The Great Dark Wings of a Hurricane: Helen R. Hull’s Last September
From the shores of the big lake….
Our Copper Country weather today is seasonal – 40 F, damp, and foggy.
My sour cherry tree considers the odds
Buds are bulging, songbirds singing, sparrows trying to build a nest in the side of my house where one of the insulation plugs fell out – this annual endeavor interrupted by my yearly sticking of the masking tape wad on the end of a broom handle and climbing up a ladder to, after multiple attempts, reach it and stick a new wad in the hole. Yea, spring and the smell of masking tape…
187) Last September by Helen R. Hull
Continuing with my reading of Hull and, in particular, more of the stories in Last September – the first are discussed here.
Most of these stories have a protagonist: Cynthia or, in these last stories, Cynthia Bates. But as Pat Miller, who edited this volume and generously gifted me with this book, confirmed they aren’t necessarily the same Cynthia.
In this story, Cynthia and Mary are college age women experimenting with sex, or rather, kissing. This story mingles the coziness of friendship self-confident enough to express physical affection with exploration of sexual feeling. Cynthia is naive, confused and ashamed of her desire. She has feelings for Mary and for Clark (a boy she is dating) but the concept of desire is so alien and unacceptable that she can’t begin to sort her feelings.
Original Illustration for “Alley Ways,” reproduced in Last September
Cynthia and Richard are stepping out together. But Richard is just passing through town, completing a project, and passing time with Cynthia awaiting his return to a fiance. Clark reappears from Groping raising possibilities and obligations. Class, gender role, and sexual tensions infuse these relationships and challenge Cynthia’s sense of herself and of morality.
Reproduced from Last September
The Fusing (1919)
Mona and Cynthia are young, pretty, marriageable friends in a flurry over men, marriage, and their senses of self. This is a time when women didn’t ask themselves what they wanted. They just did what was expected. Yet Cynthia, in her various guises, struggles against societal and familial expectations. Does she want Work? Marriage? Sex? Men? Familial approval? Money? Women?
Amazingly, for a story published in 1919, all are options, none necessities. Hull has a beautiful touch for showing us the struggle of a young woman in this time period – feeling straitjacketed by traditional gender roles, but not sure (groping, discovering) what else is out there…
Last September (published in Good Housekeeping in 1939)
Margaret Turner is a mathematics teacher “of a certain age” at a small, exclusive girls high school. The Depression has bottomed out the school’s donations and endowment and teachers younger than Margaret have been let go.
Years ago, Margaret was able to purchase the farmer’s house on a Connecticut shore estate – a cottage that she grew up in while her father farmed. Every summer she moves back to the cottage for respite.
Margaret is brittle, isolated, and angry over her fate – worried that she’ll be next to lose her job and lacking the solace of nurturing relationship. Last September is a novella describing one summer and the unexpected hurricane that comes on “great dark wings.”
The 1938 New England Hurricane (source: Lynn’s Bucket of Shells)
Entangled in her musings and memories is Susan Lathrop Field, a young woman (now old) of Margaret’s age, heir to the estate, and girlfriend of Margaret’s dead brother in their youth, now made ridiculous (in the village’s eyes) by her continuing trainwrecked love affairs. Susan and Margaret are repelled and drawn together by their history and legacies. Enter the hurricane of 1938…
Pat has written that this story was inspired by Mabel’s and Helen’s experience with the Great Hurricane of 1938 that killed 100s. One of the things that surprises a modern day reader is how unexpected this storm was before today’s meteorology. Margaret reads the skies and winds and water: their colors, shapes, forces; trying to figure out what is happening. She has no warning and no sense of the scale (a Class 5 hurricane) of the storm. Just as a formidable summer storm charges in and washes the air of heat and humidity, “the great dark wings of a hurricane” clear and clean away Margaret’s troubles.
This is a wonderful little book. Pat carefully chose a set of six stories and one novella from Hull’s larger short stories and novellas centering around the themes of youth, gender, sexuality, class, and family. Time and again, the Cynthias and Margaret struggle against their legacies of expectations at a time when alternative paths were obscured, if not absent. Many of us will relate to the challenge of finding our ways forward in a time of great social change when we didn’t easily fits the norms.
Pat included illustrations from the original published stories and pictures of Helen and Mabel – this lovely touch contextualizes the work and author. These stories are powerful and profound, highly readable, and, out of all the Hulls I’ve read, I put Last September up there with Heat Lightning, also a shockingly modern, marvelous book that I couldn’t put down. If you are curious to learn more about Hull, check out the Facebook page for Helen R. Hull that Pat has set up.
I’ve mentioned that Pat, a regular reader and commenter on this blog and Helen R. Hull advocate and expert, generously gifted me with this book that she edited. I don’t think I’ve noted that Pat is also an accomplished photographer.
I love frogs and have a soft spot for the backyard clowns that are also known as chipmunks. And these are fantastic photos of both – and it is so hard to get great shots of wildlife, especially fast moving animals like chippies. Yet Pat does!
My iphone camera doesn’t do them justice. If you leave a comment on this post and ask, perhaps Pat will send you a link to her photo page and you too can enjoy her wonderful pictures. Thank you again, Pat!
The Gold among the Brown
Happy reading, ruby!