In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I have the walls covered with brown "butcher" paper so I can pin up ideas, photos, drawings, and my constant supply of hand-drawn maps and plot outlines. I've finished revisions on a YA murder investigation set in 1921 in Vermont -- Cold Midnight. Very much in a gentle research stage is an 1883 novel called Copper Mountain and a haunted story of "today" called The Fire Curse. Some poems, too. Count on the blog getting bits from all of these. And there's the "Vermont Nancy Drew" novel I'm building on Wattpad (see right-hand column). Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Country Life in March -- Mud Season, Gardens, and Big Plans

When I'm planning a novel, I start with a lot of fragments: moments and phrases and bits of the landscape that shine, with that soft sort of gleam you get after polishing a silver teaspoon (not as "glaring" as the shine on a freshly cleaned smartphone screen). They tug at me, insisting that they belong in a story. And those are just the inanimate items. The characters and their lives, as they grow rounded and real, bump into me more and more often in each day -- while driving, while waiting for the oven timer to ding, while in the shower (one of the very fruitful moments, except for the necessity of holding the character's action in mind until my hands are dry enough to grip a pen and scribble things on paper without dripping).

Right now I'm in chapter 2 and chapter 5 of two different novels, so my mind and my writing room are cluttered with tidbits that have to fit someplace. I don't always know why, but I know they belong.

Yesterday I drove about 40 minutes north of here to a gathering of the Northeast Kingdom Rug Hookers Guild. I enjoyed watching the dynamics of this group of strong, creative crafters (including a boy maybe 12 years old who pounded out classical music on the piano in the room across the hall; he was someone's son). Many of the rugs featured wool, cut into thin strips, being "hooked" into the backings to create images. Some used yarn; one came from slivers of T-shirts.

Two rugs in particular featured sheep, and sheep have been on my mind. Like the rugs, I don't think the sheep are moving into either of the novels (but they might!). Instead, I can feel them moving into my garden plans for the year.

I should clarify: It's the last weekend of February, and March is about to roar into place. In this part of Vermont, the Northeast Kingdom, March weather means chaos: abrupt rainstorms, unexpected snow deliveries that often add up to a foot or more, and most of all, the insistent bright sunshine that heats the frozen ground, creating thick layers of mud where the roads and gardens expose the naked ground to the new seasonal warmth. We call it Mud Season.

It's also the season for ordering seeds to plant, which means some notion of this year's vegetable garden must emerge from the winter fog. And for those with active animal housing, it's lambing season, and time to order chicks (they arrive via the mail carrier, a dozen or more to a box, peeping), and more calves than usual arrive in the dairy barns.

So as all the sheep and wool items around me cascade, like bits of an upcoming novel, I start to wonder ... should I be planning a lamb into my garden this year? A couple of sheep? I can almost picture them grazing the surrounding lawn. Then I start to add up the daily feedings, the care of hooves and ears, the vet visits, and I remember that our shed isn't a good enough barn.

No, just as for the novel-in-progress, some ideas need to be set aside. Admired, yes. But declined this time. It occurs to me that it might be a good nod to March, though, to visit some local sheep breeders. And goat herders. Ah, that fits better. In fact, I think there's a tie to one of the twists in novel #1 in such a visit.

That's what I like about country life. Keep something around for a while, and it will come in useful. One way, or another.

* * * * *

Below: Sheep article from Vermont History News, Sept.-Oct. 1983

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Nature or Nurture? Justice, Secrets, and Love

A few weeks ago, through a connection with a cousin of mine in Israel (Inbal Jaffe), I received a photo that apparently has been legendary in my family's history. I didn't know it existed until Inbal attached it to an e-mail, but another cousin, Phillip Minden, told me he'd long searched for it. When I saw it, I looked from left to right at the "Three Henry Mindens" in the picture -- noting Dr. (of law) Henry Minden in the center, a man whose generous life I've recently learned about -- and suddenly realized the man on the right was "my" Henry Minden, a man who lived on Long Island when I was a child growing up in New Jersey. More than anyone else, more than my "real" grandparents, who all lived in England, this Henry Minden did for me and my siblings what grandparents do for their grandchildren: He welcomed us at holidays and on Sunday afternoons, hid Easter eggs around the garden for us to find (even though he was Jewish), encouraged us to play musical instruments, and gently assured us that a life of books was a very good life.

As I grew older, my parents revealed a small bit of Henry's story: He and his wife Betty had escaped Europe during the Second World War, via Holland, they said. Later, when I read the story of Anne Frank, I thought maybe they had hidden there, and been sent out secretly. But I didn't ask for more details -- in the family where I grew up, some things you didn't ask about, and most of those had to do with the War and the Camps ... the concentration camps.

Henry died while I was a teen, and I had never been to a funeral. Struggling to read my father's face when he asked me in a neutral tone whether I wanted to go to Henry's, I said, "No thank you." I think my father's relief related to not having to explain to me what I might have heard at that funeral. It was the family's job, as he saw it, to put the sorrow of the past behind, and not speak of it.

So it was that when I turned 50 years old, I knew almost nothing of my father's side of the family. He had said, to the child I was once, that "nobody close" to him had perished in the camps, or the war.

Yet the man with whom I courted that year (and soon married) said to me, "I think your father's family name is in the books in my personal library of Jewish life and history." So, far too late to ask for details from my deceased dad, I learned something in those books of Henry Minden after all ... and put into perspective the crumbs I had kept about my grandfather Ernest, who was my father's father. It took more years before I realized that I also had important "crumbs" to investigate about my father's mother, Lena.

And then everything I thought I knew about my father's family fell apart, as I found that Lena's father (I have a photo of him with my dad!) apparently perished in Auschwitz in 1942; just last year, I learned of my cousin Max who died fighting for "our side" in Italy; and now I think I've found another close member of the family who may have died in the war.

But here is what I know for sure: Henry Minden number 3, the  Henry on the right, was a kind man with a deep love of art and music, and who loved me. My father's family helped many others to reach safety and justice during the war, and afterward. And, as I have slowly come to realize, my mother's own repeated mention of Quakers in her family turned out to be a link to others who wrestled for safety and justice in America's long history -- whether in New England or New Jersey or Philadelphia.

Now I have this heritage, shakily assembled, slowly becoming more certain, of justice seekers and, put politely, secret keepers. I find that there's some of each of those in me, after all, and in my writing.

But most of all, as I realized last week, tears running down my face while I gazed at Henry's familiar face, my family has given me love.

Now, bear with me one more paragraph for an announcement: I am enormously delighted to say that the small local library in my town here in Vermont, the Davies Memorial Library, is acquiring a collection of books on social justice next month. Here are some details -- and I am happy to say that I've had a role in helping this come together:
Tuesday February 16, Educating Ourselves About Social Justice, at the Davies Memorial Library in Lower Waterford at 6:30 p.m. LSC Professor Patricia Shine and several of her students present and discuss some of the most influential titles on social justice. Books available from the library afterward. Free and open to all. Info: 748-4609 and

Saturday, November 7, 2015


The series is piling up nicely. These are first drafts; I won't go to revisions for a while yet. I love the way first drafts pile up, like raked leaves, that same dry scent ...

The scent of the autumn woods, a leaf
caught in my hair – did we choose the place,
or did it pull us relentlessly (it was always
meant to be: this hunger you wake in me,
this place in the chest where October lives).
Once upon a time I thought each question
had to be asked. Now, I only want your mouth
against mine, your pulse, this answer,
real as the twig caught against my shoulder.
Say “maple.” Say “birch.” Say “yes.”

-- BK, 10/30/15
A Visit to the Old Place

Every year around this time
with the harvest in, oats, carrots, apples
dry leaves crunching underfoot
we pull the truck out of the barn.
There is room behind the seats for the big thermos
and sandwiches, whose fragrance
fills the space between us: garlic, onion, salt
(oh yes, salt asserts its own fragrance)
and behind us the house diminishes until
the road bends – we enter that wilderness
of need and complaint. Why would God invent
traffic jams, road construction, yellow diggers
surrounded by supervisors in orange vets –
things we have not missed during our autumn.
But we missed the home place, the well of grace.
He drives. I comment. “Things have grown up so much.”
There’s no answer to change, except to grow apples
somewhere else. Shopping mall, parking strip,
cluster of seedy brick shops. Declare MacIntosh. Cortland.
Golden Delicious. Are we there yet? He watches
the odometer, brakes, says “Here. It was here.”
One iron gate hangs loose from a stone pillar,
broken pavement beyond it. A red plastic cup and
crumpled paper on shattered tarmac. Leafless branches
bare and thin as arms escaping a white gown. Some sad smell.
“The angel stood: there.”

-- BK 11/7/2015

Hungry During Deer Season

Going “back to the land” meant hunting: the awkward feel
of cold steel, balancing the rifle, checking the calendar.
That first season of daily hunts, though, the man in my life
did everything the hard way. No snow to track with.
No high-tech clothing for warmth. Each day, perched in a tree
with a bow and arrows, tested at the suburban archery range.
And on the last day of the season, mid afternoon,
he ran breathless out of the forest, arms waving, stumbling:
“Come with,” he gasped, “need you. Carry.”
I wrapped my coat around my swollen belly and followed.

It was a small deer, as deer go. But male, and with antlers,
and the paper tag already fastened to the corpse
as if it needed a toe tag but the hoof couldn’t cooperate:
body, cooling, heavy with the day’s grazing. Close up,
it wasn’t Bambi at all, but coarse-haired, wild, muscled.
“Take the front legs,” my hunter directed me. “Don’t bump
the head into any trees. Lift.”

Even dead, the round eyes shone, ready to capture
the last sunlight. The sun sank into cold twilight
and we lifted, tugged, staggered. How heavy it was,
that awkward, stiffening body. When I stumbled,
he cried out, “Careful! Don’t hurt him!” But my hands
needed to release the hairy skin, the bony leg,
needed to rub in habit and comfort against
the baby bump. Oh child to come, oh little one,
already it’s you, most important in my life.
Not yet for him, bearing his first deer, his heart
wild in triumph and joy – yet the little fists in my belly
struck outward, toward that man becoming a father.

“I need,” I said. “I need to breathe. I need to stop
for a moment to rest my hands.”  And my heart.
Supper to make, but first the kill to report,
and the body to raise high into a tree,
its belly slit, its liver sliced and sizzling in a cast-iron pan.

From here onward, it’s all the other wants
that I’m hearing. I cook. I feed. When the baby comes,
it will be strong, healthy. Hungry.

-- BK 11/6/15

Saturday, October 31, 2015

"East Village" Vermont Fire of 1912: The True Story

The East Village fire of 1912: remains. Photo taken from behind today's Peter & Polly Park. Look for the bell tower of the church, toward the right rear in the card.
Dave and I enjoy collecting old postcards that show locations -- and sometimes people -- around our area, the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. We've done this since we met, back in 2002, and it's become an important part of the research we each do: Dave for his attention to the college where he worked for 19 years (Lyndon State College) as Assistant Dean of Residential Life (he stays in touch with SO many people, as well as the history of Theodore N. Vail, a founder of AT&T and donor of many of the college town's cultural treasures. And me, well, I'm always hunting down more details of "truth" to add to the historical adventures I write.

So this postcard became one of our Big Finds for 2015. It is what's called a "real photo postcard" -- someone photographed an actual scene and event, and had the picture made into cards. Three things alerted us to excitement here: the scene, which is after a disastrous fire; the postmark and hardwritten date, August 26 (25), 1912, in St. Johnsbury, Vermont; and the writer, L. D. Weston, who notes that he's writing to "Dear" Mrs. F. Weston, in Marbleton, Quebec, Canada.

We were wrong in almost all of our early assumptions about the card, though! The name "Weston" immediately rang a bell for us, as we know there's a household including that name in East St. Johnbury today. We wondered whether it was connected to today's family, and whether the image showed a farm fire.

Each of us -- Dave and I -- investigated in different directions. Soon we learned that today's Weston family didn't have a record of someone of that name in East St. Johnsbury (then known as "East Village") in 1912; then we found that L. D. Weston had lived in Lyndonville but was employed for a while by the railroad in St. Johnsbury. Finally Dave used the Library of Congress archives to unearth newspaper coverage of the 1912 fire -- which, oddly enough, turned out to have happened in East Village after all! I typed the news report up, and circled back to Edward Lee's "East St. Johnsbury Vermont" (1984) booklet to confirm the story from another direction. Lee's account makes it clear that the devastation of the East Village fire on August 7, 1912, had three contributing factors: no firefighting system in the village beyond the traditional "bucket brigade"; the fact that when the first motor-powered firetruck in St. Johnsbury itself (some 5+ miles away) tried to reach the fire, it was interrupted (according to the newspaper, three times!) by frightened teams of horses along the route; and a delay in getting a hand pumper from the Fairbanks Scale factory (about 6 miles way) to the fire via the railroad -- the pumper was placed on a flat car for transport along the rail line that linked the two villages, but had to wait for the passenger train from Portland, Maine, to arrive first.

Lee's account also includes the intriguing mention that firefighting villagers considered dynamiting the Moulton house next door to the church to stop the fire from traveling as far as the church! It appears this was a last resort that didn't actually happen.

A final note from Lee's accounts: By 1928 the East Village had its own fire station, next to the large store built a century earlier by Silas Hibbard. Perhaps one of today's readers can tell us when firefighting left East Village again, to be focused in "downtown" St. Johnsbury instead.

Here is the promised newspaper article:

St. Johnsbury Caledonian, August 14, 1912

Four Houses and Four Barns Completely Destroyed and other Buildings Damaged.

            The little village of East St. Johnsbury suffered the worst fire it its history last Wednesday afternoon when in about three hours four houses and four barns were completely destroyed and another house and the Congregational church were considerably damaged. It was a case of no water system and all that save at least three more houses and the church was the sending of a hose cart and a hand pump with several volunteer firemen from this village to assist their brethren in misfortune.

            The fire was discovered about half past twelve when smoke was seen pouring out of the roof and along the ridge pole of John Nolan’s house on Main street. All the men in that section were away at their work and Mrs. George Dodge spread the alarm along the street. When the flames burst through the roof the top of the house was all on fire and all it was possible to do was get Mr. and Mrs. John Nolan Sr. out of the house and the family’s furniture, clothing and bedding were all lost. The fire quickly reached the barn which was filled with this season’s cut of hay and everything there was burned. Mr. Nolan received $1930 insurance on the buildings and furniture and that practically covers his loss.

            George Dodge’s house stood next to the Nolans and the fire soon leaped across the space and began devouring those buildings. Enough people had gathered by this time to remove most of the furniture and articles from the barn and they were saved in a somewhat damaged condition. The Dodges received $1,000 insurance which practically covered their loss on the buildings. There was a loss of over $200  on the hay, wood and furniture.

Assistance From St. Johnsbury

            When it was seen the fire would spread the authorities of St. Johnsbury were telephoned, and they ordered the new automobile fire truck to the scene. The truck had to come to a full stop three times on account of frightened teams and then made the trip in nine minutes. The buildings were so far done before the truck arrived that the chemicals were of no use and as the village had no water pressure the hose could not be used. Word was sent back to St. Johnsbury and an out of town alarm was sounded. The firemen quickly responded and soon had the hose cart with a hand pump loaded on a flat car and with about 20 firemen was ready to start. The special train was held however until the eastbound express pulled out and then was run to East Village. The firemen arrived there about quarter of three and soon had the pump throwing a good stream of water from the river on the fire.

More Buildings Destroyed

            Before the St. Johnsbury men arrived the fire had swept through the house and barn of Miss Charlotte Morrill a[n]d practically leveled the house and barn of Francis Brown. It had also caught on one side of the buildings of Lois Moulton and an attempt was being made to tear down that house in an effort to keep the blaze from the Congregational church. In their fright the people damaged the furniture considerably and they tore out the pews, windows and carpets of the church and some furniture was taken from the house of Eugene Shasteny beyond the church In a few minutes after the stream from the pump was started it seemed that the blaze would be stopped at the Brown house and the destruction of furniture was stopped.

Sick People Carried Out

            During the excitement Mrs. Moulton and Mrs. Shores were nearly overcome by fright and had to be helped to places of safety. Aunt Honor Brown, a woman about 85 years of age who lay in bed with a broken hip, were carried out of the Brown house. George Babcock was quite badly cut over one eye by a piece of furniture which was thrown from a house. The Brown invalids were taken to St. Johnsbury and the whole Brown family are there at present stopping with relatives. The Brown buildings were insured for $800 which covers the loss of them but Mr. Brown lost a lot of nice wood and some furniture. It is doubtful if they rebuild.

More of the Insurance

            The church was allowed $200 damage by the insurance company and Lois Moulton was allowed $350 insurance which will hardly cover her loss. The loss on the Morrill house was $1,243 but the loss is above $1,600.
            John Nolan and his family stay through the day at the abandoned house on their farm outside the village, but they stay nights at Charles Bowman’s as they lost all of their bedding. Mr. and Mrs. George Dodge have taken rooms as Oscar Wallace’s and will rebuild their house at once. Miss Charlotte Morrill is stopping with the Rev. Edward Lee and he sister, Mrs. M. S. McCurdy, who was spending the summer with her. is stopping at George Copp’s. Mrs. Moulton is also stopping there until her house is made habitable.

The Morrill House

            The house of Miss Charlotte Morrill was one of the oldest and best known residences in the village. It was partly built by the Rev. Silas Gaskill in 1825 and completed by Judge Calvin Morrill in 1850. It has been the residence of the Morrill family since the marriage of Calvin Morrill and Sophronia Lee in 1834. The family consisted of one son and three daughters of whom only the daughters, Mrs. M. S. McCurdy of Andover, Mass., Mrs. Elizabeth Chapman of South Part and Miss Charlotte Morrill, a member of the faculty of Adelphi College in Brooklyn, N.Y., survive. For years it has been occupied by the Morrill family as a summer residence where they had entertained many other guests.
            Miss Morrill plans to rebuilt the house at once. ###

A final note from Beth: Each of my novels somehow includes a fire, I find ... probably because of the one that made such a change in my own family's life. More on that, some other time. Finally, Dave and I are pretty sure this postcard is indeed of the East Village fire -- but a curious side issue is, it seems to be the only existing image of the fire. So if, after all this, you think we are mistaken and you have a good reason to say the card is of some other place or time ... let us know. We are always learning, and eager to learn more. -- BK

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Learning More "Little Things": Connecticut Valley Lumber Company

This year our region of Vermont is marking 100 years since the grand finale of river log drives on the Connecticut River, by the C.V.L. Co., the Connecticut Valley Lumber Company, owned by a self-made millionaire, George Van Dyke. Using stories recorded and perhaps lightly embellished by Waterford, Vermont, author Robert E. Pike, I often tell some of the history of Van Dyke's life and his river logging operations. (I did in Barnet on August 1, and will again in Concord, VT, on September 26, joined at both events by Robert Pike's author-and-historian daughter Helen C. Pike, who recounts a different side of the era through the life of logging entrepreneur Ruth Parks.)

A remarkable thing about the writing that I do about those days in Vermont history is: The research never ends. In all kinds of small details, I keep piling up information that fits with Robert Pike's tales (see Spiked Boots or Tall Tree, Tough Men, his noted collections). This weekend provided a classic example.

My husband Dave and I traveled an hour east, into the White Mountains, to savor a postcard show, where cards that were printed and often mailed from about 1890 to 1980 or so are marketed to collectors. Dave brought home some wonderful photos that fit the towns whose history he often promotes: Lyndonville and St. Johnsbury, Vermont.

Me, I brought home in elation (!!!) this postcard:

This boardinghouse and office of Van Dyke's C.V.L. Co. were in Bloomfield, Vermont -- most likely South Bloomfield, which was the earlier logging and milling center of the Essex County town. Today there are only about 265 residents of the town, but in the logging days it was a very busy place.

I was able to locate this information today, provided by the state of Vermont with its description of adjacent West Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA):
Timber harvesting on the WMA land begin in 1800 when the [neighboring] town of Brunswick issued a 400-acred "pitch" on Paul Stream to Ethiel Cargill. A large mill and small village were located further up Paul Stream at Brown's Mill. In 1900, the Connecticut Valley Lumber Company (CVL) moved its headquarters from Pittsburg, NH to Bloomfield, VT. This was the result of the discovery that the old-growth spruce south of the Nulhegan [river] was dying due to an infestation of spruce bark beetle.
It sounds like the company office was moved to focus more easily on this dying section of forest, to facilitate the harvest, doesn't it? That's what a map tends to confirm, too.

For me, one of the next questions is, what changes in forest health are now taking place due to climate change? And what will we see as people and logging businesses adapt to these, the way that George Van Dyke's company once did? Also -- what traces remain of the C.V.L. Co. boardinghouse and office shown here? I may need to plan a hike.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Harper Lee, "Mockingbird," and "Go Set a Watchman"

Today I left this "comment" for Laura Tavares at the "Facing History Blog," and look forward to more conversations on the topic. This morning, I want to bring you all into this ... and hope you'll write something about your own perspective on the Harper Lee books, as well as family secrets that propel you toward seeking justice, or perhaps on The Darkness Under the Water.

My mantra for the examined life has become: "We are all in this together." Right?
Thank you, Laura Tavares, for writing of this new publication as "an invitation to read both books with a more realistic, complex, and sophisticated analysis of morality." I find the sequence of change in the two books very believable, because the same thing happened in my life while writing "The Darkness Under the Water" -- a book that first was "only a mystery" and soon became an effort to probe the Vermont Eugenics Project and its generations-long effects on those of Abenaki heritage. At the time of publication, I carried my own secrets and guilt based in a dual family heritage of Surviving the Holocaust (my father was a German Jew) and certainty that we are morally obliged to step forward against injustice (my mother was a lapsed Quaker). In the seven years since my book's publication and very mixed reception, I've learned far more history and gained further moral imperatives toward the endless struggle for justice. Just as my first and second versions of the book were vastly different, so would be the book I would now write. Harper Lee may well have had the same experience. I hope so -- there is goodness in growing and deepening. 
See more of the Facing History and Ourselves conversations at

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A Conversation in Lines of Words

Looking up Eastern Avenue in St J during road repairs. The café is at ground level, at the rounded corner of the brick building.
Can you find Heaven in a coffee shop? How would you look for heaven at the Café at Gatto Nero, the coffee shop on Eastern Avenue in St. Johnsbury, Vermont? Wordsmiths are invited to provide poetry and short prose at the CGN Facebook feed -- or in the notebook at the coffee shop, marked "Heaven, Looking For" --  and to come join me for a poetry conversation on Pascal's wager, life in "God's country," and other sorts of heavenly topics, Wednesday July 29 at 7 pm at the CGN. 

Postscript, for a question that Michale asked:

This poetry conversation can take place anywhere, but to connect with the others (and make it a real conversation!), post your poems at the Facebook page for the Café at Gatto Nero (, or write them into the notebook at the café counter. We'll gather on Wed. July 29 at 7 pm to hear some of what we've all been writing or thinking about as we consider looking for Heaven at the Café at  Gatto Nero.

Pascal's wager is a way of thinking about whether it's better to live according to the guess that god and heaven exist -- you can find it here:

I look forward to sharing poems with you!