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 17, 2008

Using The Darkness Under the Water for a High School Library Club: The Lyceum


We're talking about The Darkness Under the Water from a lot of viewpoints lately: reading the intense story of Molly Ballou set in Vermont in 1930; investigating the thread of history that the book embraces; looking at eugenics and genocide on the nonfiction side; and how people interact in groups (clubs, schools, libraries) around the story. The library team from St. Johnsbury Academy's Grace Stuart Orcutt Library left the following description as a comment; I'm moving it here so it's easier to see and access. Tomorrow I'll add a description about a classroom use of the book. Beth
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Lyceum, a reading group at St. Johnsbury Academy, met yesterday with author Beth Kanell for dessert and discussion of The Darkness Under the Water. Lyceum is composed of both student and faculty members. The response from both factions prompted me to share the positive response of this group.
Students comments included, “I loved the book and insisted my Mom read it,” “I am from Tennessee and new to the school and as a reader I enjoy books that share the historical culture of the area, so for me I really enjoyed the book,” “I feel so fortunate to have the author join us for this discussion,” “I enjoyed that you, the author, left pieces of the story to our imagination.”
Faculty comments included, “I read the first half of the book to my students, and then asked them to write down how they thought the story would end, and then they finished the book on their own. I was so impressed with how on target the students were even to guessing the sex of the baby. The students are so taken with the story that they are hosting a lunch next week and have invited Beth to join them.”
“I loved the book. It has been such a joy to discuss the book with the author. I wish that we could have the author with us for all our discussions.” “Growing up French Canadian and Catholic in St. Johnsbury, I experienced many of the same prejudice described in the story. It really connected me to the story with a deeper appreciation of the suffering prejudice can bring.”
During my eight years of hosting the group I would say that The Darkness under the Water comes to the top of our “best reads.” This novel awakens us to the prejudice that surrounds all of us.
As high school librarians we felt the connection the students and faculty had made to Beth’s work. Our students found they could relate, in a proud way, to the neighborhood characters in Beth’s story. This is a superb example of a thought-provoking young adult read.
What this book does best is open the door for discussion. As I listened to student and adult readers share their insights, I began to think, that with this engaging story as the jumping-off point, curious students with the guidance of a teacher could ask questions, research, and draw their own careful conclusions. This could include questions about historical accuracy, cultural and social knowledge, and reflection upon family and personal experiences. As I listened, I heard that students were careful consumers of what they had read. They were able to discern that this story was a not factual depiction in all its nuances. They were judicious in their interpretation of the literary devices, tone of the work, and historical elements. One concept that fascinated them was the idea that Vermont would have had a formal eugenics project in place in the last century. For these diverse students, who have been steeped in an ethic of community, their level of awareness was raised and their consciousness broadened as they thought upon the consequences of such a program. They connected with the local history surrounding the damming of the Connecticut River. They tuned in to the ethical conflicts, debating what would they have done in Molly’s situation. They regarded Gratia’s voice as part of Molly’s growth and development, until she matured and listened to her own heart. This novel gives voice and face to a facet of nearly unknown Vermont history, a history that for many of us was built on a storybook past, of great heroes like Ethan Allen; this book begins to wedge open a crack in that cherished vision of Vermont’s impeccable commitment to freedom and unity.
Jean Fournier, Library Director
Joanne Bertrand, Assistant Librarian
Denyse Daly, Circulation Supervisor

Friday, December 12, 2008

Story, History, and Research





























My own preference with historical fiction and mysteries is to read the story first, enjoying the plot, characters, and conflicts -- and how it all works out. So for THE DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER, I placed a note about the related "true" history at the back of the book, where you don't have to be distracted by it.

And a lot of people ask me whether the events in the book really happened -- whether the story is "true." Molly Ballou and her family are fictional. I made them up. But I did that from real people and real family histories. And some of the historical points in the book will be easy for you to discover in carefully researched work. The Vermont Eugenics Project, for instance, was a scientific and governmental project that took place over specific years and with specific people (see Nancy Gallagher's meticulous research in BREEDING BETTER VERMONTERS). Similar projects were happening in the early 1900s in many American states, and the best overall book I've found on these is called WAR AGAINST THE WEAK by Edwin Black. The book's subtitle is "Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race." If you know something about World War II, just the phrase "master race" makes you shudder -- it was and is a creepy idea.

But the closer history gets to real people, the harder it is to say what is "true," because real people see things in very different ways. For instance, a Native American telling what happened to her or his family from 1930 to 1980 (and beyond) in the shadow of the eugenics projects would explain things one way; a listener like me will "hear" the words within the context of my own family experience; and a professional historian will put all of it into perspective in terms of larger events and trends in the nation, the society, even the world.

Here's an example of a question that cuts very close to my home: How did the Vermont Eugenics Project -- scientifically conducted across the state in Burlington -- affect people of Abenaki heritage in the Northeast Kingdom, my part of Vermont? That's the bulge of Vermont that follows the river toward the top right in the image above.

Some ways to look for answers that I've tried include asking people of Abenaki heritage who live here now; listening to the grandchildren of "Indians" who came here in the 1920s from the Native American communities in Canada (the border is 60 miles from here); looking at the US Census numbers for Vermont from the decades before, during, and after that time, to see how many people will say they are "American Indian"; and reading the official "town histories" of this region.

Tomorrow, if we still have electricity up on this icy, snowy ridge, I'll also mention something about archaeology and its result in this part of Vermont.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Touring in the Neighborhood


Today's author event was a discussion with the Lyceum Club at St. Johnsbury Academy. We talked about Molly's choices in The Darkness Under the Water, and about how she handled the stresses and situations in her life. An interesting side discussion formed around the effects of tuberculosis on Molly's mother's health, and how that might also have a role in her distance from her daughter as the book begins.

Two bits of regional history came up in particular in today's discussion. One concerns whether Catholics in this area would have dared to enter a Protestant church and attend a service there in 1930, as Katy O'Connor and her family do near the start of the book. Because two of the discussion participants spoke of their experience growing up as French (French Canadian) Catholics in Vermont, we talked about the way Catholics side-stepped going to Protestant services in the 1950s -- going into the social events "downstairs" in the churches, but not into the worship "upstairs." Some were taught by the priests that to attend a Protestant worship service would be a terrible sin.

But Academy historian Rich Beck confirmed earlier this fall, and so did archivist Joanne Bertrand today, that the active presence and malevolence of the Ku Klux Klan in Vermont in the 1930s pushed some Catholics into attending Protestant churches after all, as a way of keeping a low profile. The KKK targeted both people of color and Catholics in Vermont at that time.

The second bit was the presence of Mohawk Indians in the region. One discussion participant explained that her French-Canadian origin family had only recently realized one of its members was a Mohawk. That brought up the role of the Mohawk crew that came south from Montreal in the 1950s for the construction of the second large power dam here, Moore Dam. The steel-work supervisor from that time period recently recalled how he'd contacted the union "hall" in Montreal to get extra help, and how exciting it was to watch the crew: One member kept the fire going at ground level (where he could enjoy seeing who came and went all day), and the others worked many feet above him, as much as two stories higher. The fire-working crew member would heat a large metal rivet at the fire, seize it with tongs, and hurl it up into the air; other crew members, above, caught each rivet with a metal funnel-shaped device, and hammered each into the steel structure. To start your own research on Mohawk steelworkers, click here.

I'm posting a photo here from construction of Comerford Dam -- the one that actually was built in 1930. This was taken while the dam was under construction.