The Great Dark Wings of a Hurricane: Helen R. Hull’s Last September

Dear Reader:

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.

Groping (1917)

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

Discovery (1918)

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.

Helen Hull and her lifelong partner Mabel Robinson

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.

Last September

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.

Addendum

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.

She included two tiny books of her photos with Last September.

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

April 1st, 2012

Happy reading, ruby!

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7 Comments

  1. I’m enjoying reading Hull’s Last September – often amazed at the time period it was written in given much of the topic matter. At the same time, sometimes there are reminders, like Cynthia’s angst over her mother asking her where she’s been and their struggle over what is said and what is not said. I don’t know that youth are that concerned over small word exchanges with their mothers anymore. Family dramas are often bigger and louder. The tension is more powerful due to the subtle nature of the conflict.

    • Hi Christy: Glad you are liking it. It IS interesting that you talk of how subdued tensions were – I hadn’t noticed this. Perhaps a couple things have happened – a) parents today tolerate language from their kids that we could never have gotten away with in the 1960s, much less those growing up in the late 19th C (when Hull was a child) and b) our stories (films, tv, books) have gotten more dramatic – today’s public seems to need and expect more volume and speed… Perhaps this is why I must force myself to read these works more slowly – the story is between the lines rather than lying on top of the words created with broad, strong strokes as it might be today. Ruby

  2. pmccmiller

    Thanks, Ruby, for great blogs about Helen Hull and especially this one about the Last September collection. I’m feeling awkward about that volume because Naiad Press brutalized my Afterword and published it without my permission–so if any of you ardent readers out there look at it, please know that I don’t really write one-sentence paragraphs! If you like the Cynthia stories, you’ll like Hull’s Quest (1922), and if you like the title story/novella “Last September,” you’ll probably like Islanders (1927).

    For chipmunk fans, here’s a link to some of my chipmunk photos: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1402287059621.2057948.1305688638&type=3&l=2e8ea1dba5
    For frog fans, here are a few bull frogs: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1066307180334.2011661.1305688638&type=3&l=cbb51e1aa5

    Happy reading everyone! Pat

    • Hi Pat: You are very welcome! I admit I did read the afterward and found it enlightening (I waited until I completed the book). How frustrating to have your words brutalized. If it helps, I found the afterward well-written and helpful, so I can only imagine how much better it would have been if they’d done what you asked. But you notice, I did not mention the afterward to keep to the spirit of my commitment to you about it. 🙂

      Quest and Islanders are lined up (with Tapping on the door) in my queue – I expect I’ll get to them within the month.

      Thanks for sharing your links! People who click on over are in for a treat, Ruby

Trackbacks

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