In all, the neighbors of Starkfield's general opinion about Ethan is that the man has had more than his share of tragedy and misery.
Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters
The fact is that everybody knows Ethan's story, and it provokes a sense of morbid curiosity as well as neighborly worry. As the town's sorriest-looking driver, they see Ethan as a walking tragedy itself; the people know Ethan all the way from the time he was a youth who had to leave school sadly giving up his love for science. The locals were very aware of Ethan's family woes. They know about Ethan's mother falling ill to the point of not speaking anymore; they also know about the employment of Zeena as her caretaker. They know that Zeena is a frigid and unsympathetic woman and that Ethan married her out of gratitude more than anything else.
They also know who is Mattie. They know how fresh, young, and impressionable she is, how she was going to be a bridesmaid in a wedding, and that Ethan and Mattie developed a mutual attraction.
This attraction is what ultimately leads to Ethan's notoriety; when he foolishly accepts Mattie's idea to commit a double suicide by sledding all the way down. After the plan goes terribly wrong, leaving both Ethan and Mattie disabled, it is Zeena who has to take care of them. This is the biggest tragedy out of all.