The Enchanted BarnApril 24, 2014
Cloudy Jewel isn’t on the shelf I thought it might be on, which means it’s in a box at my mom’s house, waiting to be moved to my apartment. So I continued my exploration of the work of Grace Livingston Hill with The Enchanted Barn. The Enchanted Barn is the story of a young secretary, Shirley Hollister, who needs to find a cheap home for her family for the summer, and ends up renting a stone barn.
First things first: at one point in this book, Shirley is reading From the Car Behind. I’m not trying to cast aspersions on The Enchanted Barn when I say that that was genuinely the most exciting moment for me.
Aside from that, and the two foilings of plots that showcase Shirley’s extreme competence late in the book, mostly The Enchanted Barn is about the Hollisters’ new landlord, Sidney Graham, giving them things and falling in love with Shirley. But the improvements he makes to the barn, with and without their knowledge, aren’t balm to my materialistic soul in the same way as, say, Aunt Crete’s boatload of department store clothes.
I’ve been trying to figure out why that is, and I’ve come up with some theories. Bear with me though, because I’m basically making this all up.
There are three acceptable ways for characters to heap material benefits on people in novels:
1. By dying. Ideally, the person who dies should be vastly wealthy and unknown (or almost unknown) to the beneficiary of their will, but it’s also acceptable for the heir to just not know how wealthy the dead person was (Mr. Bingle), or not to expect to be given the bulk of the fortune (The Year of Delight).
2. In arranged marriages. It’s great when a not entirely willing husband lavishes gifts on the heroine of a novel, but only if he isn’t in love with her yet, or doesn’t know he is. Fake engagements might also come under this heading (Patricia Brent, Spinster).
These options have a couple of things in common: first, the gifts can’t be construed as charity. And second, they can’t be intended to get anything from the main character; they have no strings attached, or are treated as a matter of course. And that’s why the giver of the gifts has to be either unequivocally not a love interest or already married, because if they’re wooing the heroine, or might somewhere down the line, the gifts could be construed as part of the wooing. And that kind of ruins it.
The things Sidney Graham does for Shirley and her family fail on both counts. Part of his interest in Shirley is his attraction to her, right from the beginning, which makes it really difficult to see him as disinterested. And then, while Hill makes a point of Shirley being very sensitive about accepting charity, but she can’t back that up. I mean, she can tell us that both Shirley and Sidney are young and kind of dumb, but that doesn’t make Sidney’s putting staircases and walls and chimneys and windows into the barn anything other than a gift to her.
It lessens the impact of the family living in a barn, too. I mean, they’ve got furniture and stairs and curtains and stuff, and, while it’s still largely a barn, there’s no camping out feel to it. It’s less the story of a family roughing it in a barn for the summer and more the story of a family moving from a cramped city apartment into a big house in the country.
It’s a fun story — I don’t want to suggest that I didn’t enjoy it. The baby’s baby talk was awful, but the next youngest kid’s slang made up for it. And while the living in a barn aspect and the being given nice things aspect weren’t satisfying, the bits where Shirley was extremely competent and earned everyone’s admiration really were. I just spend an excessive amount of time thinking about tropes, and about how fiction functions. It may be an attempt to justify my extremely lowbrow reading choices.