In her new book, “The Field House,” a biography of writer Rachel Field, Robin Clifford Wood takes an unusual approach. She examines Field’s life by reflecting on her home in Maine and the profound influence it had on her.

Field died in 1942 at the age of 47. In her short, prolific life, she’d nonetheless received a host of awards for her books — including a Newbery Award, a Caldecott Medal and a National Book Award. In 1994, writer Robin Clifford Wood and her husband purchased the house on Sutton Island where Field had spent much of her life. As Wood explored the house and read up on its history, she became more and more intrigued — and eventually began work on a biography of Field. “The Field House” is the result of that effort.

“The Field House,” while largely the story of Field’s life, is juxtaposed with Wood’s account of how she came to write the book and the parallels she uncovered between her own life and that of her subject. Wood draws inspiration from Field’s experiences of being a woman who went against the grain in her time, and she describes how both of them found a welcome home for artists in Maine. Like Field, Wood faced the difficulties of balancing the writing life with family life.

Wood uses an epistolary device to draw those connections, alternating chapters that outline Field’s path to literary celebrity with letters Wood addresses to an absent Field. Given that the biographical portions of the book cite an array of Field’s correspondence, the two sections are stylistically consistent – although some of Wood’s letters make the connection between the two women more strongly than others do.

It helps that Wood has a fine eye for detail. An early passage describing the house that both women called home decades from one another abounds with singular images, including “a pegboard shopping list that includes alum, lamp wicks, and lard.” And here, Wood’s own fascination with life on Sutton Island echoes what she describes as the transformational effect life on the Maine coast had on Field.  The “roots and background of her Stockbridge ancestry faded out of sight once she discovered Maine,” Wood writes.

Life in Maine was crucial to Field’s life and work. Her home in Maine gave her a space in which she could focus on her writing, a process Wood chronicles here. Some of her books also used Maine as their settings, including 1931’s “Calico Bush,” set on the Maine coast in 1743, and 1934’s “God’s Pocket,” inspired by the life of Captain Samuel Hadlock Jr. of Cranberry Isles. The New York Times dubbed the latter a “strange and most entertaining little book” upon its publication.


But her Maine life is not the sole focus of this biography. “The Field House” features a few forays into the New York City literary world of the 1930s, which found Field crossing paths with the likes of Ford Madox Ford and Theodore Dreiser. It’s also here that Wood recounts Field’s close connection with writer Lyle Saxon. Later, when Field’s fame grew and brought her to Hollywood, there’s a particularly memorable account of her growing friendship with Bette Davis; the two bonded over their New England roots.

Wood offers insights into how Field wrote books like “Hitty, Her First Hundred Years” and “All This and Heaven Too” — including extrapolating which elements may have alluded to Field’s own life and history. A bittersweet quality pervades the end of the biography, where Wood mentions that many of Field’s books are out of print, save her best-known works for younger readers.

“The Field House” does a fine job explaining the details of Field’s life and her steady path toward success. But readers may miss a more in-depth analysis of Field’s writing. The book gives little sense of how her work related to that of her peers or what a contemporary reader might get out of it. This feels like a missed opportunity — if Field is, in fact, a writer awaiting a revival, this book would have been an ideal place to make the case for it.

Field lived an interesting life, which intersected with other equally intriguing people. (Her great-aunt, Henriette Deluzy-Desportes, provided the inspiration for “All This, and Heaven Too.”) Wood’s biography conveys the scope of that life and is a compelling, empathic tribute to a writer who left this world far too early.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: “Political Sign,” “Reel” and “Transitory.” He has reviewed books for The New York Times, Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.

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