My rating: Oh, what the heck. It was unexpected, but I mostly loved this one. 9.5/10.
A novel being the story of a village beyond the boundaries of time, no exact location, where people who are kinder and happier than we can be, and whose lives are linked to the rhythm of the seasons…
In the nebulously located village of Greenwillow, the Reverend Lapp preaches hellfire, damnation and the eternal loss of the souls of babies who die before being baptised, and though they stick a bit on that last concept, by and large his congregation puts up with him reasonably cheerfully. And when a certain Reverend Birdsong shows up, sent, so he says, “by the Bishop”, and accompanied by an upside-down umbrella full of hawthorn blossoms, the two preachers compromise by sharing the church, though they cannot bring themselves to share doctrine.
Reverend Lapp sees the Devil everywhere and is an authority on his pervasive influence; Reverend Birdsong is a bit vague on such details, preferring instead to concentrate on the God-given wonders of nature, and by extending encouraging approval to young lovers, kittens and the cultivation and appreciation of flowers.
Both Reverends take an interest in the family of Amos Briggs, famously of a wandering nature, who appears every year or so for a few days, just long enough to give a start to the next addition to the ever-increasing family of young Briggs who scrabble about on their poor but promising farm. The eldest Briggs child, Gideon, lives under the cloud of the family curse: that the first son of the first son will at some point in his young life hear the mysterious “call” and will drop everything and head off into the unknown, abandoning family, friends and livelihood to roam the wide world over –
…hoeing man laid down his hoe, digging man laid down his spade, reaping man laid down his scythe…
Gideon is working frantically to have the farm in a viable condition to leave in the care of his younger siblings when his call comes. He’s also determined to break the family curse once and for all, for though he’s resigned himself to his own fate, he is firmly determined not to marry. He’ll not to leave behind a wife as his own dear mother has been left, though she is gently complaisant with her fate, never losing her original love for her wayward spouse and welcoming him with eager arms for the few days he reappears every year or two. Most of all, Gideon is determined not to have any children of his own.
Which complicates things exceedingly when Gideon meets the eyes of a sterling-natured village maid, one Dorrie – an accomplished cook from a tender age, lover of the afore-mentioned kittens, and of children, in particular the Briggs young ones, which aids in moving the mutual attraction up a notch or two. ) Dorrie is more than ready for a home of her own, and when the two admit their love to one another, we are almost convinced that Gideon will break his personal vow not to ever wed.
Lapp preaches thunder and damnation to Gideon, warning him against heeding the call of the Devil; Birdsong cocks his head sideways and doesn’t say much but exudes encouragement; neither appears to have any influence on Gideon, to sway him from his stubborn (and rather tiresome) insistence that his fate is sealed.
But we have an inkling that it will all come round right in the long run, and it does, though not without a lot of side plots and interferences by all and sundry of the (mostly) well-intentioned villagers and rural folk.
Did I say “charming” yet? Well, it is. And deeply so. A book I had no previous knowledge of, and which surprised me by its likeable fairy tale atmosphere, and by its assortment of stock rural characters – both human and animal – all with unexpectedly diverting quirks.
This B.J. Chute is rather an amusingly lyrical writer, I concluded well before the happy end of Greenwillow. And this is what I discovered about her. For it turned out to be a her, not a him, as I had somehow assumed. And it also turned out also that I was already acquainted with one of the family, as it were, for B.J.’s sister turns out to be Marchette Chute, historical biographer and children’s author and poet. Who knew?!
From the dust jacket of the first edition of Greenwillow, found pictured online. (My copy is sadly missing its jacket.)
B.J. Chute was born of an American father and an English mother, and she spent most of her life at a country home in Minnesota named “Hazelwood.” There she and her two sisters became familiar with animals and birds and trees., and in their spare time they all made a hobby of writing. In the end all three became professional writers, for one sister, M.G. Chute, is well known for her Saturday Evening Post stories, and the other, Marchette, for her biographies of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
B.J. Chute, who is Joy to her family and friends, has written many short stories for major magazines, and this is her third novel. She wrote Greenwillow in a style that would not tie it down to any country or any period, but it was because she was brought up with woods and fields and country people that she knows them so intimately and can write about them so well. Her delight in people is just as evident now that she lives in New York, and in her spare time she does volunteer work with the Police Athletic League and in a shelter in Harlem for temporarily homeless babies.
And from her obituary in the New York Times, September 15, 1987:
Beatrice Joy Chute, a novelist and short-story writer who was also a past president of the PEN American Center and taught for many years at Barnard College, died of a heart attack Sept. 6 at Bellevue Hospital Center. She was 74 years old and lived in Manhattan.
Miss Chute, who was born in Minneapolis in 1913, published her first story in 1931. She wrote many stories for and about adolescent boys for Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines during the 1930’s, and her first book, ”Blocking Back,” was published in 1938. Many of her early works, such as ”Shattuck Cadet” (1940) and ”Camp Hero” (1942), were realistic tales of sports and camp life that captured the relationships and slang of her primarily male teen-age heroes.
Although she continued to write short stories for children and adolescents in the 1940’s, Miss Chute began to concentrate on adult fiction with ”The Fields Are White,” a 1950 book about marriage and manners.
discovery. It was made into a Broadway musical in 1960. Subsequent works included a 1957 anthology called ”The Blue Cup and Other Stories,” ”The Story of a Small Life” (1971) and ”Katie: An Impertinent Fairy Tale” (1978). Her most recent novel, ”The Good Woman” (1986), was a parable about a lonely woman who abandons her home for a journey of spiritual awakening while living on the streets.
Miss Chute – who preferred to be called Joy and signed her books B. J. Chute – moved to New York in the early 1940’s with her mother and two sisters. Over the years, she did volunteer work with poor children and the Police Athletic League. She became an adjunct professor of English at Barnard College in 1964, and taught creative writing there until her death.
She was also director of Books Across the Sea, a division of the English-Speaking Union that promoted American books overseas, and was an active member and one-time president of the American chapter of PEN, the writer’s association.
Provenance, my edition: Rotary Club Book Sale, Williams Lake, B.C., February 2014. Inscription: “Irene Ringland”. First edition, no dust jacket.