Due to her mother’s untimely death during child-birth, Catherine has been the mother and homemaker in her father’s house for the last four years. Her typical duties include going to school, mending her family’s clothes, and tending to her younger sister, Matty. Catherine loves to spend time chatting with her friends and laughing over her Uncle Jack’s stories; her life is demanding but rewarding.
But the simplicity of her life is jolted one day when her missing writing book is returned to her with this plea scrawled across it: “PLEEZ MISS TAKE PITTY I AM COLD.” The note is from an escaped slave. Catherine is forced to struggle through the moral issue that is raised before her so abruptly: Is it right to aid a man in his unlawful escape from his master? If so, is it permissible to lie while giving that aid?
The market of children’s literature teems with diaries which purport to be credible records of historical figures. While these books present historical facts, they do not seek to represent the true philosophical climate of the times. They distort history by casting a twenty-first century interpretation on the actions of a different culture.
A Gathering of Days was a refreshing example of a fictional diary that was written accurately and in the true spirit of its time. Joan W. Blos received the John Newbery Medal in 1980 for this work, and I believe that it was well-deserved for two reasons: Ms. Blos successfully imitated the style of nineteenth century writing, and she unabashedly included the Christianity which was prevalent in nineteenth century New England.
My praises for this book consist of two main categories.
1) Discipline and instruction. Throughout the book, Catherine’s father and step-mother provide moral guidance for Catherine. It is clear from her entries, that Catherine holds her father very high in esteem. For example, from her entry on November 7, 1830:
“Father believes, as he’s often said, that man’s intelligence is given to him that he may distinguish right from wrong, and knowing right, may do so. Some think him too severe in this. It is not that, it is honor.”
December 24, 1830:
When I came down to the kitchen this morning I discovered the following, deftly penned by Father: “It requires but little discernment to discover the imperfections of others; but much humility to acknowledge our own.”
Catherine’s father has just finished telling a story under August 18, 1831, when Catherine writes:
Silence followed the story’s end – the part when they are poor again, she having wished too high. In secret did I remember, then, that I myself had oft longed for wealth without the dint of labour. I am glad to have been set right by Father’s gentle instruction, the which I perceived in the tale.
I especially appreciated this bit about obedience. Catherine understands more about its goal than most parents do!
Mammann disciplined Matty today, M. having protested a favour that Mammann had asked. It was Mammann’s contention that, “You must learn to like the doing of that which we like you to do. Glad submission of the will,” she explained, “is the obedience that proves control. I do not mean you merely to comply. Reflect, accept, obey!”
How I used to struggle with Matty, and on this account. Discipline of will, not relinquishment, is the lesson’s desired end. How hard this is for each to learn, and how necessary.
2) Proper resolutions and Understanding. Catherine shows a great deal of maturity both in her actions and in her comprehension. Here are a few of her resolves:
Tuesday, October 19, 1830
This be the precept the teacher set out today:
…… Let thy words be plain and true to the thoughts of thy heart.
These be the thoughts of my heart; that I may remain here for ever and ever: here in this house which my father has built with the labour of his two hands;
That no harm come to those I love: Father and my sister, Matty; Cassie, and the Shipman family; and Father’s brother, our Uncle Jack, who mills when he needs money, and never took a wife;
Also that I may train myself to want to do what I am asked to do.
On October 16, 1831, Catherine writes, “I have determined to read from the Bible; some lines every day.”
Catherine also shows an unusual amount of wisdom.
On March 25, 1831, Catherine included this quote in her entry:
“Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent.” – Dionysius, the Elder
On December 19, 1831, Catherine concludes,
“At the start of this journal I wrote of my wish to stay here for ever and ever; also that I wished to become better and more gladly able to do what I am asked. Today, reflecting on Aunt Lucy’s letter, I know I shall find good consequence in what ever is decided by Father and Mammann. Thus it now appears to me that trust, and not submission, defines obedience.”
Another challenge comes to Catherine in the form of a step-mother. This is not the typical scenario in which the child hates her step-mother and cannot be reconciled to her. Rather, it is the natural struggle of having a stranger installed in the intimacy of a home. There are no dramatic outbursts or moments of fury, only a slow familiarization. I was delighted by the warm relationship which eventually developed between the two.
Crushes are briefly mentioned in several diary entries.
Under March 28, 1831, it is noted that Teacher Holt kissed Cassie’s Aunt Lucy. They eventually marry.
Under August 7, 1831, Catherine’s father tells a rather strange folk-tale. It sounds like a story which would have circulated at this time, but it involves witchcraft and warrants your scrutiny.
Under September 13, 1831, after losing her best friend, Catherine questions how Providence can so cruelly deprive us of loved ones.
Conclusion. A sweet and inspirational read.
Review © 2012 Laura Verret