Natural History: Stories by Andrea Barrett

All around Crooked Lake, people were aware of Henrietta.

Henrietta Atkins is an intellectual, one who won spelling bees in grade school and wowed people with the Student Fossil Collection, a born naturalist full of wonder for science. After her teacher training in Oswego, she returns home to teach high school biology and establish several clubs, like the Natural History Club, to brighten young minds. Picking the best, most curious students to aid her in local experiments and studies, there are many lives she touches. An unmarried woman who is rooted in intellectual pursuits, trying her hardest to support the promise she sees shining through her students, she is much more than people see. She meets Daphne Bannister after graduation, and the fast friends vacation together often, enriching one another’s existence. Daphne is a well-known authoress of science guides, flusher with money than a biology teacher’s salary allows, but Henrietta helps with her work allowing them to engage in their shared passions. Without Henrietta’s help, influence, Daphne’s books wouldn’t be as successful. The two women avoid the sort of life that Henrietta’s sister has, full of noise and children. Wasn’t Daphne the one to advise that the single life was richer?

In the first story Daphne and Henrietta are ‘sharing a summer vacation’ on Appledore Island off the New Hampshire coast. Summer, the only time Henrietta can focus on her own investigations fully, not trapped by the demands of her school lesson plans. Sure, she helps with Daphne’s work, but feels so far behind with her own. On the shore, Daphne is collecting samples, with Henrietta’s aide, but it’s the invitation to poet Celia Thaxter’s cottage, with a select guest list of writers, musicians and painters, that pleases Daphne to no end. Henrietta would rather be far from such ‘entertainments’ and immersed in the life and creatures outside, making notes on Darwin’s books. There is no other way to spend her time that is as stimulating as her scientific pursuits, and she is unable to behave otherwise, even at the expense of social graces. It is during this time she has her own secrets from her dear friend. Daphne is wrapped up in making much needed connections and Henrietta, in an artist.

1863 we are taken back to Henrietta’s youth in Hello To You, where her employment at the Deverells place includes gathering and filing letters read by the family and neighbors with news of their boys (sons, brothers) enlisted in the war. Soon, she is enraptured by the missives from the regiments camp in Virginia, written by Mr. Deverell’s young brothers, Vic and Izzy. Most interesting to her, are stories about the Observation balloon. She is soon sharing household secrets, and the mystery of Vic’s absence but is let go when Izzy returns, a wounded war Veteran. The stories are knots and will reach out for her later through Bernard, the young child she tended to when working for the Deverells. Will she be able to set the story straight? Dispel the rumors?

In Henrietta and Her Moths she teaches children to marvel and wonder over moths through their many stages, creating educational spaces with breeding cages. If other locals find it all too peculiar and strange, the members of Henrietta’s Young Lepidopterists Club, as well as students in her classroom where smaller display classes call home, are blessed with a unique education. Too, she helps support her sister Hester through the stages of her pregnancy and helping raise her nieces Marion, Caroline and Elaine. She tirelessly helps while also working on projects, teaching, running labs and working with former students. The reader sees Henrietta as something fierce, if not in the same manner as her well-known friend Daphne. Her love for her sister Hester is strong, even if it keeps her from the work she is doing for Daphne and the deadline. Family seems to swallow her up, and though unmarried, she is still very much attached.

The Accident: Daphne is traveling to watch an air show, one where Henrietta’s niece, Caroline, is an aviator and so begins the story behind the brave woman’s unusual set of scars and what had inspired her best friend’s niece to start flying at all. Open House Henrietta is again at the heart of encouraging or ‘pushing’ the young to find a future that is absorbing, that feeds their talents and curiosity. Charlie’s inheritance is working in his family’s winery but she can see that paleontology is his passion, and he has the chance to study in Pennsylvania. It rubs his father the wrong way, and the professor Henrietta reached out to, once welcoming the idea, is no longer communicating with Charlie. Will he get out, thrive? Why is it when Henrietta tries to encourage people to reach for more she is seen as meddlesome?

It is about science and family but also about women and how expectations hinder choices. In the book, Sebastian is explaining to Rosalind about a phenomenon produced on the trunks of trees, and she is curious about the strange coincidences of their meeting at that exact moment. Later she is drawn to him but scolds herself to ignore him because for a female scientist, it diminishes a woman to have an attachment to a man. Her feelings are incredibly telling, that as a woman, you already aren’t taken seriously in the field and must take extra measures as not to appear ridiculous. Science too, in the future, becomes more of a business but the characters within are driven purely by their love of nature, and their wildly curious minds. Henrietta is at the heart of the stories, never birthing her own children but giving life to ideas, observing of the world what we miss and take for granted. She inspires her family and students alike, and their world would be so much darker without her gifts. The comparison between Daphne’s much freer existence and Henrietta’s many anchors that pulled her away from her work is interesting too. Is one better off? Henrietta is not famous like Charles Darwin, but her work isn’t without value. In a sense, she lives through her entire family line having inspired so many. The women after her, do they have it easier? Do the changing times afford them more opportunity?

This was an interesting read, though not my usual fare. There is something engaging about those who chose the path of intellectuals, and so often for women, shamed for it. Henrietta is a force.

Publication Date: September 13, 2022

W.W. Norton & Company

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