In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I have taken down the brown "butcher" paper that held ideas, photos, drawings, and my hand-drawn maps and plot outlines for the past five or six books. I've placed all those items into three-ring binders, and cleared the deck for paintings and photographs that involve courage, as I move forward in GHOSTKEEPER, the new novel set in Lyndonville, Vermont. My 1850 Vermont adventure THE LONG SHADOW is under contract with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you a publication date as soon as I know! Scribbling lots of poems, too. And there's a possible route to publication of the "Vermont Nancy Drew" novel I built on Wattpad (see right-hand column). Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Because Shadows Are Part of Life

It's been eight and a half months since my husband (= soulmate) died, and every day brings new ways to feel and learn. One important lesson has been to grasp the difference between grief -- which is a reaction to the loss itself -- and mourning, which has more to do with learning to live with an absence.

Recently a friend and I were discussing the Book of Job, a part of the scriptures (or haftorah in Jewish tradition) that can make people very uncomfortable, because the main speaker in it, Job, has an argument with G-d that seems to leave him at a terrible disadvantage, without any just cause for it. This poem reflects on that ... and takes its title, "The Storehouses of Snow," from the ancient text. And, PS, the photo is from a earlier winter; our snow is not that deep at the moment, but check back with my photos on Facebook when Friday's storm is done!

The Storehouses of Snow

First winter alone in the house on the ridge, where
mornings open gray and silver — when I follow the tracks

(deer, fox, squirrel, a flock of turkeys) and search the trees
there’s more blue sky than I first realized, flaming and yearning

oh how long, how deep does love root itself in the heart
—it aches to touch, to clutch the answers. But:

There’s a thing about blue sky. Sometimes I don’t realize
til the moment I lift the camera to the bare branches above,

backdrop of tenderness with sparkles; silken, with cloud streaks
look! without calling, two bluejays erupt and take wing.

Paired, they do not leave this place in winter. Nor do I.

Empty rooms echo, while the kettle hums, yes
the kitchen’s almost a safety zone, a place to make and taste

and the stacked dishes waiting to be washed proclaim
“life is messy; choose life; go on, try it, try it, try it”

wet-handed (soaped) I dry it. The dish. My cheek. Salt wet.

Beware the living-room couch, with its loose comfort
blowsy, ample, cushioned. Take a corner seat. Did you

bring a book? This program with the sound muted now
was one he liked. We had a little race to be the first to say

“re-run!” and be correct. Sometimes people die and it’s not
something you can prevent. Love can’t hold it back, although

my niece is worried that I seem sad. When she called, I was sitting
by a window as the evening ripened: snow in the forecast.

Shadows on snow are blue but sometimes purple; some pink
in surprising places. The storehouses of snow must be designed

like the bold striped houses of the Gaspé, blooming plum and orange
above winter’s etched certainties. Imagine the winter breath of G-d

throat cleared with a rattling cough, pillars of ice rising.

Grief is a clawed animal known to prehistoric souls
digging like a sabre-toothed cat or dire wolf

tearing the flesh; opening the chest; releasing the arc of bones
determined to delve to the heart. Wrenching apart fiber

piercing each wanton cell with chemical injections of pain
erupting in coarse sobs, in wracked wailing, in screams. And then:

nights alone. Salt rivers. Oceans of separation.

How strange the new sun of mourning; fire from the lens
as light flares from a disk of ice. Words that set sparks

paper smoking within a golden circle. Fingers that curve
around a mug of comfort. Yet not so fast! Rage, rage first,

rage against the jaws of death, against hunger and want, against
half-empty bed, against table for one. Rage, I say! G-d shouts.

Raw throat, scrubbed face, tumble of blame and rough words.

The saw blade rasps in the ash branch; scrapes past bark, wrestles
fiber and core, pinches under the arched arm. Prunes back rash hope

assaults the life force, demands a rush of sap from the roots
swelling, rising, dripping (sweet not salt) down the gray bark.

Let the storehouses of snow be opened. Blow, winter rages. Blow
and rant and make the mountains kneel. Remind me how fierce

is love itself; how clawed; how it bites until the lips intervene
the tongue turns loose and hands grasp. How the calendar

numbers the days of the season. Insists (shouting, roaring)
on April. On yellow, gold, and green. Which are not (except at sunrise)

present in the shadows on the snow.

-- BK


Sunday, October 20, 2019

Maternity Homes in Vermont: A Research Story (and Invitation!)

Vermont “Maternity Homes”

by Beth Kanell

It began with a postcard. My husband Dave (who passed last April) collected them: colorful Vermont scenes, yes, but more importantly the black-and-white ones from the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s that showed actual scenes, especially in the Northeast Kingdom. There are hundreds of St. Johnsbury and Lyndonville images in his collection—but, proportional to both town size and events that seemed worth marketing as photographs, there are very few from, say, Granby or Victory in Essex County.
            Or from Concord.
            Dave plunged me into a new research project when he found a card labeled “Quimby Maternity Home, Concord, Vt.” His knowledge of postcard publishers and some quick investigation prompted him to added the information “1949–1953.”
            As we, and then I, probed further, we found more than 50 documented births that took place, not just in the Quimby (also called Graves, for nurse Ardella “Nana” Graves) Maternity home, but also in the Austin Maternity Home in the same small town (this one, run by Leah Virginia Austin). And both were clearly “supervised” by the local doctor, Frederick Russell Dickson, M.D.
            “Maternity homes” in the rest of America seem to have often been places for unwed mothers to give birth and send their babies out for adoption. Dave and I found a single request from an adoptee born in 1946 at a Concord maternity home for clues to his parentage. But that turned out to be the exception. Online access led us to birth certificates of many babies simply born in these more supportive, medically encouraged “homes.” Mothers could arrive a day early, stay a few days afterward, have a break from parenting and get a good start with the new arrival.
            But such maternity homes were not well documented. In the case of the ones in Concord, Dr. Dickson worked under contract for the local paper mill, which provided him space for a “dispensary,” and cared for many more illnesses, injuries, and preventive cases than the babies being born—and no records from the two maternity homes have been located.
            So Dave and I went to local Facebook “pages” and “groups,” where residents current and past share their memories. To our astonishment, we discovered another maternity home that took patients at the same time period, the early 1900s, and it was about 20 miles from Concord, in Lyndonville, Vermont. Then word of a second Lyndonville maternity home came, with oral confirmation that it had started in Burke and relocated.
            This is how a small postcard research project begins to spin outward!
            The community of local history researchers is compact and supportive. This summer and fall, I began writing to others in other towns, to see whether the maternity homes of this part of the Northeast Kingdom were an isolated phenomenon or part of something wider.
            After several negatives, I heard from local historian Joan Alexander of Glover, who passed along work by Darlene Young in her “A History of Barton, Vermont” (1998). Young outlined Barton’s medical providers in the late 1800s and mentioned Dr. Percy Buck, born in Charleston, Vermont. Dr. Buck arrived in Glover in 1914, and in 1935 moved to Barton. Young wrote, “During his career, he delivered over 2,000 babies, many of them at the Cottage Hospital.”
            I hope your reading “ears” just perked up the way mine did. Eagerly, I discovered from Young’s account that the double factors of the 1918 “Spanish” influenza outbreak and the changes in World War I era medicine resulted in nurse Harriet Austin in 1913 working in Baron at the “Sunshine Sanitorium,” which Young said “served a number of functions, providing both professional nursing care as well as a suitable place to handle surgical procedures. Increasingly, the sanitorium attracted maternity patients as well.”
            Then in 1923 a new medical graduate in Barton, Dr. Elwin M. Nichols, purchase a large home “with plans to establish his own hospital,” Young wrote. “He hoped to provide patients with both a comfortable, homey atmosphere and state-of-the-art medical equipment.” Soon the Nichols Hospital took over for the late 1920s.
            When Dr. Nichols yielded to his own medical problems, nurse Bernice Atwell opened the Cottage Hospital in Barton. Her particular focus was on maternity patients. Young noted its advantages over home delivery, including sanitary conditions, modern equipment, and rest for the patients. The percent of births held there increased steadily, drawing from as far away at Coventry and Craftsbury. Around 1950, however, trends shifted, and in 1954 Atwell, then aged 65 herself, closed her little hospital.
            Cottage Hospital! I darted to records of the historic Cottage Hospital in Woodsville, New Hampshire, across the river from Wells River, Vermont. It began in 1903, in a building that dated back to 1795, when it was the Cobleigh Tavern. Then it yielded to a “modern” and larger hospital opened in 1960.
            Now the tiny maternity home trend of the Northeast Kingdom had merged into a statewide trend, for I found another Cottage Hospital at the opposite end of the state, Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend, Vermont. Its timeline differed a bit, but it clearly belonged.
            It’s surprising to realize that even in medicine, which relies so much on records, the phenomenon of maternity and birth has been relatively unrecorded. I hope this research will trigger more—in the footsteps of midwife Lydia Baldwin of Bradford, Vermont, whose records are represented at Dartmouth College today: 926 births from 1768 to 1819, of which only 2.9 percent were stillbirths, despite the challenges of conditions and knowledge.
            Know more about maternity homes in your area? I hope you’ll share the knowledge!

The Facebook piece that Dave Kanell posted, which launched our grass-roots research into how maternity homes functioned in the Northeast Kingdom.

Mrs. Ardella (“Nana”) Graves, who ran one of the Concord, Vermont, maternity homes. Photo from the Facebook feed of the Concord Historical Society.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Vermont Begins to Honor Indigenous Peoples' Day, 2019

It is with great relief and some pride that I note that Vermont no longer has to depend on governors' declarations for each year's Indigenous Peoples' Day; beginning tomorrow, Monday October 14, the Green Mountain State honors its original residents and the continued presence of Abenaki/Wabenaki peoples with an official holiday.

That this happens during a time when almost all the traditional history guideposts are in flux is no surprise. We now know and understand more about the slaveholding positions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other founders of the nation. (I find some of the powerful art of Titus Kaphar remarkable in his vision of this.) We can finally look back and acknowledge that the verdant lands of the New World were fully occupied by people who had respected, insightful cultures. We can admit that this nation began in genocide and land grabbing ... while at the same time seeing, as Benjamin Franklin did, that the deep culture of America's native peoples had much to offer in framing what we now treasure as our nation's ethical frameworks.

But we have more to learn.

I was fascinated to discover today, through a New York Times piece, that "Columbus Day" was created as part of the struggle for Italian Americans to take their place as respected citizens. If you have a few minutes, I hope you'll read the article, which is accompanied by stunning photographs. Those familiar with the history of Jews in America will recall a parallel trend, when the need for soldiers for World War II assisted in the delayed acceptance of Jews into the American mainstream. The same demand for "cannon fodder" during World War I began the dissolution of laws that had blocked Asian Americans from full citizenship, something I pondered often during the research and writing for my novel Cold Midnight.

May we all stand for this continued process of reassessing our past, facing our mistakes, and making a fairer, more just future for all.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Investigating a Postcard of the Concord Coach

My husband Dave, who died in April, did enormous amounts of research for details I needed as I wrote my historical adventure novels set in North Upton (loosely based on North Danville), Vermont.

On September 1, 2019, I started writing the next book, tentatively titled O FIERCE AND KINDRED HEART. It will follow The Long Shadow (2018) and This Ardent Flame (accepted by the publisher, Five Star/Cengage; I am hoping for autumn 2020 publication). So this will be "Winds of Freedom" Book 3! And again it begins in North Upton, this time in 1854.

So of course, I went to Dave's stacks of postcards, and found right away this image of a Concord Coach: the kind of horse-drawn vehicle used to transport passengers and mail around New England and beyond. The card came from Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, mailed in 1961.

Notice the addressee? It's Flora Austin of Franklin, Vermont, and the sender is clearly her daughter or daughter-in-law, Susie. She starts by mentioning "Albert" and that she doesn't know when he'll be down, then says that Albert Jr. will soon be home for good.

It's easier to read this way, right?

Research, which Dave and I would have collaborated on after he'd identified the postcard publisher and probable photographer and photo year, becomes a chase for family details. And here's what I found:

Flora Bell (née Garrett) Austin was born about 30 September 1881 in Franklin, Vermont. She married Willard Charles Austin (born about 1861), and they show up in the 1940 Census. He was her second husband; her fist was Peter Chagnon (1863-1913), whom she married in 1897.

Flora's marriage to Willard bore a son Albert Willard Austin (1917-2000). His son, Flora's grandson (and either Susie's nephew or son), was Reginald Albert Austin -- presumably Albert Jr.

What fascinated me among the details is, this card's presence in the Northeast Kingdom was no accident: Willard Austin died in Lyndon on 29 April 1972, and although the recorded birthplace for Albert Willard Austin is Franklin, he died in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.

Those details make me wonder whether that the Austin family connected to this postcard may also connect to Lyndon's noted Dr. Venila Lovina Shores, whose paternal grandmother was an Austen (spelled with -en, not -in); could that be? It's the kind of coincidence that often arises when working with Northeast Kingdom history!

Meanwhile, I am content to know that the Concord Coaches once drove just a few miles from where I sit writing today -- and to find that "DK" was ahead of me, leaving more for me to investigate in his collection.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Discussion Questions for THE LONG SHADOW

Even as teenager Alice Sanborn begins to question the boundaries of life in her Vermont village of North Upton, her boldest actions come from taking seriously the "rules of life" she's grown up with: education, friendship, moral imperatives like correcting evil, and of course working together to make life reasonably comfortable through four seasons. Vermont winter is a force to reckon with! Consider Alice's experience as she rides up Sheffield Heights in a March blizzard:

As the sleigh tilted sideways, I found my wits and scrambled out of my side of it, struggling to pull downward and keep it from completely capsizing. Sarah and Jerushah clung to the back of it, crying out.
            So much noise and commotion—perhaps it helped to keep the invisible animal in front of us from coming closer. Its growl rose in volume, however, and the horse reared onto its hind legs. Solomon still clung to the bridle. I grabbed Sarah and pulled her free from the sleigh, and Jerushah scrambled out, just before it capsized fully into the snowbank at the left side of the road. The horse managed to come down in a half turn, dragging the capsized sleigh back the way we’d come. Solomon yelled and swore. One of his legs, caught in the leather straps of the reins and harness, jerked him so hard that he let go of the horse’s head at last and fell, yelping with pain as his shoulders struck the roadway.
            But I had eyes only for what stood revealed in front of us, a dead lamb dangling from its jaws, and the crescendo of its growl rising into a high-pitched threat: wild-eyed face suddenly visible in a gap in the snowfall, legs tensed to leap, body easily three feet long and muscular, and the long tail slashing back and forth behind it. A catamount. The fierce and powerful beast of the mountains stared at the three of us as we clung to each other, unable to think beyond the screams that erupted from all of us at once.
Here are some issues to consider after reading the book:
  1. Would you want Alice for a friend yourself? Why or why not?
  2. How different are the roles of teen boys and girls in the 1850s? In what ways does Alice fit the expectations -- and how does she push back against them?
  3. The "Underground Railroad" is an exciting part of American history -- but it doesn't fit well into Alice's experience in Vermont. Name three things that show why Vermont in the 1850s had an "aboveground railroad" for dark-skinned people traveling north.
  4. Readers often groan at the amount of work Alice does, just to get through an ordinary day. Which tasks surprised you? How has daily life changed so that you are not doing those tasks?
  5. Alice, like her neighbors in the village, sees slave-holding as a sin against man and God. A decade after THE LONG SHADOW, a "war between brothers" will split America around this issue. Problems that remain in today's America would be, for Alice, part of the "wages of sin." Do you agree? Give examples of some of these problems.
Curious about a detail or can't decide about an issue? This Vermont author makes book-group visits, in person, via email, and via Skype or FaceTime. Get in touch!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Vermont Digging: Waterford's "Business Community" in the 1800s

The trouble with research -- and also the delight -- is that it takes on its own compulsions. The further I get on exploring a piece of Vermont history, the more I want to know.

Yesterday I followed threads on Waterford's merchants and manufacturers. To the publishers of "Walton's Register," a business directory combined with weather almanac and political "who's who," these were the prime categories of the people who kept Vermont growing. Manufacturers created goods. Merchants sold them.

The earliest "Walton's" that I have is from 1840, and cost me a pretty penny, as the expression goes. Sometime after after 1870, for a while, and then after 1931, these little guidebooks took on a new name, the Vermont Year Book. I'm sure it felt more modern at the time!

I was looking for details on these businesses in my town, a Connecticut River settlement at the southern edge of the Northeast Kingdom. Along with looking for trends and growth areas, I especially wanted to find out something about Edward R. Goss, whose name is on the general store pictured above.

The hunt took me through a volume of family history, dozens of Ancestry documents, and volume after volume of Walton's. A Vermont Village:
To my enormous relief, I finally found Edward in the 1910 Walton's -- then realized I could have saved a lot of searching if I'd gone first to the (not always fully reliable) town's volume of history written by Dr. C. E. Harris:

I finally lurched toward sleep, rather later than I'd planned. Proving once again the adage, "You find something in the last place you look for it."

Today I added one more top note to this stack: the origin of the Goss surname, which turns out to center in the West Country of England in the 15th century. Now to the next stage: adding this to my other research on local businesses in the 1800s, and figuring out how to present it all as an engaging story for people who don't suffer from "find out more" compulsion!

If you live in northern Vermont, I hope you may be able to join me on Wed. July 24 at the Davies Memorial Library in Lower Waterford, to look at all this, together, for the Waterford Historical Society meeting. And if you don't live nearby -- relax, you'll get the best of the results packaged into the series of historical novels I'm writing, Winds of Freedom. I've just started Book 3: O Fierce and Kindred Heart. What do you want to be the title gets shortened to Kindred Hearts along the way?

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Hunting for Images of Vermont's History

It's postcard season. Actually, for my husband Dave, it was always historic postcard season, since he bought many of them online. But this is also the time of year we always made road trips to small, promising shops. So today I packed his love in the car with me, and went to explore an antique shop that mentioned postcards:

With a time limit (for me, a good way to shop) enforced by an alarm on my phone, I dipped into the Vermont postcard and found three that I think will inform my next novel. From least to most amazing, here we go ... First, here's an interior shot of a granite shed, one of those workshops where stonecutters turned Vermont's foundation rock into monuments of all sorts. No guarantee which shed it's from, but I like the busy-ness and the fact that there are SO MANY men working here. No wasted space! (Wouldn't want to be in there on a hot humid summer day.) Note that they are also all wearing their hats and caps. Food for thought.

Second, this shows "cream" being received at the Lamoille Valley Co-operative Creamery. I was surprised at the notion that the cream might be separated before transporting the milk cans from the farm! If you know more about when farmers would have separated their cream before filling the milk cans, please do let me know. Note the horse-drawn wagon and the ribbed umbrella being used by the lady in the seat. Also the workers' hats. The back of the card says in pencil "Where we sold cream the first ten years of farming in Walden."

Now the grand finale -- especially significant because it has a penciled identification on the back, not quite the same "hand" as the other postcard but still a hopeful sign that this card too might have come from Walden. It says "Dell Babcock," and I was thrilled to locate the death certificate for Della Babcock of Walden (1859-1939), so I'm pretty confident this is a match. Note that her father was a Bailey, and her mother came from England! The conveyance she's driving -- can you name it? -- will appear most surely in book 3 of my Winds of Freedom historic novels series.

And that's how research becomes an amazing adventure, on a warm July day in Vermont.