In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I am working on book #3 in the Winds of Freedom series, a teen adventure series set in the 1850s in North Danville, Vermont. My 1852 Vermont adventure THIS ARDENT FLAME is scheduled for June 2021 publication with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you updates and early order information as soon as I know! I'm also writing a memoir; revising a mystery; in the midst of a novel about a grandmother and her granddaughter; and always writing poems. Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Cotton Mather: From Salem Witch Trial Disaster to Hybrid Corn Experiments to Immense Loss

Check out these early provincial boundaries, via a Creative Commons map created by Kmusser.

I'm about halfway through writing KINDRED HEARTS, and every surface around me is covered with research. Not very tidy, but how exhilarating!

At this stage, also, almost everything around me spurs fresh inquiry ... 

Neighbors up the road just took their daughters to visit Salem, Massachusetts, and that sent me to reviewing the Salem Witch Trials and the notorious role of Cotton Mather (1663-1728) in them.

In turn, that sent me to Wikipedia for a quick review -- I often find Wikipedia to be a great jumping-off site for research, loaded with footnotes. I don't take the view of the Wiki writer as necessarily "valid" but I find a lot to explore from, after looking at this, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton_Mather—and the last paragraph made me very sad:

Mather was born in Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony, the son of Maria (née Cotton) and Increase Mather, and grandson of both John Cotton and Richard Mather, all also prominent Puritan ministers. Mather was named after his maternal grandfather John Cotton. He attended Boston Latin School, where his name was posthumously added to its Hall of Fame, and graduated from Harvard in 1678 at age 15. After completing his post-graduate work, he joined his father as assistant pastor of Boston's original North Church (not to be confused with the Anglican/Episcopal Old North Church of Paul Revere fame). In 1685, Mather assumed full responsibilities as pastor of the church.[1]: 8 

Mather wrote more than 450 books and pamphlets, and his ubiquitous literary works made him one of the most influential religious leaders in America. He set the moral tone in the colonies and sounded the call for second- and third-generation Puritans, whose parents had left England for the New England colonies, to return to the theological roots of Puritanism. The most important of these was Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) which comprises seven distinct books, many of which depict biographical and historical narratives.[3]

Mather influenced early American science. In 1716, he conducted one of the first recorded experiments with plant hybridization based on his observations of corn varieties. This observation was memorialized in a letter to his friend James Petiver:[4]

First: my Friend planted a Row of Indian corn that was Coloured Red and Blue; the rest of the Field being planted with corn of the yellow, which is the most usual color. To the Windward side, this Red and Blue Row, so infected Three or Four whole Rows, as to communicate the same Colour unto them; and part of ye Fifth and some of ye Sixth. But to the Leeward Side, no less than Seven or Eight Rows, had ye same Colour communicated unto them; and some small Impressions were made on those that were yet further off.[5]

In November 1713, Mather's wife, newborn twins, and two-year-old daughter all succumbed during a measles epidemic.[6] He was twice widowed, and only two of his 15 children survived him; he died on the day after his 65th birthday and was buried on Copp's Hill, near Old North Church.[1]: 40 

Friday, October 8, 2021

Postcard Insights: Autumn in Vermont, via the Lens of Alois Mayer


This isn't a great day for me to make a road trip for foliage photos, but my late husband Dave's postcard collection can always fill in! Here, at the top, is a view of Jay Peak taken from a field of grazing cows in Newport (Vt.). Continuing the dairy theme, the middle card is an aerial view of Cabot, home of Cabot Creamery, surrounded by farms. The third (bottom) card shows Lake Memphremagog, looking from the north toward distant Willoughby Gap. The photos are probably from the 1980s, says Dave's note.

What intrigued me today is that all three cards feature photos by the same person: Alois Mayer. So of course I looked up the name, and found this in the Valley News from March 8, 2021:

BOMOSEEN, VT — Alois Mayer was born on March 23rd, 1938 and died on February 26th, 2021. He was raised in Maria Alm, Austria. Alois was the eighth of ten children of Sebastian and Katharina Mayer. As a young man, Alois was a ski instructor in Austria which led to his coming to America in 1963 at the age of 25 to work at Killington Mountain and eventually as the Ski School Director at Pico Peak for several years. Alois then focused his efforts into his considerable talent as a landscape photographer, selling his postcards and calendars across the State of Vermont for decades, through the business he founded Mayer Photo-Graphics, until his retirement.

Alois is survived by his two sons Jon and Kristian, his four grandchildren, his brothers Balthasar and Alexander, and his sister Susanne.

How remarkable! "Every picture tells a story" -- and this group of foliage photos led me to a very unexpected one. My sympathies to the family of this photographer, who has clearly made his mark in Vermont in at least two significant ways.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

From the Earth Itself: Pottery Made in St. Johnsbury Center


Every time I pass a brick house in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, I'm reminded that these long-lasting house components came directly from the soil here. My understanding is that brickyards were once common in the region, especially along the streams and rivers, where clay beds could be found.

But it wasn't only bricks that came from such clay. Pottery, a classic of early American life, is formed from this specially elastic material, which can be shaped and then baked at high temperature in a kiln, to form waterproof containers. According to St. Johnsbury historian Edward Fairbanks, the products of the St. Johnsbury Stone Ware Pottery "were in constant demand until the introduction of tinware."

Studying the history of the Center Village, known today as St. Johnsbury Center, took me seeking the history of this pottery. "Early New England Potters and Their Wares" by Lura Woodside Watkins fills in the details that Fairbanks mentions in his history.

General (probably a militia title, perhaps from our Revolution) Richard Webber Fenton founded his stoneware manufactory about half a mile south of the village, on the west side of the river. His son Leander W. Fenton seems to have taken on the business and partnered with someone named Hancock; the "domestic ware" ("from jugs, jars, bottles and milk pans, at a dollar a dozen, to fancy flower pots at sixty cents each," wrote Fairbanks) were marked either "L. W. Fenton" or "Fenton & Hancock," along with the town's name. Power for the pottery, with its spinning potters' wheels, came from a brook spilling down the slope.

Watkins wrote that a great-granddaughter of Leander's, Mrs. W. W. Husband, lived in St. Johnsbury and had a list of the articles available in the late 1850s:

Both Fairbanks and Watkins mention the end of the pottery firm in November 1859, when a fire destroyed it. While working on my recent article on St. Johnsbury Center history for the October 2021 North Star Monthly, I found mention of the fire in the Caledonian, reprinted in the November 17, 1859, edition of the Green-Mountain Freeman:


 I don't know of any items from this potterymaker locally, although Watkins enthuses about a distinctive one of the water coolers, with cobalt blue decorations that she guesses might have been done by either Eleazar Orcutt or Edward Alonzo Crafts, both known to have been employed in St. Johnsbury.

Jugs with the Fenton & Hancock mark come up at antique auctions fairly often, and I have borrowed an image from one of these to show above. Look closely and you can see part of the name of the pottery across the top of the blue decoration.

Do you know more about the pottery? Have a fragment or whole item in your own collection? Have connections to the Fentons or Mrs. Husband, or more detail for who Hancock was? Please do comment!


Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Hiking Her Way Into a New Biography: Annie Gibavic and the Adventures of Writing


Annie Gibavic, who lives in Sutton, Vermont, says she's always loved to hike. In 2003, Bondcliff Books published her memoir of a 3-week "through hike" of Vermont's Long Trail. Called ALONE BUT NOT LONELY, the book was well received and demonstrated her ways of challenging herself and finding joy.

At that time, a woman hiking alone was still fairly rare; comments on the discussion site GoodReads reflect how the book was valued:

It's been a long time since I last read this book, and when I was a kid it inspired me to want to hike the Long Trail. Before I left for my own hike on the LT this year, I picked it up again to revisit Annie's story. Honestly, her trail journals are just like any other trail journals, but I think when I was younger, it was a lot more unusual to find a woman doing this kind of thing alone. I'm still thankful for how my own hike was sparked by this one book picked up in a thrift store so long ago. Vermont is a magical place, and the LT is a very special trail indeed. 

When Annie herself was a teenager, she interacted often with her aging great-aunt Dorothy C. Walter, a woman born in the late Victorian years whose life involved unusual paths for that time. Dorothy not only performed the expected roles of caregiver for several family members -- she also taught "Americanization" to many immigrants in Providence, Rhode Island, and brought back explorations of her adventures there to women's and church groups in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. For many listeners, Dorothy—an ardent writer herself—may have been the first to explain to her home-grown Yankee audience that immigrants need not be "dirty" or "ignorant" and that their foods, even though seasoned in ways Yankees never indulged, could be delicious. (You can read my recent feature on Dorothy here.)


Annie's personal memory of Dorothy from her teen years is really a classic of how a not-yet-grown girl sees things: She recalls Dorothy's large size, and the tremendous efforts required to assist her on the narrow staircase of the family home, when the elderly woman broke her hip!

But as an adult, Annie became a teacher herself, and with her mother Annette's edited packets of Dorothy's writing, Annie began to identify more with her great-aunt. At first she taught at an alternative school in Peacham, with a curriculum based on musical theater. "Dance was my first love," she explains, and it led her into work at a choreographer for the Vermont Children's Theater and for a high school. Further, as an art teacher at Miller's Run School in Newark, VT, for 25-30 years, she also taught ESL, or English as a Second Language -- that is, English for immigrants.  

And all the while, she hiked, and she re-read the family stories, especially Dorothy's. One day she suddenly realized that "Americanization" and teaching English as a Second Language overlapped substantially. She marveled that she hadn't realized until that moment how closely her life meshed with her great-aunt's adventures.

Over the past few years, Annie's been writing another book. This time, like Dorothy and like Annie's mother Annette, the writing focuses on a relative: Joseph Hall, the "adventurous brother," she says, of her great-great-grandfather Dudley P. Hall. Bondcliff Books, which published her trail book, is considering her manuscript. It would be both history and "family memoir," and pulls her life even closer to Dorothy's.

I met with Annie a few weeks ago to learn about Dorothy -- we sat outside Café Lotti in East Burke, so we could chat without masks. Astonishingly, we were sitting next door to the former home of Joseph Hall.

So how could I resist? When we finished talking about her family and their intriguing history, I asked Annie to step next door so I could take her photo with Joseph Hall's house behind her. I hope her book will be published soon, so I can enjoy this adept writer and hiker's view from the mountains today.


Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Poetry and September—My Time of Year


Summer in Vermont is a glorious time. But in August it flashes warnings of change—and just like when I was a kid eager for new clothes (that back-to-school treat), I feel September pushing toward me. It's harder to stay in the moment. Plans for the change of weather get scribbled, in notes here and there, and on the calendar.

I am more than two years out from the death of my husband Dave, and to most people who knew him, that probably feels like a very long time. For me, it's still a season of deep change, locating the parts of myself that "changed forever" in the years of our marriage, and figuring out how to do, solo, the things we so much enjoyed doing together. Moving to a new home is the most dramatic change in all this. But the emotional shifts are just as big.

That pushes me into poetry, day after day. Poetry and gardening are my anchors, the areas where I know growth will take place. (Historical research and writing the articles and novels related to that are good, too, but they are by definition less emotional, aren't they?)

One Day in Early August

 

One day in early August, a fresh wind out of September

swept out of the northwest and pulled me out the door, ready

not for frost or snow, but for relief—let the heat wave flee,

let the garden race toward golden melons and squash, let the birds

begin to gather and remind each other: We rise. We fly.

No longer courting or even nesting, but practicing for height.

 

And I? Despite the brisk air, I’m bound to stay, an old cap

pulled over my hair, a fresh swipe of mink oil over my boots—

my best memories wrapped around me like some familiar

thick sweater, like a snug zipped jacket, like (not yet) gloves.

This is the back road I’ve walked for years, tracking the leaves

in their bold thick greens then slow hint of gold, of crimson.

 

I saw a tuft of red leaves wave to the corn field;

a cluster of small purple asters, late-summer frills, danced.

Racoon scat I almost stepped on, and deer tracks, and scrapes

from eager turkey feet, from bears, til the low stone wall

interrupted—and a thicket of raspberries rose from rocks

that hid the tiny burying ground beyond. Like last night’s deer

 

I wedged my toes between the rocks; tiptoed up them

eyes on the red fruit; reached a cautious arm, fingers gentle

as a doe’s soft lip, teasing the swollen berries from the stems

too soft to carry away—quick to my mouth, sweet delight.

If you were waiting at home, babes, I’d find a way to carry

this to you: a photo, a song, a few protected sweets.

 

Berries from bones? Life from stones? I face a dozen winters,

maybe more, without the warm constant of my true love

at my side. Many things I do not understand, do not see

in the bright swift sunset and the tinted clouds, this edge

between the day and the star-pricked night. Hands in pockets,

tasting the fresh cold air, I call to you, wanting you to hear.

 

-- BK

Thursday, June 24, 2021

How Magical!: THIS ARDENT FLAME and Harriet Beecher Stowe

This Ardent Flame is now in print, and the magic continues. 


This is the second in my Winds of Freedom series of historical mysteries, seeing the approach to the Civil War through the eyes of Vermont teenaged girls. In 1852, to be 14 was to be on the verge of womanhood—and to contemplate big questions, like Abolition, Temperance, and votes for women. Also, if you are Alice Sanborn, to confront the wickedness of a man who beats a horse and probably does the same to humans.

Writing This Ardent Flame became magical for me as Alice and her bosom buddy Caroline, deaf from childhood and newly home to Vermont after years of boarding at the School for the Deaf in Hartford, CT, were riding the train north from Boston. Their mission at that moment was to help provide a merry family distraction around two Black men traveling with Alice’s brothers. The men were freemen, but still at risk even in New England, due to the horrors of the Fugitive Slave Law.

As the girls were “conversing” in their adapted language of American Sign Language, lip reading, and already being well attuned to each other’s thoughts, a woman paused to observe and then to ask them about the exchange of Sign. Fascinated, she assured them she’d be following up on this, then leapt off the train for her connection to Maine.

I suddenly knew who it was, before the girls were aware, of course: Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a woman who would later meet President Abraham Lincoln, who supposedly said to her, “So this is the little woman who started this big war.”

Students and teachers at the American School for the Deaf

Abashed at my own hubris in walking such an important person into the scene, I emailed one of my consultants: the historian at the American School for the Deaf. “Do you mind,” I asked with shaking typing fingers, “if Harriet Beecher Stowe walks through a scene? Could that be historic?”

The quick reply was basically: “Go for it!” Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catherine, it turned out, had been close friends of Alice Cogswell, who ran the school! And in Alice’s scrap book was (gulp) an unpublished poem by the famed Hartford author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin! Here is the actual response from the school historian:

Alice Cogswell kept a scrap book, which we [were] fortunate to inherit from one of her relatives back in 1936.  The scrap book is a collection of poems, letters, and drawings from friends and family members.  She certainly did have a connection with the Beecher family because her scrap book includes a poem from Harriet Beecher Stowe and one from Catherine E. Beecher.  I have no documentation of the circumstances, but it stands to reason.  Both families were prominent in the same Hartford circles, and both women were activists in their own right.  Especially Catherine’s crusade for the education of women.  I imagine Alice’s education at ASD would have been of particular interest to Catherine.

And that, my friends, is the magic of writing historical mysteries—that every now and then, an unexpected guest walks into the scene, and turns out to uncover a real-life revelation.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Returning to Philip Pullman's THE BOOK OF DUST, Thinking about "Young Adult"


My newest Vermont historical adventure reaches the marketplace on June 23: THIS ARDENT FLAME. Set in a real village not far from where I research and write, in 1852, it probes the very real controversies around ending enslavement in America, from a Vermont point of view.

But for me—and I think for many other authors—a novel takes on legs and spirit of its own, and within a few pages of the start, I knew the teens in this book had complicated lives in which they felt the pain of being "other than" what's expected. They knew romance and dreams. They threw themselves into battles for justice, without full consideration of what it could cost them.

And that, for me, is the point of writing "YA." Teen protagonists aren't just unseasoned; they are passionate. When they recognize the next right thing to do, they can be more likely than careful, thoughtful adults to offer themselves and their abilities. Of course they get hurt this way. But they also grow in leaps that are exhilarating to experience, even as the writer rediscovering them. 

THIS ARDENT FLAME recaps what it meant to be deaf in Vermont before the Civil War. It exposes the pain of families already beginning to split on moral grounds. I hope that in the best of ways, it foreshadows the coming darkness of the war that tore America apart, so fiercely that the wounds have still not healed, 160 years since they began to bleed.

My kind of writing depends on constantly learning. A lot of that is from the scholarship and research of others, especially social historians. But I'm also always working at becoming a better wordsmith, scene setter, tension exposer, painter of love and loyalty. Part of my "training" comes from reading powerful stories told by others. I grew up on Madeleine L'Engle, J.R.R. Tolkein, Frances Hodson Burdett, Arthur Ransome, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott, and yes, second-tier novelists who brought us important visions, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who strolled right into THIS ARDENT FLAME and surprised me deeply.

In my non-writing life, I'm doing some hard things right now, involving selling the home where my husband and I lived and loved, and where I tended him in his final illness. I'm learning to talk with (and learn from!) contractors in preparing a new home for myself. I'm packing LOTS of books.

So I'm re-reading YA novels this month. That took me, this week, to Philip Pullman's newest series, "The Book of Dust," which has two published books so far, with the third and final yet to come. As I worked through the first one again, La Belle Sauvage (named for the canoe owned by Malcolm, one of the protagonists), I looked at how Pullman summoned power through his words, and deepened the ideas and passions behind them. 


Around halfway through the book, Malcolm's school gets taken over by a religious crusade that deliberately turns children into spies on the morals of their families and friends. Malcolm observes the effect: "Few pupils were openly naughty anymore—there were few fights in the playground, for instance—but everyone seemed guiltier."

The phrasing made me think of Orwell's Animal Farm. Political manipulation and power depend on making one group feel potent, and another feel guilty and "less than." It's a shocking book, and one that is now embedded as firmly in our culture and thinking as Orwell's other noted dystopian, 1984. 

Is Animal Farm meant for teens to read? I certainly read it first when I was a teen, for school. Recently my 12-year-old grandson read it for school, too. I tried to let him know, without being pushy about it, that I felt the book was dark, even scary. I bet he felt the same way. I hope his classroom reinforced taking a stand against the machinations exposed in the story—and supported the kids who found it painful to read. Lots of people experience the use of power against them, even before they grow up.

I'm torn about whether Pullman's books are "good for young readers." Even today, I find they hurt me, darken my views, open me to more despair. 

If you have an opinion on all this—I'd like to hear yours. Let's talk.

[Hope you'll make time to browse more of my tales here of historical research, writing, and life! Tap the link to reach the rest of the material: https://bethkanell.blogspot.com]