Strictly speaking, I have never had a conversation with Rachel Field, but I have walked in her footsteps. I also have relaxed on her porch and cooked in her kitchen. I feel as though I’ve known her for years.
Rachel Field was a popular writer, illustrator and poet in the 1920s and ‘30s with intimate ties to the state of Maine. In 1910, at age 15, she was sent to study art with cousins on Sutton Island, a small island off the coast of Mt. Desert. She was mesmerized by her first sight of Maine as her boat pulled into shore in the early morning light:
“I shall never forget how I was stirred by my first view of the Maine coast … I felt an uplift, as at no other place, in the firs pointing skyward, the glisten all around me, the old ships from distant ports at the wharves.” (Lewiston Journal, 1936)
Although she was not a Maine native, Rachel found herself inextricably rooted into Maine soil. She once said that Maine, somehow, “creeps into nearly everything I write.” It served as Rachel’s artistic muse for many of her finest works:
• “Hitty: Her First Hundred Years” — winner of the Newbery Award in 1930 (first woman recipient).
• “Calico Bush” — Newbery Honor winner.
• “Points East, Narratives of New England” — prose and poetry collection.
• “God’s Pocket” — biography of Cranberry Island’s Capt. Samuel Hadlock, Jr., based on his journals.
• “Time Out of Mind” — winner of the National Book Award in 1935, later made into a movie.
• “The Pointed People, Taxis and Toadstools, Branches Green, and Fear is the Thorn” — collections of poetry which include many Maine and island-inspired poems.
Rachel’s first summer on Sutton Island so captivated her that she returned to Sutton every summer for nearly 30 years. In 1922 she purchased her own house, wood-framed with a deep front porch, poised on a craggy cliff on the edge of the sea. Seventy-two years later, my husband and I fell in love with Rachel’s house, which is now our own.
I first became curious about Rachel because of our shared island space. Relics and papers from her time in the house remained on shelves, in drawers and stored away in the attic. As I read her work, I became even more intrigued by this woman who evoked the character and rugged beauty of Maine and Maine’s people so exquisitely.
Three years ago I began to dig into Rachel’s past, hoping to tell her life story. Details were surprisingly scarce, but I got a head start close to home. Rachel spent a lot of time visiting Sutton’s neighboring islands, which inspired many of her works. As a result, her legacy is a cherished part of local history around the Cranberry Islands of Maine, of which Sutton is a part. The folks from Great Cranberry Island Historical Society have dedicated a good portion of their wonderful museum to Rachel Field and her work, and they provided me with inspiration and information to move my research forward.
In archive collections from Maine to Hollywood, I studied hundreds of letters, photos, and articles connected to Rachel Field. Her whimsical illustrations and her exuberant, loopy handwriting are as familiar to me now as anyone’s, and her irrepressible spirit shines through both the difficult and the triumphant periods of her life. Writing her life story has become a labor of love, on behalf of a friend that I never met.
Rachel had strong facial features and a weighty physique that came from her Field family forbears, a fact which dismayed her. But her blue eyes sparkled and her character was that of a twinkling sprite.
She was cherished by friends and family not for her literary success but for her homemade gifts, her storytelling arts, her famous clam chowder, her berry-picking prowess, her prolific letters and her charismatic presence that lit up a room.
Though her short life ended in tragedy, at the pinnacle of her personal and professional accomplishments, hers was a life and a body of work that delighted and inspired. She should be remembered with joy, especially in her beloved state of Maine, where the heart of her creative spirit resided.
“I am truly myself here, the self I was intended to be,” she wrote to a friend. “No other place has my heart so completely.”
On Aug. 10, the Great Cranberry Island Historical Society is hosting “Hitty Hoopla: a Rachel Field Day,” honoring Rachel Field and her works inspired by the Cranberry Isles. There will be boat and walking tours, lectures (including one given by myself about Rachel’s life), and a lobster feast. For details, visit http://gcihs.org.
Follow up on Drew, Maine: My thanks go out to the many people with connections to Drew Plantation who responded with such enthusiasm to my column. I learned that my statement; “Drew no longer exists” is misleading. The Sprague’s Mill area that I wrote about, sometimes known as “Lowe Drew,” no longer exists. There are, however, other parts of Drew still on the map, where people still live today.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions at email@example.com