‘Neighbors of Yesterday’

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. For me it’s a family occasion, one that’s not diluted by the need to think about what presents everyone might like. Along with eating and celebrating, I use it as a time for reflection. That mood extends to my choices of books to read.

I’d read occasional pieces by Jeanne Robert Foster in the past, but never sat down to study a full book of her work. Neighbors of Yesterday offers portraits of farming and lumbering families the writer remembered from the southern Adirondack region where she grew up.

Foster herself had long ago left. She became a writer, a model, and an adviser to and confidant of luminaries in the world of arts and letters. Leaving the Adirondacks, though, did not mean the Adirondacks left her.

Many poems are poignant. Death in infancy is common enough to appear several times. A woman dies of cancer because she’s ashamed to expose her breast to a physician’s exam. A hunchback overcomes his physical disabilities to become a respected member of his community. Consider this description of a ramshackle home:

‘Twas like to fall

With a good sharp gust of wind, and yet it stood

So many years that now as I look back

I feel the old house was not built with hands,

That it had grown like fungus of the woods

Out of some living sort cast there by chance.

The poet addresses issues of small town life: concerns that a preacher’s wife doesn’t believe in God; families of means so limited that it’s seen as a blessing when the county poormaster takes the children for the winter; a “good-for-nothing” trying to change his life around after serving as pallbearer at a neighbor’s funeral; the reputation of a “bad woman” whom young people are advised not to visit.

Sudden tragedy can hit any time. One story tells about a jovial logger who freezes to death when he gets lost walking across Newcomb Lake on his way home. Another describes the struggles of a man whose wife died in childbirth with their stillborn baby, leading him to become an itinerant knitter preaching the works of God.

And there are themes one can find anywhere- the desire for life to be better for one’s children, the simple pleasures of reading in the sitting room, and the challenges of getting past a spouse’s death. Nostalgia takes hold with memories of heritage apples, rag rugs made not as crafts but as necessities, and a paint color known locally as York Brown, made from pigments mined nearby. One narrator fondly remembers the old general store:

The store’s so spick-span now

A man don’t dare to sit there any more

And talk.

The final section of the book focuses on lumbering. Men cut trees in the winter, moved them onto ponds and streams in spring, then dealt with treacherous logging runs on the swollen rivers. Much sounds romantic in retrospect. But it was a dangerous way to make a living and cost many lives during its heyday.

This book was originally published in 1916 ( I read a 2002 reprint) yet still feels fresh. Foster commemorated people who lived hardscrabble existences, who struggled to make it through each day, who lacked sophistication and awareness of the outside world but nonetheless did their best. She respected their individuality, and showed their universality. Her subjects are treated with respect and dignity. Inclusion in one of her poems wouldn’t be a bad memorial for any of us.

One need not be able to define iambic pentameter to find Foster’s work engaging and heartfelt:

The country’s changing fast; I wonder why

The State plans “conservation” all the time,

And yet forgets the most important thing:

To just conserve the old America

We knew. It’s slipping – slipping every day,

And we won’t long remember what we’ve been.

Try reading a few by the fireplace during the holiday season.

This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.