Bookstores of New England

Wherever I go in my travels, I try to visit local independent bookstores. And for Reading New England, I wanted to especially feature some of the fantastic stores in our region, which I’m still exploring. I turned to my fellow bloggers to give some suggestions, and they came through with a great selection.

Of my personal favorites, I heartily second the recommendations for the Toadstool Bookshops (the Peterborough location is my local literary hangout) and Brookline Booksmith. But I hope to visit all the others on this list before too long!

Have we missed any of your favorites? What would be your suggestions?

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Gifts from Booksmith
Gifts from Booksmith
Porter Square Books
Porter Square Books

From Katie of Bookish Illuminations:

Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, MA
Porter Square Books, Cambridge, MA

I love Brookline Booksmith for its fantastic displays and the quality of its titles, both new and used. Porter Square is lovely because of its excellent children’s and young adult collection and its wonderful coffeeshop!

Toadstool Bookshop, Keene
Toadstool Bookshop, Keene
Bull Moose, Portland, ME
Bull Moose, Portland, ME

From Emily of Red House Books:

Toadstool Bookshops, Keene, Peterborough, and Milford, NH
Bull Moose – locations in ME and NH

The Keene location of the Toadstool is my absolute favorite bookstore. A recent move to a bigger and better location (with a cafe coming soon!) has been the highlight of my summer. I love the friendly staff, the ease of placing special orders, the holiday sales and all the fun little extras like bookmarks, journals, calendars, and cards. I don’t know what I would do without them!

Bull Moose is a family favorite. There are stores throughout Maine and New Hampshire, with a new location in Keene opening this past year. Their book selection is small, but everything is sold at a discount and it’s not just books – movies, music, games, pop culture novelty items – it’s a pretty unique place.

Diane's
Diane’s
R.J. Julia
R.J. Julia

From Ann Marie of Lit Wine and Dine:

Diane’s Books, Greenwich, CT
R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, CT

Diane’s has been in business for over 20 years. Unassuming from the exterior, Diane manages to pack her space with a fabulous selection of books of all genres. Her staff is very friendly and knowledgable. You can browse away or, if you have an idea of  what you’re looking for, they will give you spot-on suggestions. She has frequent author events usually held off-site because her space is so packed with books.

She locally well-known for her gift wagons and she will also hand select a book or books each month if you want to send a book-a-month type gift to someone.

I have recently started taking my children there more often. They are 5 and 8. At school they are encouraged to read leveled books via an online program the school subscribes to but I found my daughter (8) just wasn’t enjoying it in the way I wanted her to. She was starting to say things like (gasp!!) “I don’t like reading.” I’ve found she does much better, as I expected she would, when she can choose her books and hold them in real book form. Diane’s has a great selection but I was especially impressed with the amount and quality of children’s nonfiction titles.

Though I don’t visit R.J. Julia as often (just a distance issue), they are also a fabulous store with great service and selection. They seem to be one of the bigger Indie stores I’ve been to. They have been around for more than 25 years. They have a little cafe and, if memory serves me correctly, they also sell stationery, cards, etc. They also host a number of book clubs.

Northshire Bookstore
Northshire Bookstore
The Savoy
The Savoy

From Chris of WildmooBooks:

R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, CT
Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT
The Savoy Bookshop & Cafe in Westerly, RI
The Book Barn in Niantic, CT

R.J. Julia is my local indy and THE place for author events on the CT shoreline. They host big name authors and also support local authors with both solo and joint-author events. There’s an indoor/outdoor cafe that serves sandwiches and salads. It’s a great place to browse, pick up the latest hot book or an older title you never go around to, and meet a friend for a meal before attending an author event. They’re also very involved in the community and do lots of kids and other bookish events as well.

I’ve had the pleasure of attending three Booktopia events at Northshire. The first two were hosted by Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness, creators of the Booktopia concept and podcasters of Books on the Nightstand and the third, this past spring, was hosted by the bookstore itself, which took over producing the event. This is a large store with excellent depth in most of its sections. They also have a wonderful used section with recent best-sellers, classics, collectables, and an eclectic assortment of nonfiction. Their sideline gifts are a delight to browse/shop and range from the quirky bookish novelty item to unique kitchen wares to handmade clothing. The attached cafe offers meals and baked goods and there is ample seating to dine with a group of friends or spend some time writing or studying. They have a second location in Saratoga Springs, NY.

The Savoy is the new kid on the block, and—WOW—is it a gorgeous place! This is the second bookstore adventure for Annie Philbrick (her first, Bank Street Books in Mystic, CT, is also an excellent bookstore and one I regularly frequent). The Savoy isn’t as large as the other bookstores I’ve listed, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in character. Everything inside is new, but you feel transported back in time by the handsome dark wood shelving, exposed brick, and black iron railings of the staircase, which is a central feature of the store. There are secret fairy doors, a rustic cabin reading room for kids, and prism ship lights in the floor. Comfortable seating is available in front of the picture window that faces the street and the cafe in the back of the shop has tables. The cafe sells delicious baked goods and coffee/tea.

The Book Barn is my absolute favorite used bookstore. It’s actually not just one store, but is now comprised of four locations around town. Each location focuses on various subject matter. For example, the downtown location focuses primarily on cookbooks, religion, and horror. The main location has a central building and a half-dozen or so smaller out buildings dedicated to their own subjects. They buy books by the bag/car/truck load from visitors who come from all over the region and boast an inventory of 500,000 titles. If I can’t find an older title at the Book Barn I consider it a sign from the book fairies that it is just not my time to read that particular book. I’ve also found ARCs here—shhh!—sometimes months before the pub date.

Reading New England: Rhode Island

Reading New England

Though in its topography it’s the flattest of the New England states, Rhode Island is a place of contrasts. It’s the smallest in area of all the fifty states, but has the longest official name (“State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”). In spite of its small size it contains the third most populous city in New England, Providence, and is also the second most densely populated state in the nation after New Jersey. It was the first state to declare independence, but also a major center of the North American slave trade during the colonial period. Struggling fishing towns and wealthy resorts rub shoulders along its convoluted coastline, which covers 384 miles in a state only 37 miles wide.

A postcard from Westerly, via Wikimedia Commons
A postcard from Westerly, via Wikimedia Commons

By my count, there are relatively few books to be found set in the Ocean State, but there are definitely some standout titles that should be on many a reading list. These include one of my favorite novels of all time, Theophilus North by Thornton Wilder; John Updike’s supernatural satire The Witches of Eastwick; and some of the bizarre horror tales of HP Lovecraft, including his only novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

A number of popular contemporary writers have chosen a Rhode Island setting for their recent novels: The Vineyard by Barbara Delinsky, A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams, and Moonlight Becomes You by Mary Higgins Clark, are a few examples. All sound like good choices for your next beach vacation.

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The Elms, one of the famous Newport mansions. By Sixlocal via Wikimedia Commons

Nonfiction titles are even harder to find, but a couple that look interesting are The Great Hurricane, 1938, about the infamous meteorological event that hit the state especially hard, and The Prince of Providence, story of the “longest-running lounge act in American politics.”

As for my personal reading list, I’ve also already mentioned Swim That Rock, a coming-of-age novel I’m excited to start; and I may take a crack at The Witches of Eastwick, even though I doubt I will enjoy it. I feel like I ought to read something by Updike at some point.

What would you like to read from Rhode Island? Do you have any other recommendations for our list?

New England Publisher Spotlight: Candlewick Press

Photo by Jamie Tan, courtesy of Candlewick Press
Photo by Jamie Tan, courtesy of Candlewick Press

Within the clean-lined, warmly-hued facade of a one-story building located near the bustle of Somerville’s Davis Square shines one of the brightest lights in independent publishing today. Founded by the British Walker Books Group in 1990, Candlewick Press opened its doors with only six employees. Today, that number is nearly one hundred, all working hard to produce some of the most exciting, acclaimed, beautiful, and creative work to be seen in books for children and young adults — around 3000 of them so far.

The Candlewick list started with and remains strong in the picture book field, but is now equally stellar in titles for older readers, including many award winners. A relative newcomer to the Boston publishing scene, a one-time cultural powerhouse that has been increasingly overshadowed by the New York conglomerates, Candlewick has managed to make its outsider status a strength and its independence a definite virtue. No cookie-cutter, trend-following volumes here; as Cathryn Mercier, director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College says in a Boston Globe article,  “Everything they do is about what serves the artistic vision of a particular book. . . . They care about the book as an object.” And Candlewick author M.T. Anderson praises their editors’ commitment to supporting projects that may seem eccentric or unusual, but that they are passionate about.

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Photo by Jamie Tan, courtesy of Candlewick Press

That passion and artistic integrity really shines through in all the Candlewick books I’ve had the pleasure of reading lately. When I contacted Candlewick about my Reading New England challenge, they were kind enough to send me several of their New-England-based titles. Last week I wrote about Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, which I found a fantastic counterpoint to some of the more familiar (and one-sided) stories about the American Revolution. Both in its literary style and its visual flair, it recalls its eighteenth-century inspirations — a daring and brilliant venture into territory not usually explored by young-adult (or adult!) publishers today.

For next month’s focus on Rhode Island, I’ll be looking at Swim That Rock. This coming-of-age novel first strikes the eye with its beautiful cover and endpapers by one of the co-authors, John Rocco, who is also an acclaimed illustrator and picture book author. He joined forces with his childhood friend, first-time author Jay Primiano, and the pair delved into their experiences growing up working-class in a fishermen’s town to create an exciting and atmospheric adventure for today’s readers. I’m so pleased to see this addition to the rather limited body of Rhode Island books, written with such authenticity and heart.

SwimRockAnd if anybody’s looking for a book for the final state in the challenge, Connecticut, Worlds Afire by Paul Janeczko is an interesting option. It describes the horrific unfolding of the 1944 Hartford circus fire, in the unlikely form of a series of first-person narrative poems. The short lines and stark images of Janeczko’s terse, poignant verses throw the tragedy into sharp and personal focus, creating a memorable picture of the event and its emotional impact.

Candlewick books are not pretty packages that are empty inside. They’re lovingly crafted in word, image, and design, bringing us remarkable voices that deserve to be heard, and perfectly suiting the form to the contents. Long may this New England star shine, a beacon of hope for all of us who care about the future of books and reading.

Reading New England: Two freedom fighters

Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain (1942)
M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (2006, 2008)

JohnnyTremainA few weeks ago, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where there is a room full of portraits of prominent Boston revolutionaries. Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Joseph Warren, and others — captured on canvas, they look down at us with a cool yet challenging gaze. What would they think of our political antics today? What do we understand as the legacy they left us?

I had just met many of these legendary figures in the pages of Esther Forbes’s Newbery-award-winning novel, Johnny Tremain. Somehow I had avoided this well-known classic throughout my school days, but now I was swept up into the story of apprentice silversmith Johnny, the accident that changes his life, and his encounters with the Sons of Liberty and the events leading up to the first shots fired in the War of Independence. It deserves the acclaim it has received, for it’s a vividly told, strongly characterized tale that brings a place and time to vibrant life.

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Paul Revere’s pensive portrait by John Singleton Copley (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, photo by me)

Even though it was published as a children’s book, and would probably now be labeled as “YA,” I think I enjoyed it far more now than I would have as a child, when the central character of Johnny would have had limited appeal for me, and I would have been more confused than inspired by much of the historical detail. But other children, with different interests than mine, may have a different response; this is truly a book that defies age limitations and definitions. Read it young, or read it old, but do read it. It’s a wonderful exploration of themes of friendship, loyalty, courage, forgiveness, love, and self-transformation.

Yet there is something missing in Forbes’s account. Though black servants and “handmaidens” appear briefly in the narrative, and once or twice there is a reference to “slaves,” there is no serious acknowledgement of the fact that the vaunted fight for liberty was undertaken with a full acceptance and even dependence on black slavery, which (as my recent reading of New England Bound made clear) was woven deeply into the economy and social structure of all the colonies, north and south.

Forbes puts the most stirring speech of the book in the mouth of a man some of the other freedom fighters consider a madman, and this may be her oblique nod to the irony that underlies the whole event. As James Otis asserts that they are fighting “so that a man can stand up” — implying any human being, of any race, with dignity and integrity — most of the other revolutionaries turn away without comment. His words move Johnny, though, as they were meant to move the readers of Forbes’s time who were engaged in another war against an even more terrible tyranny, and they resound into our own time as an ideal to strive toward. But do they really represent what the Boston leaders thought? How could they engage in a struggle for liberty while actively subjugating and oppressing other human beings?

Octavian1This irony is brought to the fore and engaged with in a complex way in a two-part novel by M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Octavian is born into slavery in a Boston academy where scholars raise him in a bizarre experimental environment. The goal is to see whether Africans can attain the heights of European culture — or else, when the academy’s patronage changes hands, to prove that they cannot.

Regardless of the goal, the fact remains that Octavian, his mother, and their fellow slaves are treated as things rather than as people, objects that can be exchanged and priced like any other item at a market stall. When Octavian realizes this, he must break away and begin his own fight for liberty. His journey takes him into the camps of both armies, where he finds that neither has any interest in his personal liberation, but only in using him for political and military expediency. It’s up to him to seek his own precarious path toward freedom.

Anderson writes in a remarkably fluent eighteenth-century style that intersperses Octavian’s first-person account with letters, diaries, and proclamations in various voices and modes. It’s a virtuoso performance that brilliantly evokes the liveliness and erudition of the literature of the period, and I enjoyed it very much, especially in the first volume, before it becomes too much like a parlor trick.

A somewhat inaccurate contemporary painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill
A somewhat inaccurate contemporary painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, photo by me)

I did wonder, though, how the intended audience of this avowedly YA novel would receive it. As a teenager I would probably have been as mystified as I was by Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson, and not persisted very far. The scenes of combat, murder, torture, rape, and other acts of violence would also have been hard for me to take, had I been able to understand what was going on. But again, maybe that’s just me — perhaps teen readers of today, with stronger stomachs than mine, will be undaunted by the mountains of arcane vocabulary words, and be pulled along by the gripping plot and the truly revolutionary ideas it embodies. In any case, adult readers should not be put off by the YA label; this is another book that has no upper age limit.

Today, as many Americans are clamoring to subject themselves to a tyrant far more devious and unprincipled than poor old George III ever was, and as our “free country” continues to reveal its dark tendency towards oppression and domination, both of these books have much to teach us. Each of us has a chance, now, to truly “stand up.” We will do so not through unthinking slogans and rhetoric, nor by blaming and demonization of others, but by means of the inner fight for freedom that conquers self-interest and embraces humility, compassion, and reverence.

Will a day come when we no longer callously allow our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness to depend upon the suffering of others? May the struggles of Johnny and Octavian and their comrades inspire us in this most decisive battle. More than ever, our future depends on it.

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Reading New England: Children’s and YA

Reading New England

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As a child, I always welcomed summer because I could finally enjoy lots of uninterrupted reading time — so August seemed to be the perfect month to celebrate books for children and young adults in the Reading New England challenge.

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Poster from a 1910 stage production

And there are plenty of books to celebrate. New England has long been a favored setting for children’s literature, often in a pastoral or farm-based mode: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Charlotte’s Web, and Understood Betsy spring to mind. The American Revolution is a perpetually popular subject, from classics like Johnny Tremain to the brilliantly revisionist The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, but there are many other aspects of history to explore: the Lowell mills in Lyddie, for example, or maritime pursuits in Carry On, Mister Bowditch.

For those looking for books with a more fantastical flavor, how about The Diamond in the Window, Nick of Time, Magic or Not, or Centaur Rising? On the other hand, more contemporary and realistic stories can be found in books like Homecoming, Anastasia Krupnik, and Maybe a Fox.

So there’s absolutely no excuse not to grab one or more of these terrific books, find a couch or a hammock or a tree house to curl up in, and lose yourself in the wonder of reading.

Besides the ones I’ve already mentioned, I’d really like to sample the following (all of which can be found on the New England Book List):

 

  • New Hampshire: Absolutely Truly
  • Maine: Small as an Elephant
  • Vermont: Faraway Summer
  • Massachusetts: The Penderwicks
  • Rhode Island: The Art of Keeping Cool
  • Connecticut: Strawberry Hill

 

Have you read any of these, or do you have any other childhood favorites to recommend? Do please share them with us.

In order to get plenty of reading done, I’m taking a break from blogging for a couple of weeks. I’ll be back around August 16. Enjoy the rest of your summer!

 

Link Love: July 2016

Review of the Month

LittleParisBookshop

This month, I had to pick a review that simply made me laugh: Jenny’s hilarious tear-down of The Little Paris Bookshop at Shelf Love. There’s no accounting for taste, as this has been an international bestseller with some rave reviews — but I think I’m going to trust Jenny’s opinion and stay far away.

Otherwise, here’s what I gathered this month — a pleasant miscellany for you to enjoy, I hope.

Reading New England

  • From Adventures of a Bibliophile, a review that might inspire me to finally read Walden.
  • At Relevant Obscurity, reading Little Women for the first time as an adult sparked some thoughtful commentary.
  • Penni of Penni’s Perceptions was enthralled by Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, making me feel I really need to read something by this New Hampshire author.
  • Avid Series Reader reviewed two books that sound like perfect vacation reading: The Martha’s Vineyard mystery A Deadly Vineyard Holiday, and Newport, an intriguing historical mystery set in Rhode Island.
  • With his review of Presumed Puzzled, Carstairs Considers introduced me to another mystery series set in Connecticut. And he loved the start of a new series set in Vermont, Toasting Up Trouble.
  • WildMoo Books shared a review of Disappearance at Devils Rock, “a creepy novel that calls to mind the Puritan mythology of the devil living in the wilderness of New England’s forests.”
  • From Kissin’ Blue Karen, a Connecticut-based thriller that deals with memory and trauma, All Is Not Forgotten.

 

Blogging Matters

 

Adventures Abroad

  • Jean of Howling Frog Books did a fabulous multi-part summary of her trip to the UK, but my favorite installment was this one about visiting the Manor at Hemingford Grey (the real house behind the Green Knowe books by Lucy Boston).
  • An interactive map of Hidden Iceland has some surprises in store.
  • Spend the night in a historic Welsh library for some sweet literary dreams.
  • Closer to home, how a writer’s reading formed her love of New England.
  • A New England landmark is Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, The Mount. Thanks to Bibliophile by the Sea for lovely pictures.

 

Bookish History

 

Image of the Month

HedgehogsWhat are these hedgehogs doing?
Visit the British Library blog to find out.

Shared in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer

Reading New England: A Visit to Amesbury with Author Edith Maxwell

Delivering the TruthCoverWhen I heard of Edith Maxwell’s new “Quaker midwife” mystery series, I was immediately intrigued. What a fun way to investigate a corner of New England history — the series is set in late nineteenth century Amesbury, Massachusetts, a former mill town at the mouth of the Merrimack River north of Boston —  from an unusual angle.

In Delivering the Truth, Quaker midwife Rose Carroll becomes a suspect when a difficult carriage factory manager is killed after the factory itself is hit by an arsonist. Struggling with being less than a perfect Friend, Rose delivers the baby of the factory owner’s mistress even while the owner’s wife is also seven months pregnant. After another murder, Rose calls on her strengths as a counselor and problem solver to help bring the killers to justice before they destroy the town’s carriage industry and the people who run it.

I enjoyed the character of Rose, an intelligent and caring young woman, and was fascinated by all the details of her midwifery practice. I also loved learning more about the Quaker community and about poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, a real-life citizen of Amesbury who appears in the book. The story is well-paced and keeps you guessing as Rose races to try to find the killer before there is more loss of life. I sometimes was distracted by a modern-sounding word or phrase, but the language in general flows easily and serves the storytelling.

Maxwell’s love for and knowledge of her historic home town are especially evident in the way she brings it to life on the page. I’m looking forward to a visit some day, but until then I’m so happy that the author agreed to share a description of a recent tour she gave to celebrate the book launch. Enjoy this glimpse of Rose’s world, and I do hope that you’ll look into her adventures — book two is coming in 2017.

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Because my new historical mystery, Delivering the Truth, takes place in the northeastern Massachusetts town where I live, I decided to create an historical walking tour to help launch the book two months ago. I ordered up a custom-made Quaker dress for myself from a local seamstress, made myself a bonnet, acquired an apron, and we were off!

Many of the buildings still standing in Amesbury were already built and in use in 1888 when my Quaker midwife Rose Carroll is walking around delivering babies and solving crimes. I started the tour in Market Square in front of one of the many Hamilton Mills buildings. The square was the center of activity in any old New England town.

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I was surprised, pleased, and a little concerned that sixty people showed up, but all went well. I introduced the book and the tour, and read a short scene that takes place as Rose walks through the square the morning after a disastrous fire.

Tour Map 4-10-16 copy

We moved up Main Street, pausing to admire a mural that depicts carriages and life in the period when my book is set, as well as the lower falls of the Powow River rushing below, where one of my (fictional) bodies was found. We proceeded to the Josiah Bartlett statue. This tribute to the native son who was the first signer of the Declaration of Independence was dedicated on July 4, 1888 – which is the opening to my second book, Called to Justice (April 2017).

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I led the group to the historic Friends Meetinghouse, a thriving Quaker church (mine, actually),which John Greenleaf Whittier help design and where he worshiped. I shared a short scene from the book before we moved on to Whittier’s home on Friend Street. My guests got a quick tour and listened to part of a scene with Rose talking to Whittier in his study.

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We moved on, pausing to talk about the original library and the Opera House, neither still standing, then walked along the upper falls of the Powow, with a brief stop to talk about the mill industry and mill girls like Rose’s niece. The tour ended with a last reading in the amphitheater.

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People seemed to very much enjoy the stroll, the history, and the readings. I conducted a second walk in late June during Amesbury Days, also well received. You can see a taste of the walk on my YouTube channel.

I’m delighted that the Amesbury Library and the Whittier Home are sponsoring Delivering the Truth as an All-Community Read this summer. Several high school teachers are also assigning it to their classes, which I’ll be visiting in the fall. The summer activities will culminate in a staged reading by two costumed actors of the four scenes in the book that feature both Rose and Whittier, and the event will take place in the Friends Meetinghouse.

Readers: What’s your favorite historical site? Have you ever gone on a walking tour connected with a mystery? Would your town like to host an All-Community Read of the book, too?

Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Foods Mysteries, the Country Store Mysteries (as Maddie Day), and the Lauren Rousseau Mysteries (as Tace Baker), as well as award-winning short crime fiction. Her short story, “A Questionable Death,” was nominated for a 2016 Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The tale features the 1888 setting and characters from her Quaker Midwife Mysteries series, which debuted with Delivering the Truth in April, 2016.

Maxwell is Vice-President of Sisters in Crime New England and Clerk of Amesbury Friends Meeting. She lives north of Boston with her beau and three cats, and blogs with the other Wicked Cozy Authors. You can find her on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, and at her web site, edithmaxwell.com.

 

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Reading New England: Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)

EthanFromeAfter reading one of the funniest books ever (according to multiple top ten lists, anyway), I moved on to what has to be one of the most depressing books of all time: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. I am SO glad that I was not made to read it in high school, because that probably would have put me off reading Wharton for the rest of my life. In notes referenced in my Modern Library edition, she avows that her purpose is to counter the rosy picture of old-fashioned New England put about by lightweights like Sarah Orne Jewett, and show the grim reality of isolated farms, suffocating snowfalls, and grinding poverty.

It’s a story of excruciating hopelessness, which we know from the start is going to end in disaster, due to a framing device in which our narrator, an outsider to the town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, meets the crippled Ethan Frome twenty-five years after his “smash-up.” Curious about Ethan’s history, he pieces it together and presents it as a third-person narrative before coming back to the present day for a heartrending epilogue. We never learn exactly how he accessed all the intimate details of Frome’s life, or how from being an engineer he suddenly morphed into a skilled novelist, but never mind that; the pull of the tragic story quickly draws us in.

What is the purpose of this grim tale, other than to de-romanticize our notions of rural New England? It illuminates the inner life of a man who, though in regular interaction with people through his work, has no one with whom to communicate his inmost essence, and thus lives in terrible loneliness. With New England moral logic, as soon as he finds a true mate — forbidden, because he is already married to a pathological tyrant — they both have to be put to death, figuratively if not literally.

Yet through the magic of storytelling, we readers now possess the secrets of Ethan’s soul, his passion, his hopes, his despair, his moral choices, and his ultimate, fatal mistake. What are we to do with this knowledge? Does it make us more likely to rage against or calmly bear our own fates? How would we act when trapped in an impossible situation?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think that perhaps Wharton meant with Ethan Frome to make us ask them. Unlike Ethan’s, our stories are not over, and we do have power to change, if not our outer circumstances, the inner attitudes and intentions with which we meet them. Gratitude for even the smallest acts of self-determination is one lesson we can take away from this bleak tale, and perhaps Ethan’s suffering will not then be in vain.

Classics Club List #25
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic by a Woman Author
Reading New England: Massachusetts

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Reading New England: Massachusetts

Reading New England

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And now we come to the heavyweight of New England, the dominant player in literature as well as commerce, culture, and history. Until I started working on the New England Book List, I had no idea how many Massachusetts books there were in contrast to the other states. I ended up dividing the list into Fiction and Nonfiction to make it a bit easier to navigate, and am sure that there are dozens more titles that could have been included, but I had to stop somewhere.

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1814 map of Beacon Hill, via Wikimedia Commons

Within this dominant state, Boston is clearly the dominant location. As the largest city in the region, and one of the most important cities in the land since colonial days, it’s only natural that it should play host to many of the narratives that have come down to us. Together with the neighboring towns that have become absorbed by its urban sprawl, including Concord, Lexington, and Cambridge, it’s been home to many of the giants of American literature: Hawthorne, Emerson, Alcott, Melville, Howells, James . . . the list of contemporary authors would be even longer. Boston was the first city in the country to designate an official literary district, which is well worth exploring in person or online.

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Cape Cod with the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. NASA photo via Wikimedia Commons

Cape Cod and the islands offshore form another important literary location, with their connection to the whaling industry and their unique, fragile ecology. Here was launched the adventure of Moby Dick, Henry Beston spent a year in The Outermost House, and Dido Twite struggled to escape from Nightbirds on Nantucket. The coastal village of Salem, with its notorious history, has spawned more than its share of strange and dramatic stories, from The House of the Seven Gables to The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Meanwhile, the regions further inland, extending west to the Berkshires, also have many stellar books and authors to their credit; Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox is a landmark I especially want to visit, along with reading her classic novellas Ethan Frome and Summer.

Just looking at my personal TBR pile for the challenge, I see that I have Massachusetts books on hand to fit every category. These include:

  • The Art Forger (Fiction)
  • Marmee and Louisa (Nonfiction)
  • The Crucible (Poetry and Drama)
  • The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (Children’s and YA)
  • Delivering the Truth (Mystery and SF)

I can hardly wait to get started on all of this wonderful reading, and I’m sure that I’ll be catching up for years to come. What are your favorite Massachusetts books?

 

 

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New Release Review: New England Bound

Wendy Warren, New England Bound (2016)

NewEnglandBoundLGNew England likes to position itself as the cradle of liberty, home of many of the figures behind American independence from Britain, as well as a land of freedom in opposition to the slave-owning South. But in this new study by historian Wendy Warren, we are given a very different view of the early days of the New England colonies, during which the bondage of African and Native American slaves formed an essential part of the economy and indeed of the identity of the region.

The evidence is scant and scattered, but Warren has painstakingly gone over probate records, lawsuits, sermons and other documents and assembled a picture of a land and people  “bound” up with the institution of slavery in multiple ways. Though the proportion of chattel slaves in seventeenth-century New England was relatively low, with their numbers and mode of employment never so dramatic as on the large plantations of the South, they were widely used as household labor and fully accepted even by the most piously Puritan of colonists. The extent of colonial involvement in the slave trade, however, is greatly magnified when one considers that New England was part of a wider Atlantic mercantile system for the English, supplying the West Indian sugar plantations and thus endorsing and enabling that most horrifically deadly form of slave labor.

It depended on that system, too, as the northern land was too poor to produce a cash crop out of itself. By sending goods and foodstuffs (often substandard or rotten items deemed adequate for slaves) to the rich planters who gained more profit by devoting all their time and land to growing sugar, members of the dominant merchant class of New England gained an essential market. They also began to feel their power as a key player in the English trading triangle, which may been the germ of the drive for independence.

The colonial impulse also required “unplanting and replanting” the native people who already inhabited the land the settlers wanted for their own needs. Some were forced into local servitude, but many others, too unruly for that purpose, were transported to serve elsewhere even as Africans were imported in the other direction. In one telling incident, a group of native Americans captured in King Philip’s War were sent abroad, except for an old man too decrepit to work. After some debate, his captors showed him mercy — by decapitating him rather than having him torn apart by dogs.

That is just one of the cruel stories that Warren has unearthed for us, illuminating a strange irony. Without intimate knowledge of the miserable state of slavery, without day-to-day intercourse with people treated as property and denied a will of their own, would the New England states have waved the banner of freedom so forcibly? The bloodstained origins of our vaunted rights and freedoms must not be overlooked, if we are to move forward into a truer form of justice.

According to the jacket publicity this book has been hailed by other historians as an important new contribution to the topic, and though I’m by no means an expert I see no reason to argue with them. The writing was sometimes a bit stiff and repetitive, perhaps showing its origins as a dissertation. But the arguments and the research backing them up are compelling, disturbing, and enlightening. Certainly, I’ll no longer be able to walk the Freedom Trail or sing songs of liberation without remembering the chains that our nation forged in its earliest days, and that are in many ways still binding us today.

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