Works in Progress - Summer 2017

Chasing Henrietta

Why one novelist keeps returning to the same inscrutable character

By Andrea Barrett | June 5, 2017
Liz West/ Flickr
Liz West/ Flickr


Henrietta Atkins is a recurring character in the fiction of Andrea Barrett, appearing first in two of the long stories, set in the 19th century, that composed the book Archangel, then in two further works, “Wonders of the Shore” and the recent “Open House.” Henrietta figures prominently in Barrett’s current work of fiction, an excerpt of which appears below. Why does Barrett keep returning to Henrietta, exploring various stages of the character’s life? “Probably I wouldn’t keep writing about her,” she says, “if I knew the answer to that. Her mind intrigues me, and her independence. Also the many things she fails to understand, despite all she knows.”

One of her jobs at the Deverells’ was to gather up the letters, after they’d been read by the family and the neighbors whose sons had been mentioned, and file them in the special box. Each envelope smoothed and flattened. Each sheet unfolded, the creases pressed out under a stack of books and then gathered and tied with clean string, laid flat with the newest letter on the top.

She was 11, almost 12, that spring of 1863: sturdy and energetic, tall for her age, with her dark hair still hanging in two long plaits. An excellent speller with a tidy, legible hand and a curiosity that offended some of her neighbors but not, fortunately, her new employers. Henrietta knew, because she asked, that the letter-writers were Mr. Deverell’s younger brothers Izzy and Vic, and that they’d enlisted in part because of the bounty. But what was a bounty? (Mrs. Deverell, who asked Henrietta to call her Aurie, explained.) And why were Vic’s letters so short, while Izzy’s went on and on? (“Brothers,” Mr. Deverell said with a shrug.) She liked Izzy’s letters better, both sides of five or six sheets filled with gossipy details, late additions and afterthoughts winding up the margins until he ran out of room entirely. But what was a company, what was a regiment, was a corps larger or smaller than a brigade?

“Larger,” Mr. Deverell said (she couldn’t seem to call him Maurice).  A corps was made up of several divisions, a division made of several brigades; a brigade contained four or five regiments and a regiment like Vic and Izzy’s began with 10 companies of roughly a hundred men each but shrank as men got sick, deserted, were wounded, were—he stopped there, he would not say killed. She was taking notes.

“That,” he said, as she drew a box filled with boxes filled with boxes, “is enough of that. Now go help Aurie.”

After the first week, Aurie gave her a pencil and let her number the pages and, if the letters were dated vaguely or sited anecdotally—Next day, early morning. On a log, at camp 1 mi from white church—add a tentative calendar date and location. From the newspaper Henrietta had torn woodcuts of the camps and the hospitals. From a magazine, a map of northern Virginia showing the rivers and towns. No one minded if she read the earlier letters and tried to match newspaper accounts of events with what the letters reported, as long as she kept a close eye on Bernard.

But Bernard was an easy baby, cheerful when awake and reliably sleepy at nap-time, and although he was beginning to walk and had to be watched every minute, Henrietta had no trouble tending to him, helping with the housework, and then delving into the letters and papers. It was like school but even more interesting, and when Izzy described an enormous shipment of mules or the bitterns he’d seen in a swamp, she felt the edges of her world expand. Her father had taken her to different places around Keuka Lake, also a few times to Corning and Bath and twice to Rochester, once to Syracuse: but that was it. So it wasn’t just the bounty, then; Izzy and Vic might have enlisted last summer just to see something beyond this chunk of central New York.

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