Shakespeare’s Son

If you are looking for a good book to read now that the kids are back in school and the garden is producing in a more manageable fashion, let me suggest to you one of my favorites of the summer, if not the year. 

“Hamnet,” by Maggie O’Farrell, is work of fiction, but linked to the most famous writer of all, William Shakespeare, although his name is never mentioned.  He is referred to as the Latin tutor, the husband, the father, and that is all. 

But we know. 

This is a sweeping book of small domestic intimacies.  We are at home with Shakespeare as a charming but distracted young man as he navigates the mine fields of a difficult and often cruel father. He meets Anne—Agnes, as she is referred to throughout the book, and it may in fact have been her name—a woman older and wise in the ways of nature, herbs, and falconry, and he is quite quickly a goner. 

But first, we meet their son, eleven-year old Hamnet, running down a flight of stairs. 

He is frantic, looking for his mother, his grandmother, anyone who can help him, for his twin sister, Judith, is sick. O’Farrell takes us through the streets and alleys of Stratford as we follow his running feet, and before we have turned the third page, we care about this child, his desperately ill sister, and before the chapter is done, we care about the family that enfolds them.  

We care because this is a fine novel of small things, the vagaries of marriage, the difficulty of in-laws, the joy and desperate love for children.  And it is a novel of the plague. 

It surprises us, even as we sense a creeping fear that things will not be well for the children in this family.  We have read the subtile of the book on the jacket cover:  “A novel of the plague.”  

But it surprises us all the same. 

O’Farrell moves around in time in a way that deepens and enriches both the story and the characters.  We are in Stratford in the late sixteenth century with Hamnet and his sister and family, and we are also given a supposing of Shakespeare and Agnes’ early meeting fifteen years earlier.  Again, much of this is imagining, but the reader senses much research went in to the writing of this book, and the author provides such a steady hand we willingly go along. 

All of this book is a delight to read, from the feel of the beautiful cover to the gorgeous use of language to the dramatic setting.  

And then there is the flea.

That flea takes us from a glassblower in Murano to the sickbed of a child in England, and it may be worth getting this book for that journey alone. The circuitous route, the happenstance of it all was fascinating and heartbreaking and something to wonder over. 

The story, of course, will have a sad end, and we know that going in.  But such tender writing, with such depth, gives us to know the writer cares about the reader as much as she has fallen in love with the characters. She writes as if she is wise and loving grandmother holding our hands while the heartbreaking truth of things unspool before us.  

Which makes this such a moving and satisfying read. 

It is a skillfully crafted book.  It is fiction, a broad imagining of events six hundred years ago, events in a family with what is now surely the most famous name in literary history.  As with all good fiction, though, it feels true and evokes in the reader emotions and memories and  curiosities to ponder long after the last leaf of the book is turned.

The Nature of Things

The mornings are nice to sit outside, drink coffee and contemplate the world, one’s life or even the laundry piling up in the basement.  I was doing all these things a couple of mornings ago, when a tiny rabbit sidled along the walk, hesitated, sniffed the air, then headed for the hostas by the back door, disappearing for good. 

I don’t take much notice of the rabbits in my yard, especially since I learned to forgive them their lapin ways, eating all my tomato plants as they do.  We just coexist now in an easy acceptance of each other and I feel all  Beatrix Potter when I see them, then quickly return to my own thoughts, my own business at hand. 

But that morning I sat up and felt a swell of tenderness, whispered, “oh, you made it.”  And  I was one with the universe for a moment.  

I hoped this little fellow was one of a fluffle my young friend, Sterling, and I unearthed by accident a few weeks ago.  She was handling the shovel, I was giving directions, as she dug a shallow hole in the flowerbed along my side porch.  We had just pulled up a lemon verbena that threatened to take over and one I was tired of.

The ground is unusually soft there, which is fortunate, because Sterling didn’t have to dig too hard to turn the earth.  On the second scoop of the shovel, she gave a little cry. 

There was a baby bunny wriggling and squinting and squirming not four inches below the surface.  We came closer and no, not just one.  Three, four baby rabbits, maybe more. 

To her credit, Sterling took it much better than I.  It horrified me a little.  But she asked quietly what we should do, and then, not waiting for a reply, began gently covering them back over.  We placed the pulled up verbena over the space and hoped for the best. 

It is a myth, I found out, that mother rabbits will not return to their babies if they sense human involvement.  Friends reassured me they would be fine.  My sister and brother-in-law have a rabbit maternity ward in their backyard, with rabbits routinely giving birth close to their house, and they watch the mothers feed their babies, toss them out of the little burrow to clean the nest, then toss them back in again.  

But still, I was afraid to check on my little boarders.  I just couldn’t do it. 

So, I was happy to see the hopping little thing hide in my hostas.  Later, I screwed up my courage and checked the hole, but not before researching how long baby rabbits stay in one.  It is a short period, two weeks, or so, and that time had easily passed.  They were all gone.  So gone from the place, if I hadn’t known they had been here, I would never have known they were there.  I planted my garden phlox as I had intended weeks ago, and marveled at it all.

I have friends who grew up along side creeks and woods and country lanes, or had grandparents they visited regularly in the country.  They talk about the Gaines woods, or Anglin Falls, or “the narrows.”  Sometimes they use words like “shoals.”  They speak lovingly of mud. 

And I don’t completely get it.  I like nature, but I like it manicured, neat.  Maybe it is the fecundity of our region, all that undergrowth and dampness, everything at certain times of year just on the verge of rot.  I will hike with you, but let’s do it in the autumn, or a crisp winter day, when the path is clear, when we can see where we are headed, when the trees aren’t dripping wet for no good reason.  

I had a colleague from Colorado who came to Kentucky in her early twenties on the Greyhound bus.  She left a place of wide expanses and rocky outcroppings, slept through the prairie, and awoke with a start in Kentucky, all the green, the lushness, the closeness of our landscape.  She had the heebie-jeebies for a week. 

She soon appreciated the differences.  Out west the landscape forces us to look out.  Here, the landscape requires we look down.  Under things.  Look with specificity, find grandiosity in small wonders.  Move carefully.  Know the ways of rabbits, snakes, birds. Study bugs and bark, the fallen trees rendering back to earth.  

I try to learn from my nature-bound friends.  It is a long, long lesson.