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‘The Field House: A Writer’s Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine’

May 11, 2021
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Fame can be fleeting. No matter how talented a person, no matter how renowned in their time, oftentimes it comes down to mere chance whether an artist is forever feted or ultimately forgotten.

For the author Rachel Field, the latter was true. Field, best known for her Newbery Award-winning book “Hitty, Her First Hundred Years,” was also a winner of the National Book Award among other accolades. For years, she spent her summers in a house on Sutton Island, a small private island off the southern coast of Mount Desert Island. She was incredibly prolific and generally beloved by both critics and readers.

And I had never heard of her.

Thanks to author Robin Clifford Wood, however, I have been relieved of my ignorance. Wood’s new book is “The Field House: A Writer’s Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine” (She Writes Press, $16.95), which tells the story of this notable woman of letters who produced celebrated work right up until her untimely passing at the age of just 47.

But this isn’t your typical literary biography. While Wood undeniably digs deep with her research into the life and work of Rachel Field, the book’s strength lies in the author’s connection with the subject matter. Her fascination with Field plays out in many ways throughout the book, binding together Wood’s own story with that of the once celebrated and now obscure writer.

Rachel Field was born in the waning days of the 19th century in the Massachusetts town of Stockbridge. Hers was a family of some note, featuring Congressmen and Supreme Court Justices – New England aristocracy. She attended Radcliffe and published her first work at the age of just 16.

It was in those teenage years that Field first fell in love with Maine – specifically, the islands just off the coast. She spent summers there for years before mustering up the capital – economic and emotional – to purchase her own place on Sutton Island, a house she named “The Playhouse.” Her early adulthood was split between New York City and her island refuge; she would make the leap to Hollywood later in life with her husband and child.

She would become a celebrated author. Her early successes came as a playwright, but she would win accolades for her fiction, winning the aforementioned Newbery Award as well as an inaugural National Book Award for her 1935 novel “Time Out of Mind,” and she wrote poetry her entire life.

Field fell out of the popular consciousness long ago, but there were those who would remain devoted to and inspired by her work. And when Robin Clifford Wood wound up in that same island house so loved by Field, she was inspired to find out more about who this woman was.

Wood’s journey is the foundational piece of “The Field House” – the fieldstone, if you will, that bears the weight of Rachel Field’s story. She shares that connection with her readers, introducing each chapter with a letter she has written to Field. It’s a thoughtful and effective way in which Wood interweaves her own journey with that of her subject.

And it is quite a trip. Through exhaustive research, Wood is able to paint an increasingly detailed portrait of Field – by combing through her correspondence, Wood is able to develop a sense of the woman beyond the (not inconsiderable) amount that is revealed in her published work. Her personal relationships, her triumphs and misfires – it’s all here. And shot through it all is Field’s boundless love for her island haven.

“The Field House” is a biography first and foremost. The thoroughness of the research directly correlates to the quality of the life’s story being related. In that sense, Wood certainly succeeds – despite the relative dearth of available material, Wood manages to develop Field’s tale with a wonderful degree of depth.

But all biographies are refracted through the prism of the person writing them. Rather than battle against her own feelings of connection, Wood embraces the subjectivity, folding her own story around the edges of Field’s. We’ve seen hybrid memoir/biography before, but Wood’s epistolary tactic – introducing the reader to her connection via the letters she writes to her subject – is something different. And it works beautifully.

Fame is fleeting. Today’s superstar can easily become tomorrow’s shadow. But there is still reason to remember those who have been largely relegated to the dusty archives of the past. Thanks to the throughline of a still-standing island house and a literary synergy, Robin Clifford Wood has brought Rachel Field back to the forefront. “The Field House” is a thoughtful and tender exploration of a great talent gone too soon and unremembered too long.

Before I read this book, I had never known Rachel Field. And now? I’ll never forget her.

Last modified on Tuesday, 11 May 2021 09:41

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