When the Berkshires were blanketed in pristine white snow in late December, Professor Cassandra J. Cleghorn of Williams College was especially excited from a teaching standpoint.
The professor is teaching a winter study course on Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel "War and Peace." Generally regarded as one of the world’s greatest literary works, "War and Peace" centers around Napoleon’s War with Russia, and its impact on the lives of five aristocratic Russian families.
"Winter is an important character in ‘War and Peace,’" Professor Cleghorn said in an interview. "The snowy landscape of the Berkshires is very evocative of the novel."
Students who had enrolled in the "War and Peace" winter study course had been assigned the first 400 pages of the more than 1200-page novel before they left campus for winter break in December.
"Winter Study is only three-and-a-half weeks long," Cleghorn explained. "I wanted to make sure they would get through the first half of the novel by the second week of Winter Study. After that point there’s a snowball effect, and the novel’s power really accumulates."
In 2013, Winter Study period runs from Jan. 3 through Jan. 24, and Cleghorn invited other experts to the "War and Peace" class within that time.
"A Russian scholar taught us the Cyrillic alphabet (derived from the Greek alphabet and used for works
To further enhance the students’ experience reading "War and Peace", Cleghorn hired David Larabee, owner of Speciality Carriages in Williamstown, to take them for a ride in a horse-drawn sleigh. "I told them to bundle (up)," said Prof. Cleghorn. The students heeded that advice and wore hats and scarves.
"Some of them live in California, but the sleigh ride was a novelty for all of them wherever they live. There was a festive atmosphere - lots of laugher and the horses had bells on them."
The ride started at Sweet Book Farm on Oblong Road in Williamstown. "Sweet Book Farm is a pocket of timelessness," said Laura Henry, Class of 2013. "Experiencing transportation the way the characters in the book would, brought to life the novel that sat in our laps."
According to Cleghorn, Larabee paused during the ride to point out that "you could see Petersburg Pass (in N.Y. State) and mountains in Vermont as well as in Massachusetts. It was very impressive, and something students usually do not see," the Professor said.
As the sleigh headed into the woods where the Phelps, owners of Sweet Brook Farm who are producers of maple syrup, tap maple trees for sap, the students saw the tubing that zig zags from tree to tree and brings sap to collection tanks. (Beth Phelps told The Advocate that the tubing stays in place all year long.)
"On the sleigh ride, David Larabee told us about the history of the [sleigh] he used and about his team of Belgian horses, Bud and Bob, who weigh 1600 pounds each," said Cleghorn.
Stopping at a small cabin, the students enjoyed hot chocolate by the warmth of a wrought-iron stove.
Larabee explained, said student Laura Henry, that the shelter had been built with the wood of fallen trees. "It was not only a rest stop along the sleigh ride but a shelter from the advanced industry of the outside world. Being immersed in such simplicity allowed for a better understanding of the lifestyle of people in earlier ages," the Williams senior said.
In the cabin, the students as well as Professor Cleghorn read aloud from "War and Peace".
"We read in a circle so we would have Tolstoy in our ears," said Cleghorn. "The passages we read were about a ride in the snow on Christmas day."
Laura Henry said that she decided on the War and Peace course "Because as one of the greatest and longest pieces of prose ever written, I think ‘War and Peace’ is a work that should be read as a group. It takes motivation to plow through hundreds of pages, and discussion to truly understand the depth of each and every character. Professor Cleghorn has been both an exceptional motivator as well as a resource for disentangling the complexities of the work."
"Reading ‘War and Peace’ in such a short time is a big accomplishment," said Cleghorn.
In addition to attaining that goal, students undoubtedy will treasure happy memories of riding in a horse-drawn sleigh in the beautiful snow-covered Berkshires.