The topic of "comfort reading" comes up often in book discussions. Ever since the presidential election in November, I have drawn comfort from the books of Dorothy Canfield Fisher. On election night itself, sick in body with what turned out to be a sinus infection, but also sick in heart and soul at the results, I had the strongest urge to read something of hers. I chose Hillsboro People, published in 1915. It is a collection of stories set around the town of the title, which perhaps stands for her own hometown of Arlington, Vermont. As Inauguration Day approached this week, I felt the same urge toward her books. This time I chose The Real Motive, another short story collection, published in 1916.
I've been trying to figure out what it is in her books that calls me so strongly right now. I think it is in part the balance, the humanity, the compassion that I find in her writing. Her characters are not all paragons. They can be weak and fragile, they can make bad choices and do harmful things. She shows us these things, but she wants us to understand the people who do them. And they can grow, learn, change their minds, sometimes. There is a basic human decency, a strength of character, an unshowy goodness in so many of them. Maybe it's also how clearly Canfield Fisher's stories express her values, her beliefs. She is not the most subtle of writers, and I know that some people find her overly didactic, too much the preacher. I don't. I feel like her fiction reflects the writer, the person that I came to know through reading an excellent collection of her letters a couple of years ago.
The stories in The Real Motive are an interesting mix, with some familiar elements. There are a couple set again in Hillsboro, but others in New York and Paris. Two of them take place around small colleges in the Midwest. DCF grew up in a small college town in Kansas, where her father taught at the state university. Perhaps that's where she developed her intolerance of the pretensions, the pettiness sometimes found in academic life. (I was a "faculty brat" myself, growing up in similar small college towns.) "From Across the Hall" is a sweet story of two parents watching their daughter fall in love, with very mixed feelings. "Vignettes from a Life of Two Months," about a new mother and her infant son, discusses breast-feeding with a frankness that I found surprising for 1916. Three of the stories involve immigrants, considering their motives in coming to America, their struggles here and the prejudices they face. I braced myself when one story introduced a "big, black-browed Semite, with the big diamond in his scarf and the big plaids on his protuberant waistcoat." But if his appearance had something of the stereotype, his character and the story didn't. I did cringe when the sole African American character to appear in the stories - a maid, traveling with her employer in France - spoke some of the worst "Gone with the Wind" style dialect ever written.
I realized only after finishing the book that while it was published in 1916, there is no hint of the Great War in it. At the time she was writing these stories, she and her husband John were planning to take their two children to France to work for the war effort.
I have collected and read most of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's novels. I still have her last, Seasoned Timber, on the TBR shelves. I also have A Harvest of Stories, chosen by DCF for this collection published shortly before her death in 1958. I even gave in to temptation and bought a copy of her Memories of Arlington, Vermont, because I wanted to know more about the real "Hillsboro." I think she is an author I will be re-reading for years to come.