The View from Saturday Setting
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Sillington House is an old farmhouse in Clarion County, the county where Epiphany is located. And boy, is it old:
It is a huge old farmhouse that has had so many add-ons it looks like a cluster of second thoughts. About a hundred years ago, someone added a wraparound porch with enough ginger-bread trim to look like a lace collar. The main feature of the first floor is the dining room, which stretches from the front of the house to the back because in the days when the Sillington place was a working farm, Mrs. Sillington used to feed all the itinerant farmhands breakfast and supper. They ate at long trestle tables that stretched the length of the room. ("Ethan".14)
So, we've got a strange collection of heterogeneous parts and a big dining room just perfect for offering lots of hospitality. Hm, seems significant, doesn't it? Hospitable, gracious, a little broken, and made up of different parts. We can think of a few Academic Bowl stars who might fit that description.
And look what Mr. Sing does with it. He takes a rambling old house that was about to be torn down and turns it not just into a bed-and-breakfast with Saturday teas that quickly become "well known in the community" (8), but into a place where people can be healed. "Sillington House," as Mr. Singh says, "its its own place" (8.15).
Over the course of the novel, Sillington House is restored. When Ethan first visits, the living room has "no furniture […] and the wall paper was peeling from the walls" ("Ethan".53). By the time the inn is restored enough to host the Diamondsteins arriving to watch Annie, one of the guest bedrooms has been restored to splendor:
He hung the bed linen out on a clothesline he strung across the backyard so that everything would smell of the sweet air that blew off the lake. He purchased a beautiful cut glass carafe and matching drinking glass and put them on the nightstand by the bed. He purchased a poinsettia and put it on the dresser. In the closet were the heavy hangers of polished wood—not those permanently attached things that you find in cheap motels nor the weak wire ones you get from the dry cleaners—that Papa had bought in England. We had them all facing the same way so that their shadows on the wall looked like a computer rendering of an architectural cross section. The sink and tub were scrubbed until their whiteness could snow-blind. The faucets shone bright enough to use as mirrors. ("Julian")
Scrubbed, shining, and renewed: just like Mrs. Olinski.
Epiphany, New York
Epiphany is a small town in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. It's farm country, and it's old country, and it makes sense that we learn the most about the town and region from Ethan, whose family has lived there "since before Epiphany was a town" ("Ethan".3).
What we learn is that, not only is it so insignificant that it's never been to a state championship, it's also a little old-fashioned and conservative. "No one," Ethan says, "wears shorts on the first day of school. Even if it is ninety-five degrees in the shade" ("Ethan".19). And it's so conservative that he's afraid to tell anyone his dreams of becoming a Broadway designer. "In mental mileage," he says, "Epiphany, New York, is farther from New York City, New York, than the road mileage from New York to Hollywood" ("Ethan".74).
Okay, so it's a small, old-fashioned town—the kind where you go to school with the son of your family dentist and the daughter of your hygienist. But there's something else about it. The people there aren't just "historical residents" ("Ethan".11). There are new people in Epiphany, too, and not just people like Nadia, whose mom moved there to work.
There are also people who live in fake subdivisions like "The Farm" and come to the Clarion County Farmers' Market; and there's the college, which, as Ethan says, "attracts a lot of dark-skinned people" ("Ethan".77). (Out of context, that quotation sounds a little questionable, but Ethan is just pointing out that Julian and his dad don't stand out at the Farmers' Market.) In other words, Epiphany is starting to form connections with the outside world.
And some of those connections happen in the surprising setting of Florida.
None of the kids comment much on Florida, even though three of them (Nadia, Ethan, and Noah) spend time there. We never learn the name of the city their grandparents live in, but we know that it's somewhere on the beach and not too far from Disney World. And we know that it's important.
Like Sillington House, Florida is a place apart from everyday life. It exists outside of normal life, partly, we think, because the people who live there are old. As Noah says, they're "retired from useful life" ("Noah".12).
Well, no disrespect to Noah, but obviously they're not. The people Noah meet are active, engaged, and kind of awesome. Ethan's grandmother, Margaret Draper, swims 42 laps in the pool every day, rescues turtle babies, and is hardly anyone's idea of a tired old granny. Izzy Diamondstein, Nadia's grandfather, is so full of life that he can hardly keep his hands off of his new wife—who happens to be Margaret Draper. (If that's not useful life, we hate to think what we're living.)
But Florida—both the Century Village where Noah's grandparents live and the high-rise community where Izzy and Margaret live—does exist in a time and place that's not quite in the world. It gives Nadia, Noah, and Ethan time to discover new truths about themselves, learn new skills, and form connections that will eventually ripen into The Souls.
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