Ethan Frome Is Starkfield


Editor’s Notes:

At the end of June Brett sat down to write his final essay for his High School Junior AP English course. I was hanging around like an old cat whose role was to occasionally jump up on the desk and sit in the middle of the keyboard where I offered up equal parts distraction and mild annoyance.

My role as mentor during the writing of his third essay was rather limited because Brett was rather unlimited. The fact of the matter is I didn’t have to do much mentoring at all which I think is the best mentoring one can give. Or maybe he had me around because he secretly liked having me around to offer up equal parts distraction and mild annoyance.

I held off on publishing this essay because I wanted to honor his growth as a writer over the last year by having this essay become the 150th item published on Una Voce Sola.


By Brett Johnson

Edith Wharton is widely regarded as a prominent writer of social satire in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Often recognized by her strong themes of social imprisonment and ironic representations of Victorian social conventions, such as restrictive marriage, women’s etiquette, and education are representative of her life struggles as a woman in the Nineteenth Century. Her views craft the story of Ethan Frome in a way that shows how the character, Ethan Frome, experiences his own social confinement through his failed marriage and his extramarital affair.

This thematic approach in Ethan Frome is described in the novel through an interpretation of Ethan’s marriage during the time of late Nineteenth Century New England and his affair. Ethan, who is married to his sickly wife, Zeena, is infatuated with a young girl, Mattie Silver, who comes to help him take care of his wife. Both women serve as a jaw of a vice, as in, Ethan wishes to pursue Mattie, yet he is bound by his commitment to his wife, Zeena. Because of these two forces, “He feels torn between a desire for the emotional compatibility he has with Mattie and a traditional sense of duty toward his wife” (Joyce Moss and George Wilson 126). Therefore, one of the larger social challenges in the Nineteenth Century was the inability to find true emotional freedom in place of the “traditional attitudes” akin to the ones that keep Ethan bound (Joyce Moss and George Wilson 126).

Initially, the social interactions in Ethan Frome appear to be straightforward and simple, as Ethan goes into the town of Starkfield, a snowy and rural New England town, to get his mail from the post office before leaving for his home. Yet it becomes more apparent as the story unfolds that things are more complicated than they seem. The narrator, a contemporary who lives in Starkfield questions if Ethan has “been in Starkfield too many Winters,” and what “obstacles have hindered the flight of a man like Ethan Frome” and kept him there in the town of Starkfield (Edith Wharton 3-6). The obstacle that has kept him there is that Ethan has tried to nullify social restrictions by engaging in an extramarital affair that ends in a mutually failed suicide attempt between him and Mattie, which leaves both of them crippled.

As a consequence of the restrictive nature of social norm, there is a personal cost regarding unrealized dreams and the eventual bitterness that comes from living a compromised life. In the book, Wharton puts Mattie and Zeena in clear contrast with each one being an antithesis of the other. Zeena, who has lived a compromised life due to her illness, is clearly bitter and “her sole pleasure, as Ethan sees it, is to make him miserable” (Marie Rose Napierkowski 127). Whereas Mattie is initially quite the opposite as she is unhindered and seemingly a positive aspect in Ethan’s life. Following the failed suicide pact Mattie assumes a similarly negative role parallel to other negative aspects of Ethan’s life as she “turns as querulous as Zeena” because she is now ill and crippled herself (Marie Rose Napierkowski 128).

Starkfield, even the name of the town where the story takes place exemplifies the starkness of the social traps that Wharton has laid out. The central crux of the novel is the ironic demonstration of Ethan being trapped by Zeena’s illness which stands in contrast with how the book ends. Wharton condemns Zeena to live the life of an invalid and then further condemns her by forcing her to be a caregiver for her husband and his mistress. Ethan is similarly impacted as he sought to escape the negative aspect of his life, Zeena, through the positive one, Mattie. In doing so, he creates two negatives in his life by remaining with Zeena and transforming Mattie into an equally negative person. Mattie, who begins free and unburdened attempts to find complete freedom by escaping through her own death, ends up confined to a chair due to her recklessness. Ultimately Wharton is commenting on the social restrictions of Nineteenth Century New England through the impact similar conventions had on the characters in the novel. Then lastly, she is using the way the characters of Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena, interact with such rules to provide insight on her own social confinement in the Victorian Era.

Works Cited
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. N.p.: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911. Print.

Joyce Moss and George Wilson. Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them. Vol. 2: Civil Wars to Frontier Societies (1800-1880s). Detroit: Gale, 1997. 125-129. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 18 June 2016.

Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Novels for Students. Vol. 5. Gale, 1999. 122-144. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 18 June 2016.

Slap Some Bacon On A Biscuit


, , , , , , ,

By Katherine Johnson

The Cowboy Grocer – 1411 6th Street – Umatilla, OR 97882

A core part of my American mythology came to me through Hollywood westerns such as The Searchers. Released in 1956, it starred John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a Confederate Civil War veteran who wandered through the American West, idealized by Monument Valley, on a journey of rescue and revenge to secure the freedom of his niece who had been kidnapped by the Comanche Indians led by Chief Scar, played by the German born actor Henry Brandon.

This mythology was also formed by road signs that announced that just over the next horizon would be found an oasis of spectacular things to see and experience after being stuck for hours in a blisteringly hot car during summer road trips. There one could find monumental works of art such as Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, gigantic dinosaurs, fish, or buffaloes.

Years later I would come to realize two things. First, that these things had nothing to do with wonder and enchantment and everything to do with getting people to stop at these out of the way places so they could be sold gas, sodas, and trinkets. Secondly, contrary to a popular a cliché, we are not the modern Romans. The Romans reserved marble for statues of people and concrete for building while we use marble for building and concrete for statutes of dinosaurs, fish, and buffaloes.

American food also has a spectacular mythology ranging from ingredients like Crisco Shortening (I always called it lard because it is, well, lardy) or Spam to Betty Crocker, a fictional person, that taught many an American to cook such classics as cheeseburger pie or carnival ice cream cake.

She also found time to dispense culinary wisdom like “Keep favorite condiments on hand, such as ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar and salsa.”

Of course this aspect of my mythology would not be complete with paying homage to the ubiquitous hamburger stands that, here in Seattle, are represented by Dick’s, the one place a straight guy can say with an equally straight face to his equally straight pals, “lets’ go get some dicks.”

Because of a lifetime of these types of experiences I have become a bona fide connoisseur of the finer points of our unique western mythology that is expansive as Monument Valley and also tall enough to include a giant cowboy with green skin and John Wayne’s face.

For good measure I also need to note that John Wayne, mirrors my experience with Betty Crocker, by being a real person that pretended to be a cowboy. And like Betty, John also dispensed culinary wisdom from time to time: “Slap some bacon on a biscuit and let’s go! We’re burnin’ daylight!”

Copyright 2016 – Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved

Every Monday


, , ,

By Katherine Johnson

Clothes For Sale – 354 West Walnut – Newport, WA 99156

Over the last few weeks I have traced the edges of Washington State and visited its corners. In terms of places with names these corners are Neah Bay, Metaline Falls, Rogersburg, and Illwaco; in each case I went as far into those corners that my wheels and legs would take me. As I mentioned in an earlier post the purpose was to get lost, transparent in the land and attempt to see old places with fresh eyes and new ones with old eyes.

The result of this trip and earlier ones are always complicated since I am disconnected from day to day life and at best can only form lasting impressions through casual conversations, how rain smells inside a tent, and the ideas that run through my head while in motion or when I am standing still with my camera and tripod. When I am paying attention and blessed with good fortune I stumble upon the odd details that speaks to how the land and human circumstances shape the people that live in these places. America is a powerful place no matter your perspective; give it time and you will be altered forever.

One thing I noticed, no genius required here, is how divided we have become economically, politically, and culturally. Make no mistake, overall, I think we still aspire to a common idea of the diamond that is America but instead of standing together before her idealism, today we stand before our own facet awestruck with righteous conviction and with minimal regard to the reality that a diamond has many, many facets. Empathy and trust seem to have been replaced with smirks and eye rolling.

Our smaller towns and cities, when blessed by fortunate geography, have the infrastructure that allows these places to collect, convert, or transport the raw resources yielded by farming, ranching, fishing, logging, or mining, and transform them into dollars that fill bank accounts, minds, ambitions, and bellies. The tradeoff is a major league baseball game or a Bruce Springsteen concert requires extra commitment, not unlike going to a foreign land, while in exchange you know all your neighbors and that they will boot your wayward youths in the butt when needed.

These are the places where a person can still make a real living with his or her back, hands, and yes, mind, and if truly wealthy, that same back will own the land that produces these things. This is the America that existed, more or less, around the Northwest since the Civil War, but in the later 20th century has had its importance displaced by skills that are dependent upon corporations and technology clustered in the major urban centers, which, for good measure, are frequently located near the ports where those raw goods are shipped to the vast international marketplaces. The scope and complexity of these commercial enterprises in rural America are breath taking to observe.

The stronger of these towns are, not surprisingly, located at transportation nexus points and attract a retail economy that depends upon a concentration of eyeballs and wallets. In these places, such as Colville, Washington, population 4,668, one still finds the essential small business and services, however today, the big box retailers have shown up, driven by a corporate addiction to cheap land, cheap wages, and limited competition.

There too, you will find people, with limited options, struggling to make ends meet in this big box/gas station gig world that perpetually leaves them a few hours short of life’s basic needs; a world where these corporations rig the system so they end up having to apply for State medical benefits and food stamps. Here one finds an America that is all about cynical manipulation and utter disregard about a better future for the greater good while in the urban centers, the technology companies play the same game but with far better wages and benefits.

At times this economic hamster wheel, this incessant demand for expansion, smacks of a Ponzi scheme or a perpetual energy machine that gleefully promises permanent prosperity as long as everyone keeps spending until flat broke and the credit cards are maxed out. For the most part this system works reasonably well except when our collective greed causes the perpetual machine to explode into a billion pieces such as during the 1930s Great Depression or the more recent multiyear Great Recession that came within a whisker’s width of complete global economic collapse.

While traveling around during that last dust up I witnessed how storefronts emptied out in these small towns and in conversations overheard found out how Joe lost his home to foreclosure, Juan lost his job at Wal-Mart and was about to get evicted, or how Mary’s clothing store went belly up and how she felt lucky to have a job at the Chevron station. Everybody sucked in hope and exhaled pessimism and passed the next few years by simply getting older just like their cars. Today, the air is much clearer and there are new pickup trucks around but one can still quickly find abandoned shopping centers, echoes of the past six years, that will probably sit idle for many years to come.

The building in this photo was empty in 2013 and now is home to a second hand store that seems trapped between equal parts desperation and hope, a reasonable summary of the last few years. One thing that never got whacked was our fine love for America as exhibited in the Moose mural. In that mural the artist nailed the key geographic features of the far northern eastern corner of Washington, the Selkirk Mountains and the Columbia River, and tells the world that this is the one place in the State that has a moose population.

—- *** —-

And in case you are still reading, here is an extra credit moment that is intended to give you a bit deeper understanding of what a typical scene looks like when I find it. This Google Maps screen capture is reasonably close to what I see when I come upon a scene. The point is out of the chaos of the world my eye hits upon a detail that revels an idea and image about how America has transformed me. Thanks for playing along over the years, months, and days.

Copyright 2016 – Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved

In Graceville Lived Angeline And Joe


, , , , , ,

By Katherine Johnson

Senior Citizens Center – 418 Studdart Avenue – Graceville, MN 56240

In Graceville lived Angeline and Joe, good neighbors to the end,
Where long ago they met when full of Eden’s energy;
The winter dances and summer lakes with quiet kisses
Under the ancient oaks, seeded, from when the land was unplowed.

And Graceville became Fate’s due for Angeline and Joe,
Marriage and home, inescapable came, a rabbit snare;
While brothers and sisters, dandelion seeds, scattered,
Spread by imagination and prairie winds to universities and war.

There caught, Angeline and Joe lived, in fat times and lean,
Where they made, baptized, and raised their babies;
Grew a pension, tomatoes and summer squash
And accounted for them all in the fall.

Meanwhile the hedges at Graceville’s limit grew tall,
Obscuring memories of winter dances and summer lakes;
shoebox photos, stored under blankets, testified silently that
Love had become something more and something less.

Soon enough the winter’s snow faded into black earth furrowed,
And the oak leaves trembled and murmured the names of
Angeline’s and Joe’s children, fresh dandelion seeds,
Kidnapped away by the prairie wind and circumstances.

The pension grew ripe while the garden lay dead,
Life became silent dinners, television news at 5 and 10 pm,
Trips to the butcher for still warm polish sausages,
And disconcerting diagnoses that still could be ignored.

One day the prairie wind hammered Angeline and Joe to bits:
First child Robert blew his head off in a hotel room with a shotgun,
Margaret came home exhausted by alcoholism, divorce and children,
While Pamela, only came home to bury the dead and an occasional Fourth of July.

The day Joe died of cancer, he cried fear and begged to live,
While Angeline just cried tears and wandered in and out the hospital room;
Months later, Angeline found comfort in her good neighbors,
And during lively dinners at the Graceville Senior Center.

Copyright 2016 – Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved

Guardian Of The Golden Beyond

By Katherine Johnson

The Eye Dish From The Satellite Fence – Along U. S. 195 – Uniontown, WA – Whitman County

The Satellite Fence, as it is known locally, is located along U. S. 195 between Uniontown, WA and Lewiston, ID and has attached to it a series of wonderfully decorated television satellite dishes.

It began by chance around 2000 when Ben Wolf, who lived nearby, decorated a satellite dish and attached it to this particular stretch of fence. After that new dishes would appear from time to time over the years, sometimes spontaneously it would seem as if a they could arise, like the nearby wheat, from a seed.

In 2014, Ben’s son, Jake took this bit of impromptu public art and made it his high school senior project. Jake, who must be a terrific organizer and hustler, got the community behind him and soon he and his crew painted and erected enough dishes so they sit atop nearly every fence post for some 100 yards or so.

And like that, what started out as a whim, became a landmark that is something to anticipate and then savor when flying down this stretch of rural America.

My personal favorite is the blue-eyed dish, that never blinks as the world rushes by, and in its blueness, reminds one to look beyond the golden field and into the endless blue sky.

Copyright 2016 By Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved