I’ve taken on a new project that I hope to complete this summer, consisting of a series of linked short stories, each set in a different New England state. I want to illuminate some of the more forgotten narratives of this oft-written-about part of the world. To do so, I set myself the task of performing quite a bit of research on New England itself. Having lived in New England for most of my life, it’s hardly terra incognita, but I really wanted to get down into the nitty-gritty and the forgotten. To those ends, I’m reading a whole heap of books about New England. It’s impractical to write them all up in full here, so what I’ve decided to do is to create a list that I can update occasionally with the books I’ve read and just a sentence or two description.
This is a highly unscientific survey of New England. I’m reading as many of the great works of fiction as I can, as well as whatever nonfiction happens to catch my fancy. My list skews towards books I already have in my collection, books available at the library, books of local interest in my bookstore, and others that just looked too good to resist online. I hope to complete the majority of the reading by summer and write the stories then. I am engaging in the “read widely on interesting things and somehow magically stories will come out of them” method, which always works for me. Anyway, for those who want to play along, this is what I’ve read so far. I’ll update you periodically. Any suggestions? Leave a comment!
The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Gilman was a Connecticut girl who grew up in Rhode Island, and this brutal and terrifying tale of madness surely owes something to the hardships she experienced growing up here. The creeping woman behind the wallpaper… such is the stuff of nightmares.
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, Ed. Jesmyn Ward
Cheating, I know, as I’ve already read it and written about it. But I went back and reread in particular Wendy S. Walter’s “Lonely in America” essay, which features New Orleans and the unmarked slave graves in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The whole thing was so deeply disturbing that I had to do a lot of internet research after. It turns out Portsmouth did the right thing and created a very thoughtful memorial park after this essay was written. Still, it’s changed the way I look at historic houses forever.
Christmas Memories Cookbook, Lynn Anderson
Yup, a cookbook, but with passages describing Christmas traditions in colonial New England villages. Did you know people used to use granite saucepans? Granite!
Barns of Connecticut, Markham Starr
Nepotism alert – that’s my dad. Still, awesome pictures of barns, and more about their construction than anyone could reasonably be expected to know. Plus fascinating facts about black locust trees and the storing of bodies in haylofts.
Entering This Land: A History of Knoll Farm, Jill Hindle Kiedaisch
A depiction of a small farm in Vermont, short in pages and long in verdant description.
Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England, Jean M. O’Brien
A densely academic but fascinating look at how the Native people were systematically, thoroughly, and with great effort written out of the New England narrative. A brilliant piece of scholarly literature that really put a lot of concepts into focus for me. Highly recommend.
Our Town, Thornton Wilder
Set in 1901 in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, I hadn’t read it since the last time I saw it performed. I still find the last scene disturbing, and noted anew the erasure of the native population, as they are described as “now entirely disappeared.” (This connects with Firsting and Lasting).
The New England Grimpendium: A Guide to Macabre and Ghastly Sites, J.W. Ocker
Some more affecting than others, a few perhaps too recent for comfort. Still, lots of interesting facts, especially on Rhode Island and Connecticut tuberculosis vampires and the Hartford Circus Fire (of which my grandfather and great-aunt were survivors.)
The Crucible, Arthur Miller
Of course this belongs here, even more relevant today. Miller’s retelling of the Salem Witch trials as allegory for McCarthyism. “There are wheels within wheels in this village, and fires within fires.”
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Bill Bryson
Definitely the funniest book so far, Bryson’s travails on the trail and horrifying facts about bears. Also lots of thoughtful writing on ecology and the National Parks Service.
Without Reservation: How a Controversial Indian Tribe Rose to Power and Built the World’s Largest Casino, Jeff Benedict
I am actually still reading this one, and so will reserve judgment, but it purports to tell the tale of the Mashantucket Pequots. I can see the lights of said casino from my house, so this one could not be closer to home.
Updated to add: Holy controversy, Batman. Just finished this one. There is way too much to get into in just a sentence or two, but I will say that I found parts of the book deeply problematic. Worth a read still for me as it is an interesting perspective on a very local issue, but as most things, more complicated than it seems at first glance.