First of all, I love this cover. It’s from 1959, and it’s so gorgeous and of that time. I think it’s great that the Google image of this cover was also cracked in the same places that mine is. I got mine from the dollar bin of used books at our local Hannaford store, but it could easily have been the version that my parents used. I actually read this several weeks ago but was too busy to write about it. But it seems like a perfect time now, on this immaculate fall day when the sun is shining in a blue sky and the yellow maple leaves are as bright as they’ll ever get and constantly swirling through the sky on the autumn breeze as they fall…this book makes me poetic.
I hadn’t read this book since high school, and I didn’t really have many memories of it except the vague idea of some boys in a tree, one who breaks a leg, and one who goes to war and comes back crazy. I wasn’t prepared to actually love this book and I’m not sure I can fully articulate why I did. But a big part of it was definitely it being set in New Hampshire. Despite all my grumbling about the cold, I love New Hampshire and I always had to come back here. Knowles really captures the beauty of NH and makes me love it even more. Maybe that’s a gift of people who weren’t born here, like Knowles and Frost, because they can appreciate it that much more.
I also love that the setting is based on a real place. Knowles is from West Virginia, but he went to Phillips Exeter academy as a boy. And even though it’s a place that I’ve never been, except to drive by, and I never went to boarding school, everything about the landscape and the seasons and the people that he describes is so familiar that I felt like the story could have been about me, or my parents if they had grown up here. It’s easy to love NH on a gorgeous day, and the way Knowles tells it, every day of that golden summer was gorgeous. It helps me get how they could be in the midst of war and still be almost oblivious to it.
So there’s Gene, the narrator. Gene is the guy who represents you and me. Aside from doing that horrible thing and bouncing Finney out of the tree, or maybe because of it (I’ll get to that) he’s a pretty average guy. I guess he’s our access to the story-our window. He’s not a New Englander, but he’s part of the community so he’s both inside and outside. And for some reason Phineas chooses him for his best friend. They become so close that Gene actually begins to see the world through Finney’s eyes, even when he knows better. He accepts Finney’s truths over his own.
I’ve never known anyone like Phineas. I don’t know if anyone has, outside of fiction. There’s something so Peter Pan about him. The way he tries things that no one else would dare, and succeeds. The way he gets so lost in his own thoughts that he literally doesn’t hear people when they talk, and yet he lives so much in the moment. Of course, Finney’s story was heartbreaking, and of course it’s a symbol-for loss of innocence, coming of age, etc.-but there is something so palpable and real about him in that moment when he finally admits to all the things that he had been trying so hard not to acknowledge. When his spirit is finally broken. His literal fall is also a fall from innocence. And I can’t help but relate to it because don’t we all try so hard every day to keep down our fears and not let people know what we know? Don’t we all wear masks to avoid facing dark truths?
What really drove Finney over the edge was not being able to fight in the war because of his injury, which I’m not sure how I feel about. I don’t ever want to fight in a war, and I don’t want other people to either. But Finney was so disappointed that he couldn’t fight that he pretended the war wasn’t even real, just so he wouldn’t have to face the reality of his own disability. Or was it just that the situation of the war made his disability more poignant to him? He demonstrates his patriotism early on, even as he orchestrates the golden summer for the boys not yet old enough to enlist. But was he really that brave? What would it have been like for him if he had made it to the war?
We see the contrast of how this generation views war with the previous generation when the father of one of the students comes to the school. His attitude toward war is that it is not only a duty, but it’s a life experience that is necessary and in some ways even pleasurable. This is the time of your life. Don’t blow it by being afraid or sissy. How much of that is machismo, and how much of it is selective memory-not allowing yourself to remember how terrifying and brutal it was, and what you lost? I guess there’s a necessary bravado involved in facing something terrifying and unknown and inevitable. I imagine it’s a way of coping, but I wouldn’t really know. There’s no way of knowing how you would react to something like that until it happens.
Which brings us to Leper. Poor, gentle, Leper. He tried to be so brave. He accepted his fate, but he couldn’t handle the reality of it. I relate a lot to Leper, actually. He’s sort of the weirdo loner. I always had friends, but, ok, think about this. You know that Gene and Leper are acquaintances, but at one point in the story, toward the end, it becomes clear that Gene and Leper were actually best friends, at least until Phineas came along. I’ve had close friends who “moved on” from me before and I know how that feels. I think it’s a natural part of relationships, but it still hurts. And when Gene moved on Leper was left on his own to deal not only with school life, but with his impending draft. He did his best to face it, but it was too much for him. So if you’re in the Hating Gene camp, consider his apparent desertion of Leper as well.
And speaking of Gene-what kind of jerk is he anyway, knocking Phineas off of the tree branch in the first place? What does it mean? I think this act in its literal form is the equivalent of that feeling when you look over the edge of a bridge and think about jumping off. Except you don’t jump. But the narrator did jump and it was Phineas who fell. Metaphorically, I think it’s about the dark places that we go in our minds, mostly because we are afraid, and the consequences of that darkness, and how uncontrollable it is. Bad things do happen to good people. And we are powerless to stop them, even though it seems like we should be able to. We should be in control of our own minds and limbs, just as nations should be able to control their circumstances enough to avoid war, but they can’t or won’t or just don’t. And there are always innocent victims.
On that cheery note, I guess I’ll end. But I have to say this is one of my favorite “war stories”, which I generally cannot stand. Because it speaks the truth that I feel, which is that war is meaningless, mindless, and endless, and I can understand losing my mind if I had to face it.
Here are the last few paragraphs of the book. Enjoy if you wish.
I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there.
Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone. Other people experienced this fearful shock somewhere, this sighting of the enemy, and so began an obsessive labor of defense, began to parry the menace they saw facing them by developing a particular frame of mind, “You see,” their behavior toward everything and everyone proclaimed, “I am a humble ant, I am nothing, I am not worthy of this menace,” or else, like Mr. Ludsbury, “How dare this threaten me, I am much too good for this sort of handling, I shall rise above this,” or else, like Quackenbush, strike out at it always and everywhere, or else, like Brinker, develop a careless general resentment against it, or else, like Leper, emerge from a protective cloud of vagueness only to meet it, the horror, face to face, just as he had always feared, and so give up the struggle absolutely.
All of them, except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way-if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.