The Healing Woods by Martha Reben ~ 1952. This edition: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1952. Decorations by Fred Collins. Hardcover. 250 pages.
My rating: 7.5/10
From my late mother’s bookshelf, a likeable, low-key memoir. Now shelved with Betty MacDonald and Rachel Peden, as it is of similar vintage and appeal, though more sober in tone than MacDonald’s humorous narratives, and more limited in scope than Peden’s musings on mankind and nature.
No respecter of social or economic status, in 1931 tuberculosis was still very much a deadly disease, treated by strict bed rest in isolation wards, and in severe cases gruesome-sounding surgeries, including removal of ribs in aid of collapsing the lungs in order for them to “rest” and heal. (Unlikely as this sounds, it did frequently work. But not always.)
Martha Reben’s mother had died of TB when her daughter was six years old, and some years later Martha was diagnosed with the dread disease herself. The prognosis wasn’t good. After three years of bed rest and a number of unsuccessful operations, Martha in a last-hope move decided to try something a bit different in order to save her own life.
From her bed in the TB sanatorium at Saranac Lake, New York, Martha made contact with a local boat builder and fishing guide. Fred Rice, having spent many years observing the TB patients as they passed through the community, had an idea of his own as to whether rest or gentle exercise were the best way to cope with the disease. He felt that inactivity might not in all cases be the best treatment, and in 1931 placed an ad in the local newspaper:
“Wanted — To get in touch with some invalid who is not improving, and who wants to go into the woods for the summer. — Fred Rice.”
Fred was shocked when M. Rebenstisch (her publisher later shortened her surname to Reben) turned out to be a young lady, and at first refused to take her on, but she eventually talked him round. Against all doctors’ advice, and with his wife’s permission and her father’s reluctant blessing, Fred Rice loaded frail Martha into his canoe, propping her up with pillows and enveloping her in blankets, and the two set off for a campsite eleven miles away.
Here Martha was established in a tent as her good-natured caretaker went about his daily chores. Soon Martha was venturing a little farther into the woods on each of her gentle walks. She started to sit up in the canoe for short excursions, and then to wield a paddle. Tired of Fred’s uninspired cooking, Martha began to take on kitchen duties. The combination of fresh air day and night, abundant rest interspersed with enough chores to keep things from getting dull, and the companionship of cheerful Fred and a multitude of woodland creatures worked its magic. By snowfall that year, when the lake was icing over and it was time to break camp, Martha was well on her way to being cured of her TB, though she was still unable to partake in more strenuous activities.
With modest financial help from her family and the occasional assistance of the Saranac Lake villagers with such jobs as firewood chopping, Martha moved into a small cabin for the winter. When spring came, she and Fred again headed out to their camp, where this time round Martha was able to manage for herself much of the time while Fred went off on guiding jobs. The pattern of three seasons sharing a home base camp and winter in town was to continue for many years.
The platonic relationship between Fred and Martha was to last until the end of their lives. The two enjoyed their mutually beneficial coexistence out in the woods, sharing a deep love of the nature and of “bushcraft”, and of reading and spirited conversation. Fred’s wife Kate also became firm friends with Martha, helping her with winter household chores and cooking for her on Martha’s bad days.
Searching for a way of generating some income while still living in the country – a return to bustling New York City holding no appeal – Martha decided to more seriously pursue the craft of writing. She wrote newspaper articles and re-worked her journals from those first years in the bush with Fred into her first memoir, The Healing Woods. It was received by the public with warmth and became a modest bestseller, an unusual “ends well” story which was inspiring and positive.
Though Martha eventually was officially “healed” of her TB, her constitution was always fragile. She died at the age of 58 in 1964, and Fred at the age of 90 in 1966.
I quite like this book, though I can’t in all honesty call it a true “hidden gem” – it’s a minor sort of work, though very good for what it is. Its author writes with evident appreciation about her life in the woods, and with acerbic affection about her human companion.
The Healing Woods is the slightest bit uneven in the early chapters, but the writer soon settles into her stride. The resulting memoir is a no-nonsense, no-self-pity evocation of one woman’s healing journey, soon expanded to become an eloquently realistic ode to the natural world.
I wonder what Martha Reben’s life was like after that turning-point season in the woods? Two subsequent memoirs are now on my watch-for list, The Way of the Wilderness, and A Sharing of Joy.