Strolling Through a Story: Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Hiltons’ Holiday” (1895)

Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Click here to read the story free.

(A quick note: It is currently December 2018. I wrote this essay back in March 2015 but never published it. For reasons many and various, my blogging dwindled from that time until now. I’m back at it, with several more essays written in that first half of 2015 that will be posted in the coming weeks.)

It is a common assertion among fiction writers that there must be conflict if one dares to write a story. Generally, I agree with this assertion, but it doesn’t always have to be true. Art reaffirms life, and life is not always about conflict. Depending on when and where one grows up, life is more often about simple moments and enjoyable exploration. In her short story, “The Hiltons’ Holiday,” Sarah Orne Jewett demonstrates how a story can be a gentle stroll, rather than a tense clash of values. Yet, despite lacking a plot and a central conflict, it is nevertheless engaging.

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Source: Wikipedia

As plotless as a story can be, “The Hiltons’ Holiday” is, in a sense, nothing more than the title suggests: John Hilton and his daughters go on a holiday. The Hiltons are farmers, including John Hilton, his wife, and his two daughters, Katy and Sarah Ellen. John and his wife sit on their porch one evening talking about their daughters, who are at the new schoolteacher’s home for a fun gathering. John says he wants his daughters to see more of the world than just the farm: “I want ‘em to know the world, an’ not stay right here on the farm like a couple o’ bushes” (Jewett 148). He wants to take them to the nearby town of Topham for a day so they can see a slice of the larger world. His wife agrees and they make plans for the next day. John takes his daughters into town. Along the 17-mile road they traverse via horse-and-wagon, John stops and talks with several neighbors. This makes the girls anxious to get to town, yet the journey itself is exciting: “[Katy] liked to see the strange houses, and the children who belonged to them; it was delightful to find flowers that she knew growing all along the road, no matter how far she went from home” (152). Finally, they arrive in town. They meet old Judge Masterson, a friend of John’s mother when they were children. Meeting a man whom their own father regards highly, the girls are awed. Again, for Katy it is a memorable experience: “For the first time in her life the child had felt the charm of manners; perhaps she owned a kinship between that which made him what he was and the spark of nobleness and purity in her own simple soul” (155). Afterward, the Hiltons visit another friend of John’s, they pick flowers, and they buy candy and a new hat for John in local stores, all of them feeling that “[i]t was a famous day” (155). They return home and regale John’s wife—the daughters’ mother—with tales of the holiday, and the story ends, simply, with life moving on with a pleasant memory behind them and the hope of an exciting future ahead. The story is as plotless and without conflict as any story can be. Yet it is thrilling. How did Jewett make it so?

To answer that question, it is important that we identify this story as what it is, a milieu story. Science fiction and fantasy author Orson Scott Card encourages writers to use the “MICE quotient” to determine what kind of story they will write: Milieu, Idea, Character, or Event (76). All of these types of stories will include elements of the other, but will focus chiefly on the chosen type. A character story, therefore, shows a character’s development, and other elements like ideas or events are designed around that central aspect of the story. If the story is about an event, then the purpose of characters is not necessarily to change (though they might), but to be eyes and ears through which readers can experience the event. A milieu story, however, is not so often used in literary fiction. This story structure focuses on the world of the story: the land, the people, the laws, the culture, etc. A reader wanders through the world for no other reason than to be amazed. Fantasy writers often use this technique. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, is a milieu story: most of the trilogy is about the characters simply seeing amazing things. The conflict, character development, and events are important and well handled, but the chief purpose of the story is to explore the milieu of Middle Earth. On a far less epic, but no less valid, scale, Jewett hands us a milieu story in “The Hiltons’ Holiday.”

Remember, this story occurs in the late 1800s when Americans were still taming the Wild West. The Hiltons might be farmers who acquired land via the Homestead Act: “Each small homestead looked its best and pleasantest” (Jewett 152). Topham Corners might be one of the many railroad towns that sprung up after the end of the Civil War, where “corners” suggests that several roads lead to it from rural farms. Several pages of the story are dedicated to describing the sights, sounds, smells, and people that the Hiltons encounter during their holiday in Topham Corners: “In the chief business street of Topham a great many country wagons like the Hiltons’ were fastened to posts, and there seemed to our holiday-makers to be a great deal of noise and excitement” (155). It is a town bustling with activity, but does this mean the story is without conflict?

In a structural sense, yes, there is absolutely no conflict in the story. In an historical sense, however, no: consider what it takes for these farmers to take a holiday. Consider John’s thoughts on the matter, even though it was his idea: “The magnitude of the plan for taking a whole day of pleasure confronted him seriously” (Jewett 150). Before they left, John awoke before five in the morning and milked the cows, at the very least taking care of that chore. Then he comes up with at least three “excuses” to go into town: get a new straw hat, buy a new farm hoe, and buy some turnip seeds for planting. Finally, the Hiltons must journey 17 miles over dirt trails via horse and wagon, a time-consuming part of their day; of course, later, they must also travel 17 miles home. So, the underlying conflict of this story is easy to forget, but important to remember: it was no simple thing back then to take a holiday. But John felt it was important for his daughters. Though they might be content on the farm, he says, “I don’t know’s bein’ contented is all there is to look for in a child. Ambition’s somethin’ to me” (148). It works, too: Katy, whom we might say is the central focus of the story, is awed by Topham Academy, where her grandmother went to school and where, John tells her, she might go to school one day as well; Judge Masterson charms Katy; and the girls enjoy the pleasures the town has to offer. Jewett helps us feel their excitement as they enjoy their holiday. By the story’s end, we’re inclined to agree with Mrs. Hilton, who says, “You an’ the little girls have had a great time. They was full o’ wonder to me about everythin’, and I expect they’ll talk about it for a week. I guess we was right about havin’ ‘em see somethin’ more o’ the world” (158). That’s it. That’s the story’s purpose and theme, carried with never an ounce of plot or real conflict. And it was delightful.

It is true that, generally, stories need conflict to be worth reading. However, it is also true that, sometimes, we need to stop and smell the flowers, and relish in a world all its own, a world to which we are new, which shines brightly and smells sweetly, and in which men are “honest as daylight” (Jewett 149). Settling America’s Western frontier was one of the most challenging events in human history, yet even then, there were simple pleasures to enjoy. Let’s be like Katy: let’s see the world with fresh eyes full of ambition.

My review: I was surprised at how much I enjoyed such a plotless, carefree story. It helped to remember the difficulties those pioneers faced on a daily basis, so one has to bring in one’s own knowledge of history and circumstance to recreate fully the setting of this story (remember playing Oregon Trail as a kid?). Jewett built excitement in the reader by showing how excited the characters were. She uses a lot of dialogue to develop her characters, which was appropriate. I hope to encounter more stories like this in the future, where I can simply relax and relish in the joy of a beautiful place well described—but I hope such stories are few and far between, because, after all, I prefer plot and conflict.

Favorite quotes:

  • “Dark woods stood all about the old Hilton farmhouse, save down the hill, westward, where lay the shadowy fields which John Hilton, and his father before him, had cleared and tilled with much toil—the small fields to which they had given the industry and even affection of their honest lives.” (145-6)
  • “The little dog sat apart, and barked as if it fell entirely upon him to voice the general excitement.” (151)
  • “There was a tone in her father’s voice [as he told a familiar story] that drew Katy’s heart toward him with new affection. She dimly understood, but Susan Ellen was less interested. They had often heard this story before, but to one child it was always new and to the other old.” (153)
  • “‘The best of young folks is, they remind us of the old ones.’” (156)
  • “They did not know why their father was so pleased with [their portrait]; they would not know until age had dowered them with the riches of association and remembrance.” (157)

Works Cited

Card, Orson Scott. How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2001. Print.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. “The Hiltons’ Holiday.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 145-58. Print.

 

Post written by Christopher Chinchilla; edited by Cyndi Sabo.

 

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Blood at Christmas

20151228 Blood at ChristmasSome think that family is simply defined as being blood-related, and “you do anything for blood.” Others say that family begins with blood, but eventually relies on people’s character, such that a friend might become family while a father becomes an acquaintance. I am of the latter conviction. Since Christmas has just passed, I thought I’d reflect on what makes family, and see if you have anything to add to that reflection.

The conviction that “we should do anything for blood” is flawed. It demands sacrificing yourself for people who don’t necessarily deserve it. If your sibling is a wreck, you stand beside him anyway. If your parents crush your spirits, you still help them when they need it, especially as they get older. Sure, the friend who has been by your side through trials and tribulations deserves your loyalty, too, but no one deserves loyalty more than blood family.

I consider such a view of family loyalty to be immoral. It asks a person to be, as the philosopher Ayn Rand puts it throughout her work, a sacrificial animal.

Family is a matter of choice, and loyalty is tied to that choice.

We’re told that children should remain loyal to their parents. Christian theology is especially fond of hammering this into children, as it demands that a child honor his father and mother for no other reason than they are his father and mother. The reverse is true, though. Parents, honor your children, simply because they’re your children. Parents chose to bring the child into the world; the child didn’t choose it. Parents owe loyalty to their children for that reason alone.

Children, however, owe their parents nothing, unless their parents have earned it. “Earning it” doesn’t mean changing diapers or providing food, shelter, and a basic education. These make up the foundation upon which the parent must then build a history of earning their child’s loyalty and respect. The father who crushes his son’s spirits or the mother who clings too tightly to her daughter has not earned these things, despite the number of diapers changed or hours of sleep lost.

Still, parents’ loyalty to their children does not have to be absolute. I’ll discuss this in a future post.

With Christmas behind us, I’m glad to have spent time with my parents, despite the cracks in our relationships. Nevertheless, the cracks remain, and it is no wonder why my best friend feels more like family to me than some of my closest blood relatives do.

There is no easy summation to this post. It barely scratches the surface. How do we earn loyalty, for example? Different people will have different answers to this question. A person will say they have earned loyalty, and their family members will scoff. It’s a lot to consider, but whatever the specifics, the proper foundation is simple.

Family is a matter of choice, not blood.

Family earns loyalty; it does not demand sacrifice.

What do you think?


"In a quiet café, Johnny tells his religiously-oppressive wife, Jessica, that he wants a divorce—and he's taking their daughter, Lily, with him."

For more thoughts on family bonds, check out my short story “Coffee in the Afternoon,” first published in Fabula Argentea in 2014. Read it now for free or get it for Kindle.

 

You accomplished more than you think this year

Being a writer isn’t easy. The truly enjoyable moments have to be earned through consistent work. Unfortunately, I’ve always been a little lazy. I have bouts of passion-powered productivity, and then drop off like a bear in winter.

Given the greater effort I’ve put into my writing career the last two months, though, I expect I’ll be much more productive in 2016. Still, 2015 had its writing triumphs, too. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to list them.

At first, I wasn’t going to. I thought, “I haven’t done enough to take a victory lap by announcing ‘accomplishments.'” Then, after a few minutes going back and forth, I decided I’m not going to dismiss my own accomplishments like that. Whether it’s been a super productive or embarrassingly lazy year, we all achieved something, and we shouldn’t forget that.

So, here are my writing accomplishments for 2015, such as they are:

1. In February, I wrote and published the prequel to my novella, The Woman Alone, called Susan’s Lover: A Valentine’s Day StoryHardly the “romance” it sounds like, it explores elements of the inner lives of three main characters from the first novella in a way that, I’m not ashamed to say, had me teary-eyed. I learned a lot about myself from writing it.

20151221 The Woman Alone - Savannah2. I released a beautiful new paperback edition of The Woman Alone that features both the novella and its prequel, with an afterword by the woman it’s dedicated to, my mother.

3. I read three new books on the craft of writing, as well as dozens of novels, plays, and short stories. Reading sharpens writing skills.

4. My blog limped along, but a month ago, I committed to writing a new post every Monday, and this is Post #4. Consistency is key to progress!

5. I attended nearly every meetup of the weekly writer’s group that I organized.

6. I wrote several short stories, but I can’t boast any publications this year…because I didn’t submit anything. You can bet that will change in 2016!

7. I returned to my love of writing science fiction and fantasy. I self-published two books in a new fantasy series. (Check out my alter ego, Chris Raiin, and read the first book free.)

20151221 Bachelor's Degree8. Most of all, I completed studies for my Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and English on December 1st, 2015.  A long journey coming to a close.


I’m glad I wrote these down. Seeing them makes the year behind me shine in new light, and motivates me for the year ahead.

What are some of your achievements this year? I’d love to hear about them!

What is Revolution?

keep-calm-and-start-a-revolution-6A few days ago, I saw a bike shop’s billboard whose ad catered to New Year’s resolutions. It had the word “resolution” crossed out. Underneath it was scrawled, “REVOLUTION.” Now, I didn’t exactly go get a bike after that (I already have a pretty sweet Giant Rainier mountain bike), but it got me thinking: Yeah, this year will be a REVOLUTION for my life and my writing. And really, the two are the same. Or, as the passionate teacher, Ms. Clark, says in my upcoming novella, Clay Man, “I do not distinguish between my work and my life.” Think about it. That’s revolutionary, huh?

For me, it is. I came up with some pretty straight-forward resolutions this year:

  • keep working toward my degree
  • write more and continue to publish and get published
  • start a new volunteer youth group
  • get back in shape (always that one, right?)
  • and get married!

I can count those resolutions on five fingers, but they’re way bigger than a simple list. In fact, they’re so big that they jumped out of the “resolution” category and landed smack in the middle of “revolution”. And all these resolutions tie to one thing: my writing.

For a writer, writing is the exploration of himself. It ventures to all the corners of his mind and heart—his knowledge, loves, and fears—and challenges them…to be interesting, to be malleable or to be solid, and to be influential. And everything he does, says, or thinks in life affects his writing. For example, my novella, The Woman Alonesurprised even me as I wrote it. I had no idea I’d be interested in writing a mystery-adventure story about an exotic animal veterinarian, Susan, in Kenya chasing a “dark man” who has released a plague targeting the giraffes. Where did that come from?? Well, my mother always wanted to be an exotic veterinarian and she loves Kenya. My fiancée’s favorite animal is the giraffe. And for myself, I wanted to explore “passion” as a theme. Somehow, all of this converged into one beautiful novella. I see bits of myself and people I love sprinkled in all of the characters. There are even parts of me in the antagonist, the “dark man” that threatens Susan to satisfy his obsession. If I pretend that I don’t empathize with him, I’m lying to myself. I am what I write. How and in what way is a diagnosis best left to myself, my loved ones, and maybe psychologists, as is the case for all of us—but it reveals this important idea: I do not distinguish between my work and my life—between my writing and my life. They’re the same. They serve each other.

This year, my resolutions have become a revolution. I quit my job the beginning of this year to focus on school and writing. In fact, as I write this, my last day of work was yesterday, Jan. 23rd. (Don’t worry, my fiancée and I have squared away our finances, at least for a little while.) This is a big jump, a leap of faith (faith in myself), and an upset to the existing order. It is nothing short, therefore, of a REVOLUTION. And all of my resolutions tie to writing. School teaches me new ways to think and write; being healthy keeps my mind sharp; volunteering with a youth organization helps me empathize with different perspectives; and even getting married is all about feeling like a person who can bring great things to my love’s life, and I feel like that when I’m productively writing.

As the revolution progresses, I’ll be writing more and more. Full-time, in fact. So stay tuned. What’s mine to explore and write about is yours to embrace, to judge, to love, and to condemn, however you see fit. Writing is a solo act. Reading is a solo act. Yet they are probably the most revolutionary acts anyone has ever taken. (Maybe I’ll write about that more in the future.) Writing The Woman Alone showed me that writing is my life, just as animals are Susan’s life. So it’s 2015. Time for revolution!

What are your resolutions this year? Are they revolutionary? Let me know in a comment!

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Dr. King and I

Martin-Luther-King-I-have-a-dream_0 When I was a young man in 7th grade, in 1996, my middle school sponsored an essay contest for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I participated. It was the first contest I’d ever entered, and the first time I’d ever put my writing on display. I’ll always remember it because it was dreamlike…

I was in science class the morning the essay was due. My heart fell when I realized I’d forgotten about it amidst all my other homework. When a teacher asked me about it and I admitted I didn’t have it, she said, “Well, you have about 20 minutes before the next class. Go write.” I didn’t think it was enough time, but she seemed insistent. So I sat down at the computer and opened a blank document. I stared at the screen a few minutes, composing my thoughts. Dr. King… MLK Day… Civil Rights… What’s it mean to me, to America? Then I wrote. It might have been two pages. I hit print and submitted it to my teacher next class…

I won. I don’t know how many students entered, but I know there were second and third place winners with me at the banquet a few weeks later.

The banquet, that’s where it all felt dreamlike. My dad got me a suit. He showed me how to tie a double-windsor. We entered the hallway outside the banquet hall and teachers introduced me to…really, I don’t know who, maybe the city mayor, maybe the head of the local chapter of the NAACP. I remember adults smiling at me, many of whom were African American. They shook my hand. I was told that a chaperone would lead me to the stage when it was time for me to read my essay. A tall, beautiful black woman introduced herself to me. She was my chaperone. She had her hair up. She wore a form-fitting blue dress with diamond sparkles flecked throughout. The sparkles caught all the light. The other two speakers were girls, so their chaperones were men. I spoke last, and the black woman in blue took my arm in hers—or maybe put her arm in mine—and led me to the stage.

I felt too much, too honored. I was too young. I’d written the essay in 15 minutes. I’d won first place. I felt like I’d cheated the guests. The woman guided me to the podium. She may have kissed my cheek. (You see how it’s like a dream?) I looked out over the audience; there were maybe a hundred African Americans dressed in their Sunday best, seated at glimmering tables covered in white table cloths and shining dinner plates, and all of the guests’ eyes were on me. I saw expectant smiles, men and women leaning forward waiting for me to speak. I placed the clean papers of my essay on the podium and began to read. It was the first time I’d ever heard my voice projected through a microphone…

When it was over, the audience applauded long and happily. The beautiful woman returned to the stage, took my arm again, and walked me down the steps and out to the hall. I remember being afraid I’d step on the part of her dress that skirted the floor as she walked…

I don’t remember what I wrote in that essay. If there’s a copy of it, or a video of the speech, or if anyone remembers it, I don’t know. But I recall signing off by looking at the African Americans gathered in the hall and saying, “…and I salute you.” It was the end of my essay. Maybe that’s all I need to remember. I still salute the memory of Dr. King and his Civil Rights Movement. When I find myself in ideological arguments, I remind myself that I don’t need to convince people today. They may seem 100% resistant now, but if I keep my cool and step away from the argument at the right time, they may think about what I said. Tomorrow they might see things anew—they might change their minds. If nothing else, I know that’s how people have changed my mind…

Change is not immediate; influence is not immediately apparent. It’s the fundamental lesson Dr. King has taught me: trust yourself, certainly; and trust other people. Trust that they’re capable of right thinking. Be willing to give them the time needed to make that change. It might mean trouble for you. It might mean very hard times. Keep talking anyway. Keep trusting. Change will come through. That was his dream.

Yes, I remember it was dreamlike…

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

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Memorial Day: Grandpa Sabo, US Army

ImageThis Memorial Day, as every year, I remember a particular soldier most of all, my grandfather, Arthur Sabo, who served in the Army during World War II as a Captain. In 2009, he was inurned in our nation’s most prestigious military burial grounds, Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. I was astounded at the lengths gone to in honoring him. Just take a look at the pictures below. Although there are specific qualifications that a serviceman must meet to be buried at Arlington, the ceremonies are proper for all who have served honorably. I’m proud of him and everyone who has served or serves honorably in our armed forces. Happy Memorial Day to you. We should be happy today, because memorializing honorable men and women is a privilege.

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In honor of Captain Arthur Sabo, USA.

 

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I carried the flag that was presented to my mother, Captain Sabo’s daughter, at his funeral.

 

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“Taps” is played as an Army platoon pays respects to Captain Sabo.