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?

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
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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Darkness Under the Water: Now on tour

It's been great being "on tour" in northeastern Vermont in the past week. From bookstores to a nifty local inn and restaurant to an impromptu college TV news interview, the thread running through all of this has been people who care about good stories, and about Vermont. I've heard some great ideas for future books, too.

In case you're not up on the book itself yet, Molly Ballou's risky adventure in 1930 Vermont, THE DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER -- well, there's a description, along with discussion questions for classrooms and book groups, and ideas for librarians, at the web site:

Come say hello in New Jersey, at Saturday's meet-and-greet at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, 1 to 2 pm!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Where's the Water, and What's Underneath?

Here's a map of the Connecticut River as it curls through Waterford today, with the lakes formed by the two Waterford-area dams (connecting Vermont and New Hampshire). Until 1930, there was no lake at all. The Darkness Under the Water tells Molly Ballou's story of the dangers involved in Waterford, Vermont, at that moment.

What Is Historical Fiction, Anyway?

A librarian in New Jersey told me this story last week:

She created a "book fair" in her library, with books laid out on tables and the tables labeled with signs for the kinds of books there -- like biographies, mysteries, and historical fiction. At the end of the day, she realized that the students hadn't chose ANY books from the "historical fiction" table.

So the next year, she changed the label to "Action, Adventure, and Drama." Yes indeed, the students captured books from that table after all!

I like it.

Yes, There Are Books Available November 8!

I'm excited that Boxcar & Caboose, which is hosting the "prepublication" event for The Darkness Under the Water on Saturday November 8 at 3 p.m. (Railroad Street, St. Johnsbury) has special permission from Candlewick Press to release copies of the book at the event. So if you're looking for the very earliest copies this week, now's your chance! See you there.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

And that scene in the library...

[Lower Waterford: the library is the lower building, on the right]
When Molly Ballou goes to the public library in Waterford, Vermont, she's holding on to a bit of stability in her life. Change and threat come close on the heels of that quiet moment in THE DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER.

So check in at today's Waterford book treasury, the Davies Memorial Library (in the "White Village" just off exit 2 from I-93), on Wednesday November 12 at 7 p.m. We'll have a family-friendly reading event, and celebrate the town, the library, and the brand new book. See you there!

Monday, August 25, 2008

"Meet and Greet" Northern Vermont Authors

I'm not quite touring with The Darkness Under the Water just yet -- the calendar really starts hopping on the first weekend of October, when I'll be reading from the book at the Brattleboro Literary Festival. But a couple of small appearances are coming up this week anyway:

Friday August 29: St. Johnsbury Academy students and teacher, look for me in the amphitheater presentation from the Lyceum Club. I like meeting the new students, and touching base with the ones I know from last year. (Remember the poetry series in the library?)

Saturday August 30: Scott and Penny Wheeler, an author/publishing team from the very northernmost part of Vermont, have invited authors from the Northeast Kingdom to "meet and greet" from noon to three at the Goodrich Memorial Library on Main Street in Newport.

Speaking of authors from "the Kingdom": I'm not sure whether Howard Frank Mosher is coming to the Aug. 30 gathering. But I'd love to see him, to thank him for his reaction to The Darkness Under the Water:

Full of marvelous people, heart-stopping drama, and horrifying details from a shameful period of American history, Beth Kanell’s The Darkness Under the Water is an absolutely wonderful novel. Just sixteen, Molly Ballou knows what it’s like to lose a beloved sister, a home, and perhaps her very identity. With her unswerving honesty, poet’s eye, and heart of gold, Molly is one of the best and most likable heroines in contemporary fiction. The Darkness Under the Water is a dark and unsettling story, but Molly is up to every challenge. I was rooting for her from the outset, and never once did she disappoint me. I hope that The Darkness Under the Water wins a major prize for young adult fiction. High school and junior high school students will love The Darkness Under the Water. Adults will too. It’s a masterpiece.

What an amazing and generous response, from the author of such classics as Disappearances and Where the Rivers Flow North, as well as his recent delightful adventure On Kingdom Mountain. Thank you, Mr. Mosher!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Stories That Lead to Other Stories -- True Ones!

Maybe fifteen years ago, I discovered a memoir -- almost, a set of tall tales -- of logging on the Connecticut River during the early 1900s. It's called SPIKED BOOTS and was written by Robert Pike. I paid a lot of attention to it, because I was helping plan the land use for the vast former logging lands in northeastern Vermont, and reading the book helped me to connect with the loggers who had been there, as well as the ones who worked in the forest as we headed into the twenty-first century. The stories in SPIKED BOOTS and Robert Pike's other book, TALL TREES, TOUGH MEN, are all about men who spend their winters cutting down timber, and their spring seasons riding with the logs down the surging waters of the thawed-out rivers.

It took some digging, but I found out eventually that there were also women working in the woods that way, from the middle 1800s onward. Their stories didn't get written down very often -- partly because there weren't very many of them, but mostly, I think, because people didn't think it was ladylike for women to do this kind of work! And of course, women who ran logging crews needed to have strong personalities and not be afraid of the physical labor, the rough language, and the day-to-day hardships of managing their crews. In the rare photos I've spotted, they wore skirts, though, so I think it was important to them to be seen as ladylike in that way!

Of course, I couldn't resist telling people about the true-life stories I'd discovered, and soon some local teachers found out that I could "storytell" the history of logging on the Connecticut River. The story begins with the English colonists arriving in New England, being warned not to cut the tallest, straightest pine trees for their own use -- because they were reserved for the ships of the English Royal Navy. In fact, men working for the king took branding irons into the forest to mark those trees as "the King's Pines." Wow! The story ends at the moment Molly Ballou's story begins in THE DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER: with the construction of massive dams across the river, to generate electrical power -- most importantly, the dam being built in 1930, Comerford Dam. For the first time on this big river, a dam was being built that had no "sluice gate" to let logs pass through. There would be no more wild rides on huge tree trunks whipping past the rocks and around the bends. River logging ended.

A few weeks ago, I explored a cemetery in Waterford where I'd never been before. There in front of me was a huge marker for author Robert Pike -- or Bob, as he was known around here. It's just a few miles from where Molly Ballou and her friend Katy would have watched the log drive in the spring of 1930.

This story really matters, to me, and to the Connecticut River loggers. And for Bob Pike and the many people who still read copies of SPIKED BOOTS, it's been a great part of this area of Vermont.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Village That Vanished

I love mysteries -- in books, and in real life. One of the moments that would grow into The Darkness Under the Water happened when I first asked a local historian, "I've driven through Lower Waterford, Vermont. Where is Upper Waterford?"

The historian answered, "Under the water."

Sure enough, two big hydroelectric dams built on the Connecticut River -- one in 1928-1930, the other in the 1950s -- created enormous lakes that swallowed up homes and land in the town of Waterford. The village of Upper Waterford completely vanished behind what is now Moore Dam. Yesterday I went to take photos of where it had been. The first photo, above, is where the road from Lower Waterford used to continue to Upper Waterford. And in the second one, below, can you see the sandy-looking patch across the lake? That's where the road from Upper Waterford used to cross the river and continue into New Hampshire!

The mystery got more intense when I started to look for old-time picture postcards of the vanished village. More on that, later.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

And the Reviews Are Coming Soon -- in fact, here's a fabulous advance review to savor!

How can you decide what to read next? Running your hand along the bookshelf is one way... but another is browsing through other people's words about a book, checking out the reviews. THE DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER is in the review stage right now: "Advance review copies" (also called ARCs) have gone out to some of the most committed readers and reviewers of Young Adult books in the US (and that includes bookshop owners!). Most of them won't read the book until some cozy summer afternoon or evening, and most reviews won't appear until, say, August or September.

But there's always an exception! And this one is a doozy: One of my favorite "kid-lit" blogs is Seven Impossible Things (remember what the White Queen told Alice about believing six of them before breakfast?!). Jules, a partner on the blog, kindly took a peek at THE DARKNESS UNDER THE ICE early in this process -- and when she finished reading her ARC, here's what she wrote. Absolutely, she made my day, week, month... I hope most readers will feel as good about the book as Jules does:

7). I finished the ARC of poet Beth Kanell’s The Darkness Under the Water, to be released this Fall by Candlewick. I have been reading this story for a looooong time now. In fact, I—ahem—broke one of our rules and read the manuscript of it (though I knew that it had already been lined up to be published, which makes it slightly different from an unpublished manuscript, I think). By the time I was finishing it, the author had sent me a bound ARC of it, which was easier to carry around than 199 pages of paper. Anyway, it’s a beautifully-rendered, haunting, and lyrical coming-of-age story, set in 1930, about a time in Vermont’s history in which the lives of Native Americans were threatened in the name of “improving” the Yankee population (the Vermont Eugenics Project, it is sometimes called). Told through the voice of one Molly Ballou, aged sixteen, whose family is of Abenaki heritage, it’s ultimately a triumphant story of transcending hardship and discrimination, and it’s quite elegantly told. (I’m telling you this now, because a) it really was a kick, but b) I don’t expect to be this articulate about it, come November, when it’ll finally be published. I don’t have the best memory.)


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Read for the Fun of It: Teen Read Week, Oct. 12-18, 2008

[photo by librarian Heidi Dolamore]
Now that Molly Ballou's story, The Darkness Under the Water, is headed for bookstores and libraries this fall, what can I learn about the readers waiting for the book? I went to the Vermont Library Conference this week, and signed up to hear Beth Gallaway -- the Junior Director for NELA (the New England Library Association) and a vital team member of YALSA: the American Library Association's Young Adult Library Services Association. Young (at least, for a person with a master's degree), savvy, and entirely into computer gaming (she brought up World of Warcraft a couple of times, and proved to the audience that gaming builds reading and writing skills!), she told the jam-packed room of librarians and book lovers about Teen Read Week.

This year's theme for Teen Read Week is BOOKS WITH BITE. The subtheme, as always, is "Read for the fun of it." Gallaway filled us with creative examples, excitement, vampires and other bloody notions, and a high-energy race through great ways to promote and enhance a reading event. Then we all brainstormed in smaller groups to come up with titles, activities, and promotion for our own Teen Read Week -- my group's title was "We Want Your Blood!" and tied the reading and reviewing to a blood drive. At least one high school in Vermont (in Manchester) already has student blood drives, which in my opinion makes a terrific way to support a community and help cope with disasters.

Worth knowing about: the YALSA blog, -- and YALSA is on MySpace, too.

Even though Molly Ballou's story won't be published until November 12, Teen Read Week this year (Oct. 12-19) will be a great time to add The Darkness Under the Water to a reading plan. And if you live near Brattleboro, Vermont, or Madison, Wisconsin, plan to pick up a special early release copy of the book at the literary festival in Brattleboro (Oct. 3-5) or the Wisconsin Book Festival (Oct, 15-19). More on those later.

Oh, one more quick note: I found a lot of librarians with strong ties to Molly's story. It matters.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


It's early May, and in Vermont the daffodils nod bright yellow heads and the robins call out in early morning and late afternoon -- in between, they are quiet, protecting their nests and keeping the eggs warm. I'll know when the baby birds emerge, because the parents' behavior changes so much, racing around for food.

In my writing sanctuary, I'm torn between two spring patterns myself: preparing for the launch of Molly Ballou's story, THE DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER (Candlewick, fall 2008), and writing the story that Shawna Lee is whispering in my ears -- THE HUNGRY PLACE. One book calls me out to talk with people and share the excitement and adventure. The other turns me into a robin trying to cover all the blue eggs with the warmth of my heart, quietly singing a hatching song to myself.

Next week I'll be at the Vermont Library Conference in South Burlington, reading on May 13 and 14 in the author's cove, letting Molly Ballou tell you how it felt for her to be sixteen years old, living in a small Vermont village in 1930, when her Abenaki heritage -- which her parents had carefully turned into "being French Canadian," but which her grandmother still honors -- well, to make a long story short, Molly discovered that being Abenaki could mean being threatened by the Governor and Legislature of Vermont, and especially by the nurses being sent out into the communities to look for families who didn't match the ideal Vermont image.

But I'm getting ahead of the story. After all, when the book opens, what Molly is mostly struggling with is a sort of haunting, by the very snippy voice of her own dead sister, Gratia.

That too is part of what's hidden by the spring waters in Waterford, Vermont.