You can read Anne Gertrude Sneller’s 1964 memoir A Vanished World at Google Books, but I don’t recommend it. This book goes best on a porch with a cold drink and slow time. If you open the book hopped up on the click click click, Anne Sneller will calm you down. “Look,” she says. “This is how it was.”
A Vanished World is about growing up on a farm in Cicero, New York, around the turn of the last century. The picture that emerges is of a well-loved, extraordinarily observant girl who grew into a well-loved, extraordinarily observant woman. Born in 1883, Sneller wrote her one and only book “in the fullness of time”—a phrase that implies a time completely right.
I found a newspaper account of people lining up around the block, in the pouring rain, to wait for her autograph at a Syracuse department store. Although the book was in print as late at 1994 (Syracuse University Press), its fame stayed local. I know about it only because I have roots in the world she writes about.
Nostalgic writers say the past was better, but Anne Sneller was not a nostalgic writer, nor was she a sentimental one. I think the phrase “good old days” would have annoyed her for its slovenly imprecision.
“You must always have faith in life,” she wrote. She had enough faith to tell what she saw plainly. She wrote about the everyday stuff: relatives, school, sickness and health, holidays, recreation and pleasure. Death, cruelty, overwork, and despair were woven through the fabric of everyday life, too, and she wrote about those with the same full heart, the same clear gaze.
For example, a chapter rightly called “Strange Images of Death” contains this story of a many-years-married pregnant woman, who committed suicide by drowning herself in a well:
What followed removed any doubt that she was entirely sane. All the clothes for burial had been laid out; even her stockings were neatly turned down so that they would slip easily over her feet. There was a long letter of instruction for her daughters, bidding the oldest take the best and tenderest care of the others. But all this was insignificant compared to the astonishing last command. Her funeral text, she wrote, was to be a verse from II Kings, the fourth chapter and the twenty-sixth verse. . . . She had written down the part of the verse that she wished used: “Is it well with thee? . . . Is it well with the child? And she answered, it is well.”
By contrast, this is from a chapter called “Father and Mother and the Farms”:
Mother loved everything about her new home, where the first seven years of her married life were spent. It was truly a storybook place. It was on a crossroad not far from the homes of the relatives, all living within a square mile. If you turned at the corner by the schoolhouse where both father and mother had taught and followed a bending dirt road with orchards on one side and stump fences on the other, you came to a little hill. A spring that never went dry flowed at the foot of the hill and along it peppermint grew in abundance and made a green line to mark the water course.
Most people don’t wait until they are eighty to publish their first book, but even then Anne Sneller was not through reinventing herself. A few years later she married for the first time. She and her new husband both lived well into their nineties.