The Field House: A Writer’s Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine
by Robin Clifford Wood
She Writes Press, 2022
Reviewed by Sarah C. Baldwin
The title of this beautifully rendered biography is accurate, but it is also incomplete. The Field House does recount the life of the once famous, now mostly forgotten 20th-century American author Rachel Field. But it is also the story of the author’s deep resonance with her subject and of her own journey to becoming a writer. Part biography, part memoir, the two threads intertwine gracefully thanks to Wood’s skilled balancing of historical context and sources with her own life and insights.
Born in 1894 to parents of pedigree, Field grew up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in a house that figures in a famous painting by another resident of that picture-perfect town, Norman Rockwell. Though she didn’t read until she was 10, she was a highly imaginative child, romping outdoors, playing with dolls, writing poems, drawing, and putting on plays. In her lifetime she would publish numerous poems, plays, novels, and children’s books, including the wildly popular Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, for which she was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1930, and Time Out of Mind, which received a National Book Award in 1935 and was mentioned by Eleanor Roosevelt in her newspaper column, “My Day.” Her 1938 novel, All This and Heaven, Too, was made into a film starring Bette David and Charles Boyer.
But before all that, in 1922, at age 27, Field bought a rustic house on Sutton Island, one of the five Cranberry Islands off of Maine’s Mount Desert Island. Sutton became her “heart home,” Wood writes, and her and “muse.” The spruce-tipped, roadless island “filled a space in the soul of Rachel Field that no place had entered before…it was also the outer expression of her most natural self.” Sutton becomes a central character in Field’s life and in Wood’s biography: it “fed her spirit in the best of times and it enfolded her during years of discouragement.”
The same can be said of Wood and the Field House, which she and her husband, longtime visitors to Sutton, happened to purchase in 1994. Along with the house, Wood came into possession of many of the writer’s personal belongings, as well as “lingering wisps of [her] creative energy.” Indeed, Wood credits Field with giving her the inspiration and the courage to fulfill her childhood ambition to be a writer. Addressing the house’s former owner, she says, “I think it is your buoyant legacy that stirs the hearts of those who tread its wooden floorboard with the desire to create. I felt that desire instantly, and I feel it still.”
Starting in 2008, Wood researched and wrote The Field House in fits and starts over more than a decade. During that time, a series of seemingly fateful connections and coincidences compelled her to pick up the project again when her motivation flagged: it felt, she says, “a bit uncanny, time and again, how conveniently my research dovetailed with the rest of my life.” More than once, for example, she found herself for family reasons in a city far from home that happened to contain important records of Field’s life. She investigated archives and medical records from Louisiana to California, dove deeply into letters, newspaper and magazine articles, unearthed a recording of Field reciting poetry, even interviewed people who knew the writer when they were young. But it’s in Field’s abundant lifelong correspondence with her closest friends that Wood comes to know the author’s innermost self.
Key to the book’s structure – and its suspense – are the increasingly intimate letters Wood writes to Field and that precede each chapter. In the prologue, she admits, “Something happens during the writing of a biography that feels a lot like falling in love,” and these letters do come to read like love letters of a sort. The changing salutations and valedictions tell us much about the evolution of Wood’s relationship to her subject: “Dear Rachel Field” eventually becomes “My dear Rachel” and, ultimately “Rachel, dearest friend.” Toward the end of the book Wood signs off with “All my heart, Robin.”
At the same time, Wood begins to reveal more and more of her own life, so similar in some ways to Field’s – privileged family, writerly ambitions, childhood feelings of not fitting in. But we learn of poignant asymmetries, too. Field, for example, yearned for children for years while throwing herself into her writing; Wood longed to declare herself a writer but devoted herself instead to mothering four children. In the end, both got what they desired (if briefly, in the case of Field), and Wood proves herself to be every bit as vivid a writer as Field.
Rather than detracting from the book’s “seriousness” as biography, Wood’s unabashed affection for her subject enhances our understanding of this “mature woman full of complexity: self-possessed yet needy, confident yet vulnerable.” Had she omitted her own story, with all its resonances with Field’s life, the work would have been the poorer for it. In fact, so attached had Wood become that she delayed finishing the book because the idea of writing about her subject’s death (the date of which, too, has a heartrending synchronicity with Wood’s life) was too painful; it is a testament to Wood’s prose that when death suddenly comes to Field, at 47, the reader receives the news viscerally.
Given Field’s accomplishments and popularity, it’s hard to believe she is no longer widely read. Wood’s deeply felt portrait of her subject is sure to drive readers to discover (or rediscover) this charming, complicated, and ultimately tragic creative spirit.