Various Tragedies and Good Grief

My reading schedule for the chapter “Various Tragedies” in Emily of New Moon fell during a time when my town was experiencing one large tragedy, which I am sure was the result of smaller, various tragedies – slits on ice that we all thought was thick enough to withstand – and I was afraid to read it.

A girl the same age as my daughter Hadley went missing and was found dead under the high school football stadium’s bleachers. The same bleachers I’ve sat on numerous times watching Hadley play soccer, watching her march in the band, the same bleachers I’ve watched my friends’ children work to pull out whatever it is they have, and offer it up for a chance to be a part of something greater than themselves. This is where she died.

In the days that followed, it seemed Ann Arbor was on fire with rage and sorrow. I continually bounced back and forth to the spring of 1994 when two of my own classmates were found dead in a car in the garage of one of their homes, to the present with Hadley and Harper – my babies who are teenagers, and who are not who they were when they were on my hip, holding my hand, when I was showing them the world. And the questions are the same: What happened? How did this happen? Who did this? (The police and the school assure us we are all safe, but they are only referring to one kind of monster.)

This then, was the state of mind I was in when I opened Emily of New Moon to find my bookmark waiting on “Various Tragedies.”

“Well, that’s some bullshit,” I muttered, cracking the spine and folding the book in half to begin reading it.

Here’s the first tragedy: Emily is no longer allowed to use the word, “bull.” She must eliminate it from her vocabulary as commanded by her Aunt Elizabeth. (I love that LM Montgomery uses “eliminate” and “bull” in the same sentence. I wonder if her word choice was deliberate.) “But,” LM writes, “to ignore the existence of bulls was not to do away with them.”

Ain’t that the truth.

I remember when I was six or seven – I was in first grade – and a boy was giving a friend of mine a hard time. I told her she should kick him in the butt. I said it to make her laugh (I’m 47 and still think the word “butt” is hilarious), and also because it seemed like a common sense solution to stop the teasing and the harassing.

My friend told our teacher what I said (the fact that she told on me is a story for another day, but seriously, WTF), and my teacher who makes Miss Brownell (Emily’s teacher) look like a kind and caring person and like someone who actually likes children and wants to teach them, told me that I needed my mouth washed out with soap. She sent me inside to write a note to my parents telling them what I’d done.

It is the only letter I’ve written that I memorized: “Dear Mom and Dad, Today in school I said ‘butt.’ Love, Callie.” Even then, even though I was in trouble, I still found what I wrote hysterical. First graders aren’t supposed to miss recess to write a note to their parents saying they said “butt.” First graders aren’t supposed to fend for themselves when other first graders are saying horrible things and won’t stop saying them. I folded that note up, put it in a paper bag puppet I’d made in school that day, and when I got home went straight to the bathroom and flushed it down the toilet.

“I like school here better every day but I can’t like Miss Brownell,” Emily writes. The use of the word “can’t” as opposed to “won’t,” or “don’t” shows that Emily doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Miss Brownell made it so that Emily cannot like her. I hate the memory I have of that first grade moment, and I would never want another human to say, “Yeah, something similar happened to me too,” but here I am grateful that Emily wrote something that I can relate to and then she keeps going. She keeps learning and living, and that is a lesson to be learned, too: share the story, and keep going.

And then there’s Aunt Elizabeth, who each chapter reveals anew her disdain for and annoyance in Emily. The person who is supposed to take care of her has done nothing but express hatred to Emily. In “Various Tragedies,” Emily’s Aunt Laura makes “a pretty red hood with ribbons” for Emily to wear in the cold weather. “Aunt Elizabeth looked scornfully saying it was extravagant.” A comment that takes away the joy of having something beautiful made just for you – another tragedy.

Perhaps LM used the word “various” to explore the different levels of tragic events in the book. These first few are sad no doubt, but they are unfortunately matter-of-fact tragedies. That is, people are donkeys. (If I were a friend to Emily, I’d point out that Aunt Elizabeth told her not to use the word “bull,” but she didn’t say anything about using the word, “jackass.”)

The high level (for lack of a better phrase) tragedy in this chapter is that of the Lee brothers: two boys who dug a well and got into an argument over it that ended in one brother killing the other. Emily’s cousin Jimmy, who is a poet, tells Emily the story. He says the brother who was killed is now a ghost and haunts the well. Jimmy says he’s not sure the ghost is real, but he wrote a poem about it all the same, and it is because of the poem that Emily gets curious, and I think being curious is a form of care. It is because of the poem – that the tragedy was presented in the form of poetry – that Emily could begin to care.

No ghost showed up that day, but Emily did see a bull. It belonged to Mr. James Lee – the father of the two brothers. The bull was coming straight for her, thus proving again LMs theory: not saying a word doesn’t eliminate the existence of the thing. Emily knows she should move – run – but she is paralyzed with fear. That is, until a boy named Perry saves her, and here is another tragedy of a completely different variety: Emily notices a “certain forceful attraction” in Perry, and Perry, upon seeing Emily’s smile is “reduced to hopeless bondage.”

I’ve not finished Emily of New Moon, but Emily and Perry are just as cute as can be in an innocent and fun sort of way. There are a couple of love triangles sneaking up as well, and I sense heartache and trial on the way, but I’m not so concerned about the outcome, or a happy ending as I am with a story well-told.

Part of a story well-told means finding a way to render various tragedies onto paper. The ghost was presented through poetry. Emily tells about Aunt Elizabeth and Miss Brownell in a letter she writes to her father who is dead, which is the reason Emily must live with awful Aunt Elizabeth. Emily might not have a choice in a lot of what has happened to her, but she has a choice to write, and write she does.

About a week after Hadley’s classmate was found dead, Hadley’s math teacher emailed us – all of her students and their families – to say there are no easy answers, that this is scary and sad and the thought of moving forward is surreal. She then thanked us all for sharing our children with her. “I cherish every day I get to spend with them,” she wrote. Like Emily, my daughter’s math teacher named the tragedy. She did not provide answers; just her presence and the promise she would continue to faithfully teach our children.

I think this is what Shakespeare is pleading with us to do through stories like Romeo and Juliet:“Go hence to have more talk of these sad things,” the Prince commands in the last lines of the play. In King Lear, Edgar says in the last line to, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” and Malcolm in Macbeth says to “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak/whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.” I think that is what Hadley’s math teacher, Emily, and Emily’s cousin Jimmy were all courageous enough to do.

I don’t know if ghosts are real, but I believe they are felt – like various tragedies – and choosing not to speak of them does not make them go away.

Callie Feyen (Project Redux founder) holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, and is a writer for Coffee+Crumbs, TS Poetry Press, and The Banner. She is the author of two books: The Teacher Diaries, and Twirl, and is working on her third –a book about JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Callie lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband Jesse, and their two daughters, Hadley and Harper. Follow her on Instagram at @calliefeyen or online at

2 thoughts on “Various Tragedies and Good Grief

  1. Callie,
    Your post found me giggling and in tears. Such a story you tell that pierces the heart and soul, induces introspection into our own lives. Thank you for a wonderful story, and stories within your stories, which without reading your post, I would be lacking thereof.
    Keep up your wonderful work; thank you for sharing.


    1. What a kind comment, Mari-Lynn. Thank you so much. This was not an easy one to write (I suppose the most important ones never are), and your comment is supportive and gracious and makes me want to keep writing. Thank you.


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