For 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.
Day 37, The Button Field by Gail Husch
A paper mill once stood near the town of South Hadley in western Massachusetts. The mill used old rags to make the paper, and sometimes buttons remained attached to the rags. Waste from the paper mill was washed out over area fields, and in that waste were thousands of buttons that spread out and settled into what became known as the Button Field. Students from the nearby college walking through the field could pluck buttons from the ground as if the buttons were flowers….
This odd detail is one of many in this artfully crafted novel based on the true disappearance of a student from Mount Holyoke College. Mount Holyoke was established as a “female seminary” in the first half of the 19th century as part of a movement to create institutions of higher learning for women. In 1897, Bertha Mellish–a real person–spends the summer between semesters working at the local mill. The daughter of a minister, Bertha was mostly raised by her older sister, a spinster twenty years Bertha’s senior. Her upbringing impressed upon Bertha that she is special, and she believes herself destined to rise above her family’s genteel but modest circumstances. But college, and her fellow students, are not what she expects, and she is not as special there as she has been raised to believe. And then one day, a perfectly ordinary day in every other way, Bertha Mellish cannot be found anywhere on campus. A search is undertaken, without success. As with any missing person case, surely someone knows what happened, but who that person is and why they won’t come forward to ease the agony for Bertha’s family and the Mount Holyoke community is a conundrum.
Why is The Button Field a good read for women? This fictional account of what happened to Bertha provides all the hallmarks of a mystery that can be reasonably explained, if not solved, with the combination of good research and informed guessing. In the capable hands of author Gail Husch, we see Bertha as more than the centerpoint of an investigation. Bertha was real, and in this novel, she comes back to life, and so does the pain of those who missed her. Bertha has hopes, dreams, and flaws; she suffers from ego and endures rejection, but nothing in her childhood or early adulthood hints that one day, out of the blue, she will simply be gone. This book provides a possible solution to Bertha’s fate, while at a deeper level it explores how young people thrown together by circumstance embrace people who are like themselves, and how they treat those who are not. Most of all, it is written with style and sensitivity about a young woman who mattered, but not only because she was the girl who disappeared, but because she was a young woman with promise.