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about haphazard trifles, at a standstill

This page is the follow-up / p.s. to an earlier Ostenso post — it was no mere curiosity, however — at putterings 298. The expression “puttering” is found in five other Ostenso titles (and may be elsewhere, e.g., stories published in magazines). Those five settings are provided below.

Wild Geese (1925)
The Dark Dawn (1926) : 298
The Young May Moon (1929)
The Stone Field (1937)
The Mandrake Root (1938)
Milk Route (1948)
more, references, &c.

The word “puttering” was an exclusively North American (and even U.S.?) form of what would be “pottering” in the U.K. I do not know if there’s been leakage either way, in recent years.

Caleb for a time was too engrossed in the affairs of the farm to notice any one. Unlike himself, he went puttering about haphazard trifles, constantly looking for something to do rather than, as usual, for something that Martin or Judith might do. [102] Lind felt that something momentous had happened, and then realized how impossible it was for anything at all to happen here save the monotonous round of duty.
      It was Lind alone who noticed these nuances in the life at the Gares. She had much time to herself in the evenings when she sat at her desk after the children were gone, and fell often to thinking about the Gares. But since the evening of the rain she had thought more of Mark Jordan.
101 : link

      Caleb grinned under his mustache. She’d try to get out of the lie, then, eh? Well, that made the skirmish more interesting.
      “Guess people are coming to be too busy for visitin’,” he continued, puttering about his tool cabinet that was nailed on the kitchen wall.
      “Likely,” Amelia said. He could not have known the Klovaczs had stopped in. To tell him would only bring on trouble.
229 : link

ex Martha Ostenso, Wild Geese (1925)

      When she could get her parcel she caught it up, paid for what she had bought, and hurried from the store.
      In the comforting shadows of the avenue, she walked more slowly. There was no need for haste now; little Rolf had been asleep in his cot before she left the house. Dorcas would have gone to bed, too; only old Jonas would be puttering about the house, or sitting by himself in the darkness on the veranda.
      A flutter of nervousness passed over her as she walked past Doctor Paul Brule’s house somberly mewed up in the blue shadows of its cedars. Above the door the little light was already burning. The light had become a symbol to Marcia Gunther. Between her and Paul Brule a monstrous secret had lain for nearly four years now. It seemed to her that Paul Brule kept that light above his door for her alone, to remind her of what she had done, to remind her of the compact they had made in order that the town should never know the truth, to remind her, too, that the heart’s release is bought with bitterness. She did not struggle against her fate. The gloom into which she had withdrawn held its tortures of remorse, but it held its ecstasies, too.

ex Martha Ostenso, The Young May Moon (1929) : link (snippet only)

but at fadedpage.com : link
and critical edition, edited by Faye Hammill, at Borealis Press : link

      Even when he might have got work somewhere else he would stay on for weeks at the Portes’, puttering about simply for his board and room as if he were a relative. Her mother even made macaroni and cheese once a week because it was Ned Larkin’s favorite dish, although her father detested it.
      There was something the matter with her mother; something more than a singing bird caught in her throat. But how could anyone only fourteen years old find out what it was?

ex Martha Ostenso, The Stone Field (1937) : 11 : link
but at fadedpage.com : link

fadedpage provides summary from the dustjacket :
From the dust jacket: This is the story of Jobina Porte—“Jo”, a girl who was born on a western farm and whose forebears have always lived from the soil. Now, through circumstances, her family works a modest “brush” farm, once part of the vast rural estate of the Hilyards. Jobina is a contemporary of the third generation of Hilyards, who, in spite of their rapidly vanishing wealth, are still the proud and dashing country “quality.” It is Jo’s misfortune that she falls in love with Roy Hilyard, the eldest son, and permits her love to shape her life the moment she discovers it. The course of this romance and how Jo’s flaming spirit, beaten but not broken, refuses to admit defeat, and in the end claims its own peculiar victory — this is the story of THE STONE FIELD.

      He had once argued—to an attentive, impressed class of adolescents, God save the mark!—that loneliness was a condition which could not be considered in degree; a poet was lonely, a madman was lonely, a prisoner condemned to death was lonely—each in his own supreme way, and there was no method of comparing these ways. What empty, discreditable talk he had been capable of during that time while the wide-eyed young had been entrusted to him! He had complacently regarded himself as something of a poet then, with a loneliness impregnable and forlorn. Could he only talk to those students now, he would be better fit to acquaint them with the real stuff of loneliness!
      If he could only talk to someone—anyone at all! If he could talk to Andrew in the faintly embarrassing but simple way he had talked to him at their first meeting! Even if Andrew came in now and confronted him with whatever Esther Larch had said, it would be better than this.
      For three hours he had been packing his books away, writing letters to Sibert Mueller and Natalie—trivial letters, too cheerful, that would probably leave Natalie, at least, suspicious that he had omitted something of importance. All right, let her be suspicious! There was not a soul on this earth to whom he could unburden himself now, not one!
      He glanced from his window and saw Bob Gifford puttering about the pump under the windmill. He hurried out at once for a pail of fresh water and invited Bob to come in for a game of cribbage.

ex Martha Ostenso, The Mandrake Root (1938) : 262 : link (snippet only)
but at fadedpage.com : link

from fadedpage.com :
Lydie and Andrew Clarence rent out their orchard house to Eric Stene, the grandson of, Doctor Edvard who lived in the orchard house many years ago. Eric finds his grandfather's journals and decides to compile them into a book. When Eric falls in love with Lydie, he struggles between his desire for a married woman and his respect and friendship for her husband.
      Tragedy, betrayal and high emotion abound in this romance.
—Jen Haines.

The tone of this book — and particularly what becomes of Andrew — reminds me of Georgina Harding, The Gun Room (2016), which I read after The Land of the Living (2018) and before Harvest (2021)

Chapter 3, 1. Woman-talk
      “I’m sorry you have to go so soon,” Sheila said and smiled hospitably as she went with them to the door.
      “You’re not as sorry as I am,” Maggie declared. “I’d like to come again sometime when I—”
      “Do, by all means,” Sheila urged. “Any time. I’m usually right here, or puttering about in my garden.
      She stood in the doorway and watched the women go down the walk and out through the wrought-iron gate, under the flaming copper beeches. Then she closed the door gently and went back into the living room.

chapter 6, 2. Spring Tumult
      The factory had been hobbling along for a little over a month with only a token crew made up of workers who declared themselves out of sympathy with the strike. George Panker had Steve Humphrey largely to thank for that, though his heart had hardened daily against any such makeshift arrangement. His father would never have tolerated any such puttering, he was convinced. Nor would he have stood by and looked on while a crowd of ingrates schemed to wrest from his hands the control of an industry he had spent years in building.
      The results had not been happy. Production, in any true sense of the word, was at a standstill.

aside —
The labor issues and strike mentioned above, suggest that Douglas Durkin might have been involved in this chapter; wikipedia notes that he is “best known for his 1923 novel The Magpie, set during the Winnipeg General Strike and dealing with issues of worker’s rights.”

both ex Martha Ostenso, Milk Route (1948)
only at fadedpage.com : link

from the dustjacket —
Most of what Ben Start knew about the people who lived in the village he had learned through making his early morning deliveries of milk at back doors. And it was enough to raise a question in his mind every time he filled an order. In this novel, Martha Ostenso gently lifts the roof from one home after another to uncover the secrets that lie hidden within.

more, references, &c.

  1. Martha Ostenso (1900-1963)
  2. Many “Martha Ostenso” works are available, in e-formats, at fadedpage.com : link
  3. In 1958, Martha Ostenso and her husband Douglas Durkin signed an official document stating that all titles published under her name were in fact a collaborative effort.
    For a more detailed biography and bibliography, see her entry in the Canada’s Early Women Writers project. : link (which?)
  4. Douglas Durkin (1884-1967)
  5. Faye Hammill’s edition of The Young May Moon (1929), published in 2022 by Borealis Press : link provides much background and analysis of Ostenso’s and Durkin’s work and process. It was preceded by these studies, both available (among other papers) via academia.edu : link

    “Martha Ostenso, Literary History, and the Scandinavian Diaspora,” Canadian Literature 196 (Spring 2008) : 17-31, and

    “The Sensations of the 1920s: Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese and Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna,” in Studies in Canadian Literature (2003) : 74-97

    Some general context is provided in Hammill’s “Middlebrow — Feelings and Fury,” a guest-author post at the Anthem Press blog : link (August 6, 2018)

  6. not listed at wikipedia is :
    Alexander Henry Jones. Martha Ostenso’s novels : a study of three dominant themes (MA Thesis, University of British Columbia, 1970) : link

30 May 2023