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a gathering of days

25 may 2016

Joan W. Blos, now in her late 80s, has worked deliberately over the years on some books for younger children in prose and verse, and on a handful of epistolary novels and fictional diaries that attempt to capture a specific historical period. A Gathering of Days is the best known, because it won the 1980 Newbery Medal. It's still in print, of course, but has never reached classic status; it's a pared-down, patient evocation of New England farm life in the early 1830s, and it lacks a sensational narrative hook or wacky characters. But it's a considerable achievement that could teach novelists for adults a thing or two about depiction of bygone language and customs.

A Gathering of Days is not really a plot-driven novel. Catherine Hall's fictional diary covers a year and a half of her life, fall 1830 through spring 1832. Permanent, unforgettable things happen; but as the title suggests, the passage of time itself, whether momentous or mundane, is the real protagonist.

Catherine writes about what happens to her in a traditional rural community, rather like a later (but historically earlier) fictional diarist named Catherine. But Catherine Hall's world, to a much greater extent than Birdy's, allows windows into great historical changes. I remembered Gathering as being about fugitive slaves and abolitionism. It includes those themes, but only obliquely. Still, the microcosm of Catherine's New Hampshire farm community can't help but respond to the winds of change.

1830-32 seems deliberately chosen so as not to be a sensational set of dates. It isn't 1776 or 1860, and nobody even near-famous visits our narrator. Instead, the main events are the school year, the planting and the harvest, the death of a best friend, and the sudden marriage of Catherine's father. Death can come at any time, and Catherine's sorrow and recovery from her friend's departure marks her as very much of the early 19th century. Her dad's remarriage, as well, is neither expected nor unexpected. The widowed father is seen as eligible, but has nobody local in mind, and a market trip to Boston suddenly provides him with material. Catherine's new stepmother is not keenly drawn; she's no Sarah. But she'll do. And she doesn't need to do for very long; Catherine is old enough to be embarking herself, soon. Again, Blos avoids sensation and sentimentality in favor of prose.

I don't usually like books without plots, whether they're for adults or kids, but I've read A Gathering of Days twice now and admired it both times – I think because what Catherine lacks in terms of desire and drama, she makes up for in energy and linguistic alertness. I may never get to this book again, but am glad I did as I try to back and fill my checklist with Newbery winners I haven't yet written about.

Blos, Joan W. A Gathering of Days. 1979. New York: Aladdin [Simon & Schuster], 1990. PZ 7 .B6237Gat