A novel about a young Quaker woman whose best friend is led astray when a traveling salesman visits the community. 1920.
I have no idea how I found this book. I mean, I know how I found it, in the sense that I found it languishing on the shelves of a local thrift store, liked its humble price and what I glimpsed of the prose, so I brought it home. But really, I have no idea how this book could have come into my world, or into anyone’s world in this era, because it’s a book that has left little trace. There are a few copies floating around online, rare but not expensive, as there’s no demand for a copy.
The only places I found any reference to this book were in Quaker periodicals (what, you don’t have a subscription?). It even took some searching to find out anything about the author. As a Swarthmore College publication finally informed me, Harrison Smith Morris (three last names!) lived from 1856 to 1948, and earns mention in Quaker publications because he married a Quaker. Morris was president of a steel company in the early 20th century, but it appears that his true passion was for the arts, as he served as director for various arts academies throughout his life. He also published his own works, “in both English and Italian, on Roman history, literature, and culture, as well as at least 17 volumes of poetry, fiction, and essays.” Well…! Project Gutenberg currently lists four of his volumes, a compilation of Christmas stories from around the world.
When I began my reading experience with Hannah Bye, knowing a little about the author and nothing at all about the book, I had the strong sense that I was about to experience a part of American history. My 1920 first edition is in remarkably good condition. The binding is getting a little loose, but this was pleasant, actually, as it allowed the pages to stay open on their own—look, no hands!
Then there was the clipped recipe for “HuntBurgers,” which I found in the book around page 70. From its graphics, typeface, and some rudimentary research, I estimate it to be, oh, circa 1963. Since this clipping was obviously being used as a bookmark, I think it’s safe to say this book was last read in 1963. Again, HOW did I find this book??
Ah, but I’m very glad that I did find it, or we found each other, or whatever. The full title is Hannah Bye: An Eclogue in Prose. Now that made me look twice. What is an eclogue? I hadn’t even started the book and already I needed to look up a word! According to my dictionary, an eclogue is “a short poem, esp. a pastoral dialogue.”
That made sense! For as I started reading Hannah Bye, I immediately noticed its poetic quality. Take the opening lines, second chapter:
With a look backward half of amused contempt and half of hope that the pretty Quaker girl might be gazing after him, the canvasser turned through the white-washed gate into the long, shady lane; and the farm settled down to its day-long quietude.
Of human sounds there seemed none at all until the dinner hour, and even then they scarcely troubled the surface of the summer silence.
Quietude. What a perfect word for a slow, summer day in the country.
As these lines also show, the book is not all poetry; it also has a plot that is both quaint and compelling. It begins when Hannah Bye, a young Quaker woman, answers the door. Here’s a man from the city, a traveling salesman who’s currently peddling a book of Biblical illustrations to this Quaker community. Hannah tries to turn the man down politely, but he’s determined to make a sale. Then Hannah’s mother comes to the door. Her mother is a widow, a respected elder of the wider Quaker community, and she’s made of some formidable stuff. She basically closes the door on his face.
Still, Hannah’s curiosity has been piqued by this stranger. Casually, she learns more about him from neighbors who have had lengthier interactions with the man. Soon she sees the stranger again at a neighborhood party. Her mother is visiting another community, preaching, otherwise Hannah wouldn’t have been allowed to go the party. It’s a tame party by anyone’s standards, but Hannah has been raised with a strict ethic:
What right had she to be there in all that worldly bustle, amid that show of unseemly color, those forward manners and boisterous voices? She felt like escaping, and longed to be in the dark roads and under the quiet stars again. And yet, in her heart, she wanted to linger.
When Hannah is properly introduced to the salesman, Jarrett, she maintains her distance. Her best friend, Ruth, however, does not act so cautiously. Rather, she starts flirting with Jarrett, even right in front of her Quaker husband-to-be. Hannah is alarmed and troubled by how easily her friend is tainted by the sinful outside world, “which was so alluring to ponder over and wish for, but so strange and dreadful in reality.”
This flirtation between Ruth and Jarrett continues after the night of the party. Neighbors report seeing the two out driving together. Hannah and other friends share their concerns with Ruth, frankly pleading with her to save her soul that’s in jeopardy. Ruth ignores her warning, and instead runs off with Jarrett. Months go by without any word from either of them. But then Jarrett comes to see Hannah, reporting that Ruth is ill and begging to see her friend. Hannah must decide, then and there, which is more important: the moral code of her mother and community, or the duty of love and loyalty?
Hannah is a beautiful character to follow. The author emphasizes her strong “inner light” that guides her toward doing the right thing, even though it’s not always easy or easily understood by those around her. She is self-sacrificing, too, but somehow it strikes me as empowering rather than disempowering. This principle—of acting through love of humanity, rather than love of dogma—is a theme that unfolds gracefully over the course of the novel.
However it happened, I am so glad that this book and I crossed paths. I recommend it whole-heartedly, especially if you’re interested in Quaker history. (For another book with Quakers, see The World in the Evening. Also, if you like Steinbeck’s style and tone, I think you’ll like Hannah Bye. Something about this book just reminded me of Steinbeck.) As a historical piece, I found Hannah Bye noteworthy, because it speaks of a time when Quakers still lived out in exclusive farming communities, rarely intermingling with the growing cities. The story is a powerful illustration of what can happen when these two worlds do a little mixing.
It’s one of those books I could quote all day long, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll leave you with a short passage about early spring:
The fields were dull and wet, and snow that had lost its innocence by contact with the soil lay in the furroughs and by the oozy roadsides. The moist fence rails steamed as the full southern sun played on them and the winter wheat made the heart leap up with a thrill of anticipation. The days were longer and full of vague and mystical promise; the nights were shorter, and sleep was made delicious by fanciful dreams of a coming ecstasy.