Jeannine Atkins: Dust and Gems

From: Jeannine Atkins
June 19, 2012 at 09:53AM

This weekend Peter and I drove to Wells, Maine to help celebrate the grand opening of Shellback Artworks, a shop our friend Steve Lavigne, with huge help from his wife, Denise, is opening to sell comics and art supplies and where Steve will teach classes to kids. There was free pizza and lots of good will through the day, but maybe my favorite story was the one Steve told me about three little boys who checked out some racks, raced home to get some money, doled out their quarters, then sat side by side on the steps with three heads bent over their comic book.

Peter and I also found time to walk on the beach and eat fried clams and charbroiled shark. On our drive through New Hampshire, enjoying lupine season, we stopped at Henniker Book Farm (our timing was good, as I can see from this web link that they’re closed this week, as “grandchildren and lobster trump books.”)  The poetry section was amazing, and I found an old book about the history of my favorite library, but my happiest find was this collection of letters written by a friend of someone I’m writing about.


Peter reminded me of my initial elation as the weekend passed and I read, skimmed, slogged, and eventually grumbled. Fourteen hundred pages can hold a lot of tea parties in which not much happens. I was reading about a time in which both Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne died, and I’m pretty sure Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter would have attended those funerals, but nothing is said about them. Her neighbor Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, but that isn’t mentioned.

But of course I can read about those events elsewhere. What you want from a letter collection are the small details you can’t find elsewhere. I did get the fabrics of some dresses and the varieties of pears in the Emerson’s small orchard. May Alcott showing off a spider she painted in the corner of her bedroom wall could be worth the twenty-five dollars I paid for these two volumes, at least along with Ellen’s gifts to her when she went abroad: four bottles of champagne, a hanging pin cushion to nail to her berth, and her copy of Portraits de Femmes. She advised May to bring a shawl-strap for her blanket, a basket of oranges, and napkins (handkerchiefs won’t be large enough) to spread over her chest when lying on her back to eat broth or porridge.

We learn that Mrs. Emerson had a habit of screaming if she stubbed her toe or pinched a finger, then might call out an assurance no bones were broken, then shriek again. I’d have enjoyed some more screams through the dense pages, but I did develop a sense of Concord, MA as seen from one particular household. Here are a few notes I pulled from the thick first volume:

May – catbird, blue jay, song sparrow, wood pigeon, red-shouldered blackbird, oriole

Massachusetts scenery isn’t like Italy, but the moral atmosphere is higher

stereoscope showed houses on Main Street and along the Mill Dam – Mr. H seemed enchanted, as if he hadn’t walked by them hundreds of times.

1868 burglaries, now Mr. Emerson won’t leave the silver cream pitcher

Such finds are the reasons I urge those writing about history to end with the internet, which is good for fact-checking, but to begin with books, which are full of clutter, but hold gems not yet ferreted out. I’m on a revision of a revision, and didn’t think I needed new material, but fresh details lend zip to my tired eyes and finding places for them can change the shape of the whole. It’s like Steve painting the walls of the shop, opening boxes, filling shelves, and hanging banners. You can plan all you want, but what can make a novel or shop great are surprises like three boys huddled on the steps waiting to turn another page.


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