Study Guide

Amelie Breen in Bert Breen's Barn

By Walter D. Edmonds

Amelie Breen

Amelie, a.k.a. Mrs. Breen and best known as Widow Breen, was—you guessed it—Bert Breen's wife. She is one odd duck. She's almost a total hermit, living up in the house her husband built and traveling into town to trade only when absolutely necessary. She's so used to the isolation that she goes all Annie Oakley, pulling out her shotgun the moment she hears people on her property.

If there were a zombie apocalypse, we'd probably want to be on team Widow Breen. For everyday life, though, her behavior is a bit bizarre.

Mrs. Breen also seems to exist sort of on the border between real and something else. This is reflected in the book's description of her house: it sits "east across the big swamp, gray and empty-looking in fall, so it seemed to some as if [Bert Breen] had built his house on the outside edge of the world and looked off into nothingness" (1.2). Mrs. Breen is also in-between. She focuses on memory, she tells fortunes by reading cards, and she can supposedly talk to animals, which makes some people think she's a witch. For a book so realistic and so much about practicality, Mrs. Breen is the only touch of otherworldliness.

Fortune-Teller

The first time Tom meets Mrs. Breen, she's pointing her shotgun at this intruder nosing around her barn. But Birdy explains who Tom is, and she invites them both in for tea and cookies. That's a lucky break. She tells Tom that she used to read cards for Polly Ann (telling her fortune) and that she had warned her about a no good man in them, but Polly Ann didn't heed the warning. As for Tom's future, she sees that he'll quit school, make some money, and then make a whole load more money. He won't be "a low-down Dolan anymore" (6.24).

Of course, it's not actually the fortune-telling that brings changes in Tom's life. Tom brings them upon himself, so it's more like she's giving advice than telling the future. Nevertheless, Tom considers it to be a prophesied future throughout the novel.

Given how practical and reality-based the rest of the book is, here are two head-scratchers that arise from Widow Breen's card-reading: would Tom have changed his life without Mrs. Breen's fortune-telling? Does all the potential for hard work and success mean scratch without a little spark from the greater beyond to get it going?

Is One the Loneliest Number?

The second and last time Tom meets Widow Breen, she has faded away to practically nothing. Tom helps her by stocking her firewood, but when he offers to do more, such as bring her to town, she'll hear none of it.

She tells him:

I been in this house nearly my whole life, Tom, and I'm going to stay in it. It seems sort of lonesome to you, I guess. But I've got things to think about, There ain't such a thing as an empty room here any more. (20.82)

Tom considers those words, and tries it on for size:

Tom remembered how her yellow cat had sat on the table beside her cup and sipped a little tea when she offered him some. Perhaps that was a thing she remembered there, too; and suddenly to Tom it seemed the cat actually was there. (20.20)

Even with the memory-ghost cat, though, Tom can't help but feel "sudden loneliness overwhelming him" as he leaves (20.23). The Widow Breen is presented as a wise figure, something of a soothsayer. However, Tom doesn't want a life like hers. Do you think the book is using her character to make some comment on memory and the past, as well as on the importance of having other people around? Or is it possible that Tom just doesn't understand her life because he's just too young to get it?

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