October's Book Review
The Mill on The Mad River by Howard G. B. Clark
Published Little, Brown and Company, Boston
Copyright 1948 by Howard G. B. Clark
Not Every Man Can Look Back Over His Life And Say when and where it
was he came of age. Anson Holt came of age on his fifth birthday in Waterbury, Connecticut.
It was the spring of 1810. He was an orphan, remembering his mother
only as a pair of tranquil hands, a rustling green-flowered silk gown that
made his recollections of Sabbath Day smell exciting, and a face,
seemingly on a level with his own, which his father had helped him recall
as of a great beauty. She had died about the time baby sister Lucy first
came to the single-roomed house on the outskirts of Pittsford, New York.
His father he remembered clearly, especially the lift of the square,
powerful shoulders, and the ready laughter in the eyes. Hunter he was,
and farmer, and peerless subduer of wild horses, though perhaps farmer
should have come last, and certainly the horses first. But there had
been, one day, a horse that even Father counldn't tame, so after Anson
and sister Lucy found him crumpled so still at the foot of the stone wall,
the broken bits of rein still in his hands, strange folk came and laid him
in a wooden box. The buttons of his blue jacket were wonderfully shining
and they buried him beside Mother on the hill back of town. Then
Grandsir had come from Waterbury, Connecticut, to fetch Anson, in the
wagon drawn by Cleo.
Sister Lucy, three years old, hadn't come to Waterbury with them.
Grannam would be able to care for only one, Grandsir had flatly
answered Anson's tearful plea. Grannam was really Anson's great-aunt,
and was named Ruhamah; Grandsir's name was Obamah; and once
Anson caught the trick of stamping with both feet on the second
syllables, the names didn't sound so queer any longer.
Anson was just four years and nine months old when first he set foot in
Waterbury, and all he knew about brass was what his grand-father had
told him on that bumpy three-day ride from Pittsford. He had sat there on
the hard wooden seat, wide-eyed, listening. His father's silver shoe
buckles lay cool in the pocket of his petticoat where he could clutch them
whenever he felt like crying; his father's long hunter's rifle rested between
his knees the way Grandsir carried his. Father's saddle and bridle with the
broken reins rode behind, tied in a gunny sack.
Grandsir's mansion wasn't very big; it measured only the "full 16 x 18 feet,
with 9 feet between joynts, and a good chimney in ye fore sayd place," as
commanded in the old Proprietor's Agreement. But to Anson's eyes
it was enormous. It had a short roof in front, but a long one behind sloping
right down to the kitchen door--easy to climb on hands and knees when
Grannam wasn't looking. It had an upstair's as well as a garret, and it had
a grand front room with a bay window, on the other side of the chimney
from the kitchen. Once it had been Grannam Ruhamah's fancy to let
Grandsir paint its shingled outer walls red--a red which by that spring day
of 1810, when Cleo drew them round the bend of South Main and Grandsir pointed full-arm with the whip for Anson's tired but eager eyes to follow,
was mellowed to the color of late autumn leaves.
Grandsir Obamah carried Anson half-asleep from the wagon to the
strange, warm kitchen, and without a word deposited him, blinking and barefoot, and needing the shears to his mop of red hair, in front of
Grannam Ruhamah. Grannam carefully smoothed the faded brown
pantaloons she was mending, reached a long arm to tilt the Betty lamp
so the light fell blindingly on him, and rose unsmiling from her straight
backed chair. Her bony jaw, with its little gathers of left-over flesh
quivering under the edge, was working the way a hungry cow worries
its cud. Anson thought she would never get through rising from the
chair; her long body seemed to go on up, up, up. Her head in the black
work cap rose out of the light of the Betty lamp, was swallowed by the
streak of darkness from the shade, and came out again into the light
from the hole at the lamp shade's top, leaving her face floating up there
by itself near the ceiling. Her spectacles glinted like two little ponds of
Through sleep-filled eyes he took in the spotless kitchen: its freshly
sanded floor, the mammoth, sooty cavern of the fireplace, where coals
winked under a steaming iron pot; a great oak cupboard opposite, with
shelves rising black to the ceiling and studded with pewter plates dully gleaming. A rear door stood beside it. The bare, plastered walls were
the color of cream just before it turns; no pictures hung there. At one
end of the room was a trestle table, with benches, and a sink with a
hand pump over it; at the other end, the stair, forming with the chimney
a corner in which stood on a low platform a large brass dye tub streaked
with blue. Above this tub hung pieces of new linsey-woolsey, fresh-
dipped and dripping lazily from a rope line. That sound of dripping was
the only sound in the room until Grannam Ruhamah clicked her tongue.
When Anson looked up at her face, he saw her spectacles were clear
ice now, and she was sizing him up from bullet-bright eyes over a very
"Obamah," she cried out then in a voice of shrill discovery. "I sent you
to fetch the girl and you've brought the boy!"
Anson, standing huddled and shaken at this outburst, glanced back
quickly at Grandsir Obamah. But Grandsir held himself very still, like
an animal trying to pass unnoticed by the hunter. His neck was with-
drawn into the many collars of his broadtail coat, his faded gray eyes
with their yellowing whites were set on something far, far away; and
without a word he let the icy torrent sweep over his crop of bristly
white hair. It was baby sister Lucy she had sent him to fetch from
Pittsford. He knew she wanted the girl, not the boy. Her wandering
rheumatism would not let her do all that housework alone much longer, whatever Dr. Joe's opinion in the matter might be. After all, Dr. Joe
was only a male himself. How dared he! They had been all through
this before he left for Pittsford.
And so, through the high-pitched whine of Grannam's voice, through the
wibble-wabble of her dewlaps, Anson Holt swiftly grasped three things
about life as it was to be under Grandsir's roof: Grannam Ruhamah was
the boss, and she had taken a dislike to him on sight; he would have to
stand on his own bare feet here; and Grandsir Obamah might be sorry
for having brought him to Waterbury at all.
"But since you're in the house and like to be here for a while," Grannam
sniffed with scant welcome into Anson's upturned face, clasping the
while her bright blue hands across her little mound of stomach, and
drawing her long self still straighter in the worn black linen work gown,
"you'd best get a few lessons through your scrubby red head. Now you
mind, there's to be no mud brought onto my floors. No wetting the bed.
And no eating between meals!" She nodded her head after each commandment until that bony part of her he could see in the light below
waggled too. "And mind, no crying! I can't abide crying children, and
you look like the crying kind."
"Now, Ruhamah..." Grandsir started to say, his neck rising like a river
turtle's out of the greatcoat. But he caught her eye and went no further.
She was staring at him, unwinking as an old cat with her paw on a
mouse. Grandsir shuffled his feet with a scraping sound and didn't say
Anson's blue eyes fastened on Grannam's jaw, chewing with more rapid motion. It reminded him that his stomach hadn't had any supper. He
clasped his hands behind his petticoat and asked, "Grannam Ruhamah,
what is it you are eating?"
Horror stopped her enjoyment of the rhubarb root, leaving her snags of
"Impertinence," she cried, pronouncing each syllable. "Now that I will
not have, and you might as well learn it now. You come with me!"
She fished into the pocket of her linen work gown, then, and she took
from it a sort of harness of rawhide thongs. She lighted a candle from
the flame of the Betty lamp, and nodding her head so that it now seemed
it was the upper jaw that did the chewing, she led the way upstairs, for
the first time, to the closet.
Grandsir Obamah didn't follow. He had already started for the door and
the hungry Cleo left standing with mud caking her brown underbelly and
legs, in harness at the gate; she was answering insistent whinnies from
her colt somewhere out behind the kitchen, complaining loudly at the
bottle feeding it had endured. (Grandsir had carefully milked Cleo daily,
on the ride, to keep her fresh.) Anson turned with trusting hand
outstretched, but Grandsir, who had been so talkative and friendly,
hesitated there with one eye fast closed, and craned his turkey-red neck
to sight and imaginary line between the Betty lamp hanging from the
ceiling and the blue edge of the dye tub. An apologetic pink smile crept
up his cheeks and down again; then he set the floppy black hat firmly on
his cropped white head, turned with a scowl that washed his hands of
the whole business, and waved Anson away.
Slowly, one bare foot at a time, Anson started alone up that strange,
narrow stair. His chin ached from keeping back the tears of sleepiness
and hunger, and still something hot blinded him so he had to grope for
the handrail. Slower and slower he went, one step at a time, until
halfway up his legs would carry him no farther. Fear held him prisoner
at the step where was the strange knot in the wood of the tread, the knot
in which forever after he could trace the likeness of his sister Lucy's
face. He looked upward to measure that unclimbable expanse of stair
and there "She" stood at the top. One blue hand rested across her
stomach. She waited in the half-dark with greedy eyes behind the
candle flame, and the little rawhide harness.
"Well," she said, "are you coming?"
With a groan he sped to the landing at the top, and stood before her
watching the toes of her heavy man's boots, where little dots of the
blue had dyed them. She seized his right wrist and then his left,
slipped the loops of rawhide over them, and drew them tight; then she
led him like a small, frightened puppy into the dark closet. Forcing his
arms up over his head until he must stand on tiptoe, she hung the
harness over a clothes peg on the closet wall, and closed the door.
Her clumpy boots crossed the floor and clattered down the stair.....
I hope you enjoy this brief Book Review of The Mill On Mad River. I
am off to finish reading this facinating story. The little boy Anson has
caught my interest, and I must see what happens to him with his
Grandsir and Grannam!
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