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Note on “A White Heron”

January 2, 2013

This post is about the short story “A White Heron” written by Sarah Orne Jewitt. The main character is nine year old Sylvy who spent a timid 8 years growing up in a manufacturing town. When she goes to the country to live with her grandmother, it is as if she had never lived anywhere else.

In the story, Grandmother refers to Sylvy as “afraid of folks” when she chooses her to go live in the country. I think “afraid of folks” refers to Sylvy’s quiet and timid nature–she did not fit in well in the city. Once on the farm, Sylvy spends her time exploring and observing nature. Miss Jewett depicts this country setting quite vividly.

Sylvy is out fetching the somewhat cantankerous milk cow, when a young man appears. She tries to hide but he spots her. I think that subtly and by the end definitely, this character reveals himself to be the antagonist of the story.

The conflict is that Sylvy must choose between two “deeply felt loyalties.” it would appear that one of these loyalties is to the young man, who is a hunter and stays at Sylvy’s grandma’s place. Sylvy spends time with him in the woods and likes him, but for a single misgiving: when his gun goes off and a dead bird, song ceased, falls to the ground. The second loyalty is to the white heron, which she has spotted and the hunter is pursuing for it’s feathers. But I would go a step further to say that the two loyalties are to the country woods and to her grandmother.

Sylvy’s grandmother has brought her to live in the country and the the little girl has come to love it more than anything. They are poor and the young hunter offers to make them rich with ten dollars, which was more like one thousand back in that time. It would buy them many treasures. Grandmother obviously needs this money for the farm, and the white heron is part of the woods.

I would describe Sylvy’s relationship with nature as profound, perceptive, and having a degree of harmony. This relationship is revealed in a couple of well described scenes. The first is when the hunter first comes onto the farm and is chatting with her grandmother, while Sylvy is sitting on the steps observing a hop-toad. “But Sylvia still watched the toad, not divining, as she might have done at some calmer time, that the creature wished to get to its hole under the doorstep, and was much hindered by the unusual spectators at that hour of the evening.” The second is when Sylvy left the house before dawn to go and spot the heron’s nest and return with the secret of its location for the hunter. “…and at last when the whippoorwills ceased, and she was afraid the morning would afterall come too soon, she stole out of the house and followed the pasture path to the woods…” When Sylvy reaches the tree, there is suspense and passion as she climbs the oak and takes the “daring step” across into the old pine tree. Jewett writes: “Who knows how steadily the least twigs held themselves to advantage this light, weak creature on her way! The old pine must have loved his new dependent.”

Sylvy climbs and does find the white heron’s nest, in fact, the heron flies and perches on a branch of the pine very near her. Sylvy hastens carefully down the tree and hurries home. Once there, despite the hunter’s insistence and grandmother’s rebukes, she cannot speak! Now that she knows the heron’s secret, she cannot give its life away! The hunter leaves disappointed. (It is evident that she feels loyalty to him, but the reason I discern a deeper loyalty to her grandma is because once the hunter got what he wanted, he would have paid out the ten dollars and left anyway.)

Jewett ends the story like this. There is a lot of importance placed on the opening line of a story and rightly so, but I think the last sentences are important too, and sometimes it is harder to come up with a real good one. I love the way Jewett end this story: “Were the birds better friends to her than their hunter might have been, who can tell? Whatever treasures were lost to her woodlands and summer-time, remember! Bring your gifts and graces and tgell your secrets to this lonely country child!”

I think Sylvy chooses as she does, because the gifts and secrets of the woods are treasures that will endure beyond what the ten dollars could provide.

My perception or notion of the child’s loyalty between grandma and the woods is somewhat ironic, because Grandma nurtured Sylvy’s loyalty to nature by taking her to live in the country. I think Grandma is okay with Sylvy’s choice.

I like this story a lot and my third time reading it won’t be the last. I really like nature. I was raised in the system, and so, a city environment, but I think I’m somewhat of a country boy at heart with an appreciation for the city. I always wanted to live in a more rural area — a short drive or long walk from the city. I liked Lebanon, Oregon when I was there. The air was fresher and sweet, the houses were sort of spread out. I could hear the animals and smell the trees. I enjoy nature. Solitude. Quietude. I’ve always admired the birds, the way they fly freely. I miss nature a lot more no that I will never trek through its majesty again. Nope, no trees standing tall, seeming to keep watch over the land. Only towers with guards and M-14’s, concrete and barbed wire. Why do I do this to myself?

Anyway, “A White Heron” is a great story. Hope you will read it and enjoy it as much as I did. As I said in last post, it is available on the Internet. I welcome your discussion. Okay, time for a cup of coffee, a little reading, then some writing…

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