From the author of The Rope Walk, here is the story of a woman’s life in its twilight, as she looks back on a harrowing childhood and on the unaccountable love and happiness that emerged from it.
Ruth has always stood firmly beside her upstanding, brilliant husband, Peter, the legendary chief of New England’s Derry School for boys. The childless couple has a unique, passionate bond that grew out of Ruth’s arrival on Peter’s family’s doorstep as a young girl orphaned by tragedy. And though sometimes frustrated by her role as lifelong helpmate, Ruth is awed by her good fortune in her life with Peter. As the novel opens, we see the Derry School in all its glorious fall colors and witness the loosening of the aging Peter’s grasp: he will soon have to retire, and Ruth is wondering what they will do in their old age, separated from the school into which they have poured everything, including their savings. The narrative takes us back through the years, revealing the explosive spark and joy between Ruth and Peter—undiminished now that they are in their seventies—and giving us a deeply felt portrait of a woman from a generation that quietly put individual dreams aside for the good of a partnership, and of the ongoing gift of the right man’s love.
That morning, in anticipation of the party to be held at their house in the evening, Ruth unearthed the vacuum cleaner from the front hall closet. She had to move aside a heap of belongings to reach it—umbrellas and boots and musty-smelling coats—as well as Peter’s old film projector, heavy as lead in its mossy green case, and half a dozen cartons containing reels of footage from their early days at Derry. A brand-new teacher then, his enthusiasm like a light inside his face, Peter had recorded everything during those first years, endless hours of slow-moving football games, canoe races on windy spring afternoons with the boats shunting jerkily across the lake, the winter evening Robert Frost came to read his poems in the chapel.
Mr. Frost had been aloof that night at dinner, attending vaguely to the conversational gambits offered by the school trustees who had been assembled for the occasion. The meal had been splendid fare by the dining hall’s usual standards, stuffed clams and lobster with melted butter, corn and boiled potatoes, blueberry pie. The evening had been a triumph for Peter, who had arranged it, and an honor for Derry, which then had no real standing among boys’ schools of the day, its pupils drawn historically from poor families rather than the well-heeled aristocracy of New England.
The trustees, already worried about the school’s financial future, however, had begun to entertain ambitions for wealthier students, and even those men who did not read poetry—which was probably all of them, Ruth had thought at the time—understood that Mr. Frost’s appearance conferred distinction on the Derry School, a reputation for intellectual seriousness that the school could not otherwise acquire no matter how much money it raised, or how many prosperous families it attracted. Poetry, the reading and writing of it, was understood to be a hallmark of patrician gentility. It was evidence—however baffling to the practical men of industry and commerce who made up Derry’s board of trustees at the time—of refinement. They were in search of pedigrees and the resources that came with them. If a poetry reading had to be part of the bargain, so be it.
Mr. Frost had eaten his dinner with apparent appetite but without saying much, his head bent over his plate. His face was so shut away and expressionless that Ruth imagined he had suffered recently a personal loss of great severity.
But when he began to read in the chapel later that night, coming up to the podium after Peter’s introduction with the slow steps of a man accompanying a coffin to the grave, his voice was surprisingly strong. Ruth knew that even the philistines among the trustees could not have failed to be moved.
I have been one acquainted with the night, Mr. Frost began.
A light was trained on the page before him, and he put his palm against the open book on the podium as if to crack its spine. He paused. Then he looked up, and he did not look down again for the duration of the poem.
I have walked out in rain, he recited, and back in rain.
When he read the line I have outwalked the furthest city light, Ruth thought that every boy, every teacher sitting in the cold, hard pews of the chapel with its smudged smoke stains on the white walls, and its old glass windows full of air bubbles, and the tall hurricane globes on the altar containing the candle flames—every one of the listeners in the chapel that night—was made aware of the miles of forest surrounding the school, the tumbled, rocky coast of Maine at the edge of the forest and its terminus at the sea, the black restless body of the Atlantic Ocean. Surely they felt themselves at that moment as alone as a man could be, Ruth thought, as alone as the lonely speaker of the poem, unwilling to meet the eyes of the night watchman whom he passes in the dark. Surely they understood that this lonely feeling was inside of them, too, even if it had lain there mostly a thing concealed from them by the blessed ordinariness of their days.
Yet the occasion had been miraculous as well as solemn. The poem reminded them that the world around them lay beneath what Mr. Frost called the dome of heaven; Ruth pictured images from her art history classes at Smith: St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the gilded onion domes of Moscow, their golden beauty. And that night, as if to illuminate heaven and its arch above them, the sky had been filled with a meteor shower, streaks of light descending through the darkness.
Outside the chapel after the reading, in the cold night air that smelled of the pine trees, everyone had stopped to stare up at the sky, some of the boys straying off the path into the snow, where they stood alone, heads tilted back, mouths open, faces upturned toward the stars. They had looked so vulnerable there, Ruth had thought, so faithful and willing, like those sad believers who trudged to the tops of hillsides in their old garments and with their heads shaved, expecting to be delivered up to God.
She remembered Mr. Frost beside Peter, their hands deep in their coat pockets, their faces calm but watchful, everyone silent.
Peter had studied with a professor at Yale who knew Mr. Frost, and it was through this man, actually a childhood friend of Robert Frost’s wife, that Peter had been able to secure the famous poet’s presence at Derry that night. As the assembled school stood there, the sky above them electric with light, Ruth had wrapped her arms around herself inside her coat. She had been absurdly pleased for Peter, as if he had orchestrated the display of meteors as a flattering tribute.
How small she had felt that evening. Mr. Frost had read his poems to them in a voice of judgment, not benevolence; he had seemed in some way hardly to see them at all. Yet she had felt the importance and the beauty of it all, as well, a sense of imminence in the world, something about to happen.
Later, reading in the library, she discovered that the meteor shower, common in December, was named for an obsolete constellation no longer found on star maps. The meteors visible to them that night had been orphan lights, travelers from a vanished source.
Excerpted from The Last First Day by Carrie Brown. Copyright © 2013 by Carrie Brown. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Carrie Brown is the author of five novels and a collection of short stories. Awards she has received include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and, twice, the Library of Virginia Literary Award. Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, Glimmer Train, The Georgia Review, and The Oxford American. She lives with her husband, the writer John Gregory Brown, in Virginia, where she is distinguished visiting professor of creative writing at Hollins University.
1. The book opens with a memory of Robert Frost visiting the Derry School, and within the novel there are many references to Keats and Longfellow. What is the author saying about the importance of poetry in our daily lives?
2. In addition to poetry, discuss the role of literature and stories in the novel. How is Ruth’s relationship with reading and books essential to her identity?
3. And conversely, discuss Ruth’s lack of family stories and memories. How do you think her lack of family and family mythology helped form the woman Ruth becomes? After her father is arrested and she learns why she’s had a peripatetic life, how does she find her way out of this tragedy?
4. Why does Ruth later invent stories of her parents and childhood? Can you sympathize or relate?
5. How is the physical environment crucial to the story? How important is the school’s Maine setting? Does this story feel like it could take place only in New England? Why or why not? How did moving around from one town to another in her childhood affect Ruth? Discuss the atmosphere of the various houses in the novel, from the headmaster’s house at the Derry School to Peter’s childhood house to Mary’s house, where Ruth was a teenager.
6. What is the importance to Ruth of never having a house of her own until the very end of the novel? How important is it for you to have a place of your own?
7. Describe the structure of the novel, and why it’s divided into two titled parts. Why is telling the story in this fashion more powerful than a simple chronological order? What emotional impact does this have on the reader?
8. How does the author play with time and memory in the novel?
9. Does the first part of the book, with its focus on a single day complete with flashbacks over the course of Ruth’s life, remind you of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway? Why or why not? What is similar? Dissimilar?
10. What is the importance of family or lack of family, both parents and children, in the novel? Over the years, what does Ruth learn about creating her own family? Who is her true family?
11. Discuss Ruth’s friendship with Dr. Wenning. Why are the two drawn toward each other, and how and why do they form such a strong attachment? What does Dr. Wenning provide for Ruth that Peter doesn’t? Is she more a doctor, mother, or friend to Ruth?
12. What place does Mr. Mitzotakis’s Daedalus story have in the novel? Why does Dr. Wenning share this story with Ruth? Is it a metaphor for something in Ruth or Dr. Wenning’s life? In all of our lives?
13. The man who steals Ruth’s car appears in the novel for one short scene. What is his role in the story? What impact does he have on Ruth?
14. Discuss the line “The beginning of things always contained their end” (page 65). How does this connect with the title of the novel, and with the novel itself.
15. Ruth “wished she could believe in God. What a relief it would be. But she just couldn’t manage it” (page 274). Discuss Ruth and Peter’s differing views on God and religion. In what does Ruth believe?
16. Compare and contrast Ruth and Peter. What brought and keeps them together? How do they complement each other? Is either one of them the vulnerable one in the relationship? Is either one of them stronger? In what ways?
17. Why does Peter betray Ruth during their teenage years? Does Ruth forgive him? How does he make up for that betrayal after they rediscover and rekindle their relationship?
18. Why does Ruth put aside her dreams of being a writer? How does she come to find her place at the school alongside Peter?
19. Who are the Finneys? What role do Charlie and Kitty have in lives of Peter and Ruth? How does this change throughout the novel?
20. How are Ruth and Kitty similar/different? How will Kitty’s role at the school be different from Ruth’s? What does this have to say about generational differences between the two women?