First to note about this book is despite the affliction that affected her body, her books is full of light and joy and uncommon wisdom. One example of uncommon wisdom found in The Little Locksmith by Katherine Butler Hathaway that I liked is “When they first came there the Goodwins’ love of the place had expressed itself in certain spontaneous, happy adventures which later grew into a ritual, which became increasingly important with the passage of time, because, by linking each new summer with all that were gone, it brought the past, happy years back again [1, p.96].”
It’s rather a long term view observed over two summers but it holds the essence of how family traditions are composed rather than the standard holidays one normally thinks as being about family tradition. When I first dealt with divorced marriage within my family, both from my sisters and my new husband’s family, everyone desire tradition but the one day was seldom lengthy enough to eat all the meals and be in all the places. New traditions are what you put into them in the form of love, enjoyment, special places.
I connect some of her uncommon wisdom’s with my own writing, for example, “I decided that I would be a writer, and I determined to be the kind of writer, like Flaubert, … I would never risk again any sort of disappointment. Personal obscurity and infinite patience and infinite devotion were to be my program. [p. 5]”
With regard to patience, I early on bought into the idea that it would take enough years to produce enough product to be publishable, especially after I researched popular authors and found that their fourth or fifth or sometimes their ninth book was the first published. My patience wanes however, if my personal space is infringed upon, because that is all I have.
With regard to personal devotion, I learned early that it took many revisions and as such I created ways to save time, like never editing first drafts since I often threw 2/3’s away. Why edit what needed to be written in order to get to the heart of the message, a mere sentence or two?
With regard to obscurity and solitude, the quote above both fits me and doesn’t fit me. I have always been a sort of obscure person, so much of what Hathaway says about herself and her desire to work alone fits my personality well. Many days go by when I speak but four or five sentences to my husband and never see anyone else. However, I also recognized early on that we live in a different world, a social media world, and I have found that being a hermit entirely often brings upon you the sort of mental illness documented in a book on homelessness, how lack of conversation makes you funny and that constant worry makes one paranoid [2, p.104-106]. So I know that taking the time to make contact, in person and on the network is important, and do so regularly and it usually improves my mood to do so.
Also, early on, I looked at the technology needed by popular writers and since I had the skills and the time, I decided to put them together right away. One poet I met felt that claiming to be a poet was bad policy and lacked humbleness, however, he spoke of famous poets, poets who would be acclaimed a poet laureates, while I used the term merely as a activity I performed. This differing view of the older generation humility clashing with a younger, more network savvy population is one that must be ignored because there is no fix, other than the reviews, connections, publications and prizes one receives as a mature writer is easily spotted on a search, which most network savvy people do on a regular basis.
Katharine Butler Hathaway’s style of dialogue is very sparse, probably due to her imposed lifestyle of solitude. Writing alone in a room by herself, protected her, and led to a strong personal voice that comes out as interior dialogue, such as “And it really was an island. The things that happened there made a period that was complete in itself, and so separate from the rest of my life that it was almost unrecognizable as mine. It was a period that seemed unreal and half enchanted, because it was so foreign to me and to everything that I had thought and been before. It floated like an island in the rest of my life [1, p.2].” Her other use of dialogue is very sparse consisting of only a few lines here and there and they amount, quite poignantly, to the things she most wanted to hear, such as the line, “I heard my brother say, “Sometimes I wish you were not my sister[1, p.52].”
Her use of senses in writing her experience is always good, such as “Being young, we had just discovered the wonderful charm of night, night away from houses, night moving along country roads, noiseless silken wood roads, black bumpy roads of pastures and farms, and the soft, misty, sweet-smelling roads with old wooden bridges where we stopped to listen to the gentle Ipswich River[1, 51]. However, this is just a fraction of what she writes when she obtains her first passion, a home in Maine, which she describes painstakingly, but with rich enticing language, in Chapter 18 as well as many that lead up and follow that chapter. Her love comes out strongly in every detail even years later recalling the pattern of the flooring, a spider consuming a moth, her writing room, the neighbors’ homes and the general scenery, including a beautifully suggestive memory, “that brilliant coast and its luscious warm winter sun shining on snow-covered harbors and deep-blue rivers and on little purple wooded islands with rims of crumpled silver [1, p.74].”
Her first relationship is with her brother and she finds acceptance, love and what she values mental thought and creativity including “THUS the natural craving to love and to be loved turned itself into something else and found its miracle of satisfaction in my poetry and his praise, and it seemed to me that we were everything to each other [1, 60-61]" And through the eyes of her brother’s friends, both women and men, she also near heartbreaks as she comes to realize how she differs but also spins it positively, “They might have their secret knowledge of the art of silliness that was beyond my understanding, but I felt in myself the secret knowledge or instinct that makes life a wonder and a miracle [1, 66-7].”
But while she discusses some of her relationships, the focus of her writing is deeply inward looking, examining her choices, her beliefs and the events in her life.
Katherine Butler Hathaway uses a wonderful image of an island in the palm of her hand, “But it looks to me, and that is enough for me, as if it meant that a quiet respectable fate were suddenly going to explode in the middle of life into something entirely new and strange, and then be folded together again and go on as quietly as it began [1, p. 1]”. She plays with the meaning of an island in the first chapter as a time and a place and a state of magical passion and as a change in her overall direction and I feel that initial wordplay initiates the reader into her thought processes.
When she reaches her island, which she views as the time when she first purchased a home, until then, she has wanted love, wanted to be as needed and wanted as any other young woman, but believed that due to her physical attributes no one would ever consider it. She has wanted to write well, but had a loss that conveyed that it wouldn’t happen. She had tried independence but ended up back at home but not the home of her happy youth.
The metaphor worked at first and when we get to the town of Castine and her new home, that metaphor is very much distant, almost forgotten. The reality of Castine’s location is an island. Much later we learn, she is only there for a short time, that she discovers passion through a relationship, and her whole point of view about herself, “I changed from being a trifling, detached summer boarder in that town into being one of its citizens with a house and land belonging to me” has become much larger and much different from a wallflower untouched by passion. Her writing also has changed, from hurried and of the moment to being a statement about life. I think the metaphor of waiting for the island to arrive provides her the invitation to write about her life, specifically to this moment, but the metaphor has died, in a sense, because life does not go on as before, it has permanently changed her and I don’t think she fully realized this at the start.
In my own life, I also had many of the circumstances that led to her island and also have found an island of my own but it comes more in the form of my relationship with my husband. After the initial burst of energy following my first book, where I tried to meet every deadline that I could but often failed, I have found it much easier to slow down and focus on my project of the moment and Florida is conducive to that slower pace. I want to still meet those other deadlines, but I still find, as then, that I want to write a piece and have it fit the market because the time necessary to develop it the way I want to is longer than given by a call for content. I like the calls for content because they still nag at me about the possibility for ways I can use my skills to effect, opening my mind to other ideas.
There are specific places that make me feel comfortable enough to write. I found my new office doesn’t work because it is too cold and too dark and I wish to see out the windows a beautiful tropic garden of peace lilies, ferns, blue onions, maybe a chain tree, full of color, sound and animals that make it restful to unwind my speeding thoughts.
Florida is harder for me that Seattle because I loved the beauty there—I could look up anytime and see the blue line of Cascade mountains in their peaceful glory, framed by doug firs and sometimes haloed by golden maple leaves. I have to look small in Florida because so much of the frame is palms and so must notice what goes on beneath every leaf or crawling down the sand in the silence.
I have found some of my passions in life, and like Hathaway, go from one to the next. I do find myself finding fulfillment in the world of ideas, too, I always have but unlike Hathaway, I don’t like boundaries very much, their presence tends to want to trap me where I like the wide open spaces, which perhaps I picked up from all those long trips to North and South Dakota my family took and the drive’s wide far reaching spaces and uncluttered sky and the sun seems to go on forever. I have the Westerner’s view of freedom associated with space constraints.
Her method of writing took a look at the words in her life, including her name and took it’s meaning to find a way to create a self-image as her inner joy as she puts it, “I had been told that my name, Katharine, meant crystal, clear— from a Greek word, katharsis. And I felt inside myself, as part of me, a crystal quality, a sort of happiness that was like a spring always bubbling fresh and new[1, p.24].” But then she took her self-image from other people’s reactions, never questioning what their reactions really meant. Sounds and creative art projects had more power than words, “we might enjoy to the full our queer annual rapture of hearing over and over the slow rise and fall of the Salem crickets’ trill [1, p.30]” rather than conversation, but later, she had learned to snip and cut and listen which is from my experience valuable for a poet.
She describes her family as being thoughtful in challenging ideas but not in communicating emotions, for example, “I grew up in a family where a certain kind of intimate personal emotion was all so carefully hidden that it sounded to me when I heard it like a foreign language, while at the same time that it shocked and frightened me it sounded more familiar and more real than anything I had ever heard before [1, p. 52-3]”. From her mother, she valued fiery passion but learned to hide whatever she meant to feel and to feel inarticulate. I think she ended up feeling like all of her desires were much like her mother’s and then assumed many things about her body that weren’t true and didn’t really know how to communicate what she felt.
Her early expression of independence came in the form of rebellions of various kinds. When Hathaway is finally allowed out of her bed and comes to realize she can share conversations with her brother, she says, “I seemed to feel a fierce revenge against my bed and my invalid life, and especially against the bright little girl who had accepted it all so sweetly and submissively. I suddenly hated my adorable microscopic world[1, p.43].” Her physical restraint, tying a weight to her bed while her back was held still, meant her world was really small, confined to her bed and what little she could learn from there and with it, she learned fear of larger concepts. But freed of those physical constraints, her intellectual and emotional rebellion still held inside, allowed her to grasp onto more subject matters and challenge was she believed her beliefs, feelings and ideas should be.
She contrasts with her friend Mary Goodwin, whose rebellion is outward, against societal forces, appearing to Hathaway, as “an uneasy child who does not understand his own uneasiness; and she expressed it like a child by willfully annoying and shocking the conventional people around her [1, p. 90-91].” Mrs. Goodwin, in contrast, runs her household to put everyone at ease by ensuring that everything was prepared, made special or directed toward some purpose. It’s the restraint of good management and of tradition.
I think surprisingly, her earlier physical restraint taught her the purpose of boundaries and fed her creativity because she learned to value making something out of nothing, and the way that “asceticism is to free creative energy, and its function, like that of pruning, is to make for a great flowering[ 1, p. 218].
I think her views of beauty led to her selection of Castine, in fact, what she remembers most are the beautiful moments, and also to her admiration of Catherine Huntington, “one of those rare persons, a gardener among human beings[1, p/ 179],” who disregarded what others saw in her, instead finding beauty. Also, her love of children as the most beautiful because of their ability to rouse her feelings. She also found herself “deeply thankful for all I lacked. I exulted because the lack in my life of any personal meaning or possession heightened the awareness of my mind, just as the bareness of a nun’s cell makes for visions [1, p.220].”
I think in saying this, that her small island in her hand, her eventual children, her friends, everything in life pointed to a regulated life, full of appreciation and love, that she could capture in her creative works, “by flinging myself down into my writing, in recompense and adoration, in order that it might become reality’s mystical counterpart[1, 220].”
I think her belief in God helped reinforced her view of the world, in a way she calls magic. Magic seems to equate to her a sense of awe at a moment or time or the intercession of fate as when she picked her house. She says, ”Now we were grown up, and by the magic of transformation the great welcoming night had become our partner and our friend, the only element that was really congenial to our new selves and our new emotions.”
I can relate to it, since I have had similar circumstances where the unbelievable seemed real and such a gift. That she relates the experience to God acting in her life seems only definitional; she is so defensive about it though, so it surprises me in that way.
I believe this also helped her avoid use of negative terms about herself. I think that labels tend to limit you to a selected definition of behavior, style, intelligence, etc. and by avoiding the label it gave her a freedom to think of herself in any fashion she chose. “Little locksmith” is almost as disparaging as whatever name she might have heard, it speaks throughout the book that one should never be so small, so limited, so deformed, so boxed in and locked up. At least, for me, that was how I read it, the name little locksmith seems to be a title she has taken on herself then rejected.
Her story provides detailed views of her close connections as well as people she observes and it shows skillful craft but also it shows memory. I often save up quirky items where someone showed up in my life and they made enough of an impression that when I write about times it shows up. I have a very good memory so I suppose that hers is similar.
Hathaway finds a strong connection with Flaubert and uses that connection in her writing. I think it alludes to how she set herself free of what she felt were the limitations of her body and of her society, acting sensually with a pair of lovers (from the history) and so, due to Flaubert’s reputation as an experimental lover, she connects on this plane but also via her text. She talks about working heavily on her writing and I think it shows in her imagery, her intense look at certain people, and her attempts to show her emotional stance in fresh ways. At one point, she says, it was not for nothing she had chosen Flaubert to be her master.
I wish I lived in her time when books were scarce and that a style like this could be one that I consistently emulated. But I’ve read too much to allow that to be the case and I’ve never found that sense of symbiosis with another writer’s work, although I’ve enjoyed many styles.
I very much enjoyed her tale and would have loved hearing more about her love life that follows and is briefly touched upon at the end. Her style is very chatty, but also summary about her discoveries about life. Most of her discoveries are deeply heartfelt and personal. She early on claims that she learned this style and the acceptance of it via her letter writing to her brother. That’s very helpful advice, to write letters. I tend to have to go at it separately, intently looking at the given circumstances. I gather from the success of understanding this, that summary for the moment, what the impact was at the time, is helpful in passing over times changes. She doesn’t lack the quality of the moment, nor does she skip over immediacy in the details, nevertheless it comes out as summary, also, as shown in the quotes above.
 Hathaway, Katharine Butler (2000-07-01). The Little Locksmith: A Memoir (pp. 66-67). The Feminist Press at CUNY. Kindle Edition.
 Hopper, Kim (2014-06-13). Reckoning with Homelessness (The Anthropology of Contemporary Issues) (p. 106). Cornell University Press. Kindle Edition.