her little boys are tone deaf.

A great collection of Christmas gems, but without the mawkish sentiments that often accompany Christmas stories.