Check it out, guys. We've discovered a portal that can zap you back in time and give you an experience you've always dreamed of: life in rural upstate New York in the early 1900s. Okay, okay, so the book-as-time-machine metaphor is a little cheesy and overdone, and maybe rural life 100 years ago isn't your dream time-travel destination.
But Walter D. Edmonds' historical children's novel Bert Breen's Barn (1975) is very likely the closest any of us will ever come to witnessing life as a hardworking mill hand in turn-of-the-century Boonville, NY. By most accounts, Edmonds did a pretty good job of it: the novel won the National Book Award (children's literature category) in 1976.
In addition to being a historical novel, Bert Breen's Barn is also a regional novel, set in a small town near the Black River in upstate New York—funny enough, the same town Edmonds himself was born in. Maybe that's how he got his inspiration? The area's got impressive scenery, as well as important history in farming and industry, both of which are key elements in Bert Breen's Barn.
And why's that? See, the main character, a poor teenager named Tom Dolan, goes to work at a mill in town because he wants to save up money to buy a decent barn for his family so that he can one day become a successful farmer. A young 'un looking to make his way in the world and ultimately become his own boss…sounds like it has all the makings of a coming-of-age story about the American dream, doesn't it?
And that's exactly what we've got. The novel is all about exploring the American dream in a uniquely American setting, making it an awesome book buddy to compare to other classics about American dreams in American places like Willa Cather's My Ántonia, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, to name a few.
Now that's good company.
Yes, this novel is about life more than a century ago. Yes, it may seem a little dry to readers today. However, it's well worth the tallyho. Why? It's a pep talk for anyone who has ever wanted something better out of life. Ever had a dream? Ever reached for a goal? Ever felt discouraged in getting there? Tom's tale will renew your faith in the old afterschool-special adage "you can achieve anything you set your mind to."
Day in and day out, Tom wakes up before 5 am (and this is pre-Starbucks), does chores at home, walks three miles to town, puts in a full day of work as a mill hand, and then walks home (also three miles). After he buys the Breen barn he's been working so hard to get, he keeps that sched, but he also starts spending his evenings and Sundays moving and rebuilding the barn.
It's downright inspiring, like when you hear the theme song from Rocky. It makes us want to swear off YouTube videos of dogs skateboarding, get off our cabooses, and grab our dreams by the horns.
What's more, the novel doesn't sugarcoat the effort it takes to achieve a goal. Tom faces disappointment and setbacks, and it takes time, years of it, for Tom to get his barn. This isn't one of those stories where the main character gets an idea and—poof—it becomes reality. Tom's journey requires some real elbow grease and dirt beneath the fingernails. But he's so very plain and ordinary that we think if he can achieve what once seemed impossible, so can we.
Let's face it: we all need that message from time to time. And it's reassuring to see the message in a historical novel because it reminds us that we're not alone in our struggles to meet our dreams. Many have proven it's possible before, so what's stopping us now?
The Walter D. Edmonds Collection
Utica College houses the Walter D. Edmonds Collection, which includes his papers, books, information about his interests, and catalogs of his stories and articles. Get digging.
Welcome to Boonville!
Dying to know more about Boonville? Plan a vacation there? Get extra deets on the area where Bert Breen's Barn is set? Here's the town's website.
Edmonds' Hollywood Cred
Bert Breen's Barn hasn't been made into a movie (yet…hint, hint, all you aspiring filmmakers). But some of Edmonds' other novels and stories have been adapted for the screen. Get the IMDb list here.
Drums Along the Mohawk
The best-known movie production of an Edmonds text is Drums Along the Mohawk, released in theaters in 1939 (the book came out in 1936). If you're in the mood for a serious throwback cinema experience, check out the preview here.
RIP, Wally D.
Here's the New York Times' obit in honor of Walter D. Edmonds when he died in 1998.
Home Sweet Home
Take a look at this article on Edmonds' childhood home and life, along with some peeks into his philosophy on writing.
A Boonville Mini-Tour
This video has some great footage of the town, including places mentioned in Bert Breen's Barn such as the Hulbert House and the train station. It starts up focusing on the Black River Canal Museum, but you can blow forward to about minute 3:15 to get to the Boonville bits.
Remember that snowstorm Tom has to muddle through in chapter 13? It's not just a plot device: Boonville is well known for being part of the snowbelt, which wasn't awesome for Tom, but is a big attraction for snow sports enthusiasts today. Here's some footage from the 2011-2012 East Coast Snocross. Bonus cool shots of the town at the beginning. Maybe that would have been Tom's dream if he'd lived a century later?
A Voice for Radio
Listen to Walter D. Edmonds talk about his background as a writer. Plus, he's got a wonderfully lucid voice, perfect for easy listening. Step aside, Kenny G.
Walter D. Edmonds
Here's a pic of Bert Breen's Barn's author. Do you think he has a bit of the farmer left in him?
The cover art shows Tom schlepping through the winter weather on his snowshoes. The barn is in the background—and it better be, since it has the title role.
The Boonies Outside of Boonville
Among the geography deets Tom mentions is the Black River canal, which he passes over several times throughout the book. Here's a picture of what his view would have been like. Not a bad spot for a hike—at least, if you're not trudging to work in the snow before dawn, it is.