Bond, Nancy (Barbara) 1945-
BOND, Nancy (Barbara) 1945-
Born January 8, 1945, in Bethesda, MD; daughter of William H. (a librarian) and Helen L. (an elementary school teacher; maiden name, Lynch) Bond. Education: Mount Holyoke College, B.A., 1966; College of Librarianship (Aberystwyth, Dyfed, Wales), Dip.Lib., 1972.
Home— 109 Valley Rd., Concord, MA 01742.
Oxford University Press, London, England, member of promotional staff, 1967-68; Lincoln Public Library, Lincoln, MA, assistant children's librarian, 1969-71; Gardner Public Library, Gardner, MA, director, 1973-75; Massachusetts Audubon Society, Lincoln, administrative assistant, 1976-77; Simmons College Center for the Study of Children's Literature, Boston, MA, instructor in children's literature, 1978-2001; Barrow Book Store, Concord, MA, salesperson, 1980—.
A String in the Harp was named a Newbery honor book and a Boston Globe/Horn Book honor book, and received awards from the International Reading Association and the Welsh Arts Council, all 1976; Boston Globe/Horn Book honor book citations, 1981, for The Voyage Begun, and 1985, for A Place to Come Back To.
BOOKS FOR JUVENILES
The Best of Enemies, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1978.
Country of Broken Stone, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1980.
The Voyage Begun, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1981.
A Place to Come Back To, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1984.
Another Shore, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1988.
Truth To Tell, McElderry Books (New York, NY), 1994.
The Love of Friends, McElderry Books (New York, NY), 1997.
(Author of foreword) Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess, Aladdin Paperbacks (New York, NY), 2001.
Nancy Bond is a respected and award-winning author of novels for adolescents. Noted and admired for writing books that portray realistic characters dealing with major change and conflict, Bond has explored such dilemmas as accepting responsibility, upholding principles, family breakups, remarriage, and death. She has also been praised for her sensitivity, insight, and originality in presenting her characters and their lives using memorable settings and skillful writing. "As a writer, I want more than anything to achieve with some reader somewhere [a] sense of sharing …," Bond wrote in Catholic Library World. "The kind of fiction I write aims to be about people; about relationships, feelings, understandings, misunderstandings, mistakes, choices, fears, and triumphs–all kinds of human things."
Although born in Bethesda, Maryland, Bond has lived in Concord, Massachusetts most of her life. As a child, Bond spent a year in England with her family, and after graduating from Mt. Holyoke College and spending a year in an undemanding publishing job, she and a friend travelled to London to look for work. While working at Oxford University Press, Bond discovered the works of author Rosemary Sutcliff and was hooked. After returning home to Concord, she got a job as an assistant librarian, and spent her days reading, discussing, and recommending children's books. To further her career, Bond decided to go to library school, this time spending a year in Wales studying and exploring that country. During her time in Wales, Bond became intrigued with the historical and spiritual connections that link places with the people that live there. As a result, interesting characterization and colorful locations consistently play an important part in all of Bond's novels.
Calling the novel "a substantial achievement," Virginia Haviland pointed to Bond's first book, A String in the Harp, as an excellent example of Bond's talent for creating characters and settings that add to the richness of the story and become important elements of her tale. Haviland remarked in Horn Book: "In polished, descriptive writing the relentless rain, the sea, and the mountains are given a vitality of their own, a background for the mood and the action. The spaciousness of the story permits a range of Welsh characters, whose speech makes one aware of how accurately the author's ear was tuned to the cadence of the English spoken in Wales. The story of the modern family [is] … skillfully meshed in the narrative which rises in suspense and intensity."
A String in the Harp follows the three Morgan children as they move from the United States to Wales, where their newly widowed father has obtained a teaching post. The family tries to adjust to a new life while the middle child, Peter, discovers a magical key that allows him to experience events in the life of the legendary Welsh bard Taliesin. The novel earned much critical praise, as well as a Newbery Honor citation. A String in the Harp "masterfully integrates a Welsh legend into the story of young Peter Morgan," School Library Journal contributor Susan Davie stated, making for a "tightly written book." A critic for Kirkus Reviews noted, "Bond has squeezed a solid, readable story out of this nearly exhausted [fantasy] tradition," praising the author's characters and setting. This "most impressive first novel," Zena Sutherland remarked in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, has characters that "are drawn with depth, changing and growing in their maturity and in their understanding of each other."
Bond followed A String in the Harp with The Best of Enemies, which has twelve-year-old Charlotte adjusting to family changes at the same time she uncovers a plot to sabotage Concord's annual Patriot's Day celebration. As with her first book, "Bond successfully interweaves a two-level plot," Barbara Elleman observed in Booklist, while Paul Heins in Horn Book noted that the work "again shows [Bond's] skill in delineating family relationships and in creating individual characters." Washington Post Book World critic Brigitte Weeks qualified her praise for the author's handling of Charlotte's family relationships, citing the "long digressions and top-heavy descriptions" for slowing the book. A Publishers Weekly writer, however, concludes that The Best of Enemies is "an intricate story that keeps its hold on the reader long after one closes the book."
In A Place to Come Back To the author returns to the characters from The Best of Enemies. Now a high school sophomore, Charlotte finds her friendships with Oliver and twins Kath and Andy becoming complicated by stronger feelings, especially after she learns that Oliver must leave Concord. A Place to Come Back To has the same strong setting, "fine characterization," and "insight into the confusion of adolescence" as its predecessor, wrote Anne Connor in School Library Journal. As Ethel L. Heins explained in Horn Book, "Respecting the reader as she does her characters, [Bond] has written a quietly powerful novel of friendship, love, and responsibility." Because of the author's skill in creating details, Elleman similarly concluded in Booklist, "the story flows out fully, leaving a richly encountered experience that echoes long after."
Bond continues the story of Charlotte and Oliver in The Love of Friends. Charlotte travels to London, Oliver's current home, to visit her old friend on vacation. However, Oliver is unahppy living with his mother and step-father, and he persuades Charlotte to help him journey to Scotland, where he can visit a friend of his deceased great-uncle. Another American, a pregnant teen who seeks support from Charlotte, travels with them, and the three find out more about their friendship and themselves. Helen Rosenberg, writing for Booklist, noted that Bond "has a talent for creating settings that vividly capture the mood of the story."
Country of Broken Stone similarly demonstrates Bond's ability to capture her readers' attention with a balance of interesting characters, fascinating plots, and intriguing locations. In this novel an American family is once again relocated to England, where a blended family's mother is directing an archaeological dig. Fourteen-year-old Penelope is able to make friends with a local child, Randall, but his family is opposed to the expedition. As conflicts arise, Bond creates "a nice balance … between the brooding, mysterious atmosphere and the day-to-day life of the family," Marilyn Kaye stated in School Library Journal, a balance enhanced by the author's "rich, evocative descriptions." In her Christian Science Monitor review, Christine McDonnell commented that Country of Broken Stone "is a many-layered story with complex, believable characters and strong personal relationships. It is enriched by lively dialogue … and by luxurious detail: descriptions of the countryside, its weather and its people.… It is a long book with room for local color, character development, and mounting suspense." The result, according to Horn Book writer Ann A. Flowers, is "a beautifully written novel, dealing in various ways with the theme of conflict and resolution."
Bond's next novel, The Voyage Begun, set in Cape Cod of the near future, "ties a subtle plea for conservation into an involving story of two young people who come together," as Stephanie Zvirin explained in Booklist. As newcomer Paul, the son of a government scientist, works with his local friend Mickey to help the elderly Walter regain his independence, he also sees the effects of a wasteful society on the environment and economy of areas like the Cape. Despite Bond's portrayal of natural ruin, "she rarely preaches," Alice Digilio stated in the Washington Post Book World; "she's too good a storyteller. An environment spoiled by man simply provides a backdrop for the rich collection of characters." In Horn Book, Mary M. Burns wrote that, "With its well-developed characters and strongly defined, passionately felt theme, the book is a provocative novel which probes personalities and interweaves many threads into a carefully wrought fabric." As Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books critic Sutherland concluded: It is "hard to say which is the more impressive, the merging of characters and story line, or the convincingly bleak context for the events."
Bond returns to fantasy in 1988's Another Shore, but "uses the genre to entirely different effect here," School Library Journal contributor Barbara Chatton noted. After taking a job with an historical park in which she recreates an inhabitant of an eighteenth-century town, seventeen-year-old Lyn awakes one day to find she is actually living in 1744. As Lyn struggles to adjust to the morals and standards of a different time, she discovers other twentieth-century time travellers living around her—travellers who have not been able to find a way back home. "This intense twist of the time fantasy genre forces readers not only to learn from the past but to accept its reality," Chatton observed. "The contrast between eighteenth-and twentieth-century social mores is particularly well developed through detailed description, obviously the result of painstaking research," Burns remarked in another Horn Book review. With its unexpected ending and exploration of "such rich, timeless themes as identity, loyalty and the ambiguity of many necessary choices," a Publishers Weekly critic concluded, "the book's power will not easily [be] forgotten."
In 1994's Truth to Tell, Bond returns to the more realistic, if foreign, setting of New Zealand. The year is 1958, and fourteen-year-old Alice is puzzled and unhappy with her mother's decision to move the family from England to New Zealand, leaving Alice's stepfather to join them when he can. As Alice tries to adjust to her new situation, she also explores secrets in her background and that of her mother's imperious employer. "What the novel demonstrates … is an intense concern with relationships, with what people say to each other while trying to find their places in the world," Roger Sutton noted in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Though disappointed with the ending of the novel, Ilene Cooper in Booklist praised Bond for being "very deft … when it comes to showing the heart of the teenage girl." And while a Publishers Weekly reviewer found the plot to be "obvious," the critic also commented that the novel is "sparked with some insightful passages and flavorful dialogue." Mary M. Burns wrote in Horn Book that Bond "has a sure instinct for recording revealing details and exploring adolescent feelings."
Bond once noted to Something about the Author: "Children's books are one of my greatest loves and always have been. I was much encouraged to find some fifteen years ago that I did not in fact ever have to outgrow them. But it took me rather a long time to realize I could do more than simply read them. There is a lot of very exciting fiction being written and published ostensibly for children! I wage a constant campaign to introduce it to other adults.
"My other deep interest is natural history. I am involved with organizations active in conservation, but more fundamental, I have a real conviction that men are only a part of the natural pattern and that much of what we do to the environment is senseless, thoughtless, and tragic. Only by pausing to look and make ourselves truly aware that all the parts fit, even though we may not understand how, can we preserve and protect the balance of the whole. It is therefore essential to me that we encourage by word and deed attention to minutiae, wonder at detail, and respect [for] life in all forms.
"I believe that where we live has a tremendous influence on who we are. This accounts for my particular interest in the settings for my stories. I need to know where my characters are, to place them in their world, as I write about them."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Children's Literature Review, Volume 11, Gale, 1986.
Speaking for Ourselves, Too, compiled and edited by Donald R. Gallo, National Council of Teachers of English (Urbana, IL), 1993.
Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, first edition, St. James Press, 1994.
Booklist, March 15, 1978, Barbara Elleman, review of The Best of Enemies, p. 1185; September 15, 1981, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Voyage Begun, p. 98; March 15, 1984, Barbara Elleman, review of A Place to Come Back To, pp. 1053, 1055; April 15, 1994, Ilene Cooper, review of Truth to Tell, p. 1525; November 15, 1997, Helen Rosenberg, review of The Love of Friends, p. 552.
Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books, July-August, 1976, Zena Sutherland, review of A String in the Harp, p. 171; July-August, 1980, pp. 207-208; November, 1981, Zena Sutherland, review of The Voyage Begun, p. 42; June, 1994, Roger Sutton, review of Truth to Tell, pp. 313-314.
Catholic Library World, November, 1984.
Christian Science Monitor, May 12, 1980, Christine Mc-Donnell, review of Country of Broken Stone.
Horn Book, June, 1976, Virginia Haviland, review of A String in the Harp, p. 287; June, 1978, Paul Heins, review of The Best of Enemies, pp. 273-274; June, 1980, Ann A. Flowers, review of Country of Broken Stone, pp. 303-304; February, 1981, Mary M. Burns, review of The Voyage Begun, p. 50; June, 1984, Ethel L. Heins, review of A Place to Come Bact To, pp. 335-336; March-April, 1989, Mary M. Burns, review of Another Shore, p. 214;.
Horn Book Magazine, September-October, 1994, Mary M. Burns, review of Truth to Tell, p. 595.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1976, review of A String in the Harp, p. 255.
New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1994, p. 32.
Publishers Weekly, April 3, 1978, review of The Best of Enemies, p. 81; September 30, 1988, review of Another Shore,, pp. 70-71; April 11, 1994, review of Truth to Tell, p. 66; August 11, 1997, review of The Love of Friends, p. 403.
School Library Journal, April, 1976, Susan Davie, review of A String in the Harp, p. 84; April, 1978, p. 91; April, 1980, Marilyn Kaye, review of Country of Broken Stone, p. 120; September, 1981, p. 132; April, 1984, Anne Connor, review of A Place to Come Back To, p. 122; October, 1988, Barbara Chatton, review of Another Shore, pp. 159-160; June, 1994, p. 144; October, 1997, p. 128; September, 2000, Maren Ostergard, review of Career Ideas for Kids Who Like Math, p. 254; December, 2000, Marilyn Payen Phillips, review of Career Ideas for Kids Who Like Animals and Nature, p. 164; August, 2001, Vicki Reutter, review of Career Ideas for Kids Who Like Adventure, p. 204.
Washington Post Book World, May 2, 1976, p. L1; August 13, 1978, Brigitte Weeks, review of The Best of Enemies, p. E4; February 14, 1982, Alice Digilio, review of The Voyage Begun, p. 11.
Nancy (Barbara) Bond
Nancy Bond contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
You are only seven months old as I write this. It will be some years before it means anything at all to you, but this year in which you are born is my forty-sixth: I am in the middle of what you are just beginning. This seems like a good moment for me to pause and consider myself, to attempt to explain to you a bit about your aunt Nancy and where she's been during the years before you arrived.
You are the first baby in our family since your mother was born, more than forty years ago. I was four and a half at the time, and I don't remember being either excited or outraged—in fact, I remember very little from my first years, except in quick, bright lightning flashes that have a way of dissolving as soon as I try to look hard at them. Often I can't tell if I actually remember something, or if I remember only from being told about it later, and some things I've gotten confused, like whether there were enormous butterflies as I think there were, or an enormous rabbit, as I'm told, on the lawn at Robin Hill one summer when I was small.
I watch you with fascination and wonder. You are growing so fast; each time I see you, you've changed and your world has expanded. When I look at the photograph I took the day you were born, I am astonished at how far you have come in such a short time, from that tiny creature, eyes shut tight, fingers curling over its blanket like a hermit crab emerging from its shell. Last week, for instance, you looked at me all the way across a room and smiled. What did you see? Did you recognize me? You pulled yourself upright using my fingers, and sat by yourself. You've begun eating squash and applesauce and mushed pear from a spoon, in addition to milk and soy-based formula, and when your mother came to collect you, it was clear from your delighted grin that you knew her. I watch you, Molly, and I wish I could remember that time in my own life—all those first things that are happening to you, everything you that's new. I know now that First Times happen only once; after that, whatever it is—a feeling, a place, a person—becomes familiar and changes shape: the important parts get bigger, the unnecessary parts shrink, and only with real effort can you retrieve traces of what that First Time was like. And of all that's happening to you right now, there will be nothing. Nothing except what your mother and father and grandparents and aunt tell you when you're older.
So I view you with intense curiosity, knowing that I've been where you are now, as everyone has, and regretting that I don't remember. But what I want to tell you now, Molly, is how I got to be middle-aged, for that—to my surprise—is what I am, and what I must appear to other people to be, although I often forget this.
To arrive here, I've done a lot of wandering. In fact, though I've been settled physically for almost twelve years, I'm still wandering. I used to wish that I were one of those lucky people born with a sense of mission: to be a surgeon or a teacher or a pianist—once I wanted to be a vet, until I found out how much science and math was involved. I longed to have my path stretching out clear ahead of me, even if it were strewn with obstacles. There are times when I still long for it. But I didn't even start out knowing, as some of my friends who are writers have, that I wanted to be a writer. It caught me by surprise, and while it has turned out to be something I find I do want very much to do, I have to admit that it doesn't always fit me comfortably.
I've never been able to give myself up entirely to writing, I'm too cautious. Suppose I run out of ideas for books? Suppose I write a book no one wants to publish? Suppose I get halfway through a book and get stuck? What do I do for income? But more than that, writing means shutting myself away with what's inside my head for long periods of time. In order to write, I have to withdraw from people, conversation, distractions. Sometimes I get very possessive with my days, Molly, rather desperate when I see them escaping from me. By having other more public jobs as well I regularly make some money, and I keep myself connected to the rest of the world. It's from the world, after all, that I get the material I turn into books.
At present I live with your grandparents and Amos in the house in Concord where your mother and I grew up. I'll tell you more about that presently. Amos is my third dog and your first; he's named for Amos Bronson Alcott, Louisa May's father. One of my friends calls him a Massachusetts Black Dog, another (from New Zealand) says he's a "bitser": bitser golden retriever, German shepherd, Labrador. He has one hazel eye and one brown, and when you're older, Molly, and no longer quite so fascinated with his tail, you can feel the webs between his long, bony toes. Already he knows that you're part of his family and he would like nothing better than to lick you thoroughly, all over. But your mother, understandably, doesn't think you're quite ready to defend yourself from his affection yet, so he only gets a swipe at you now and then by accident. The feel of his warm, damp tongue on your fingers makes you smile.
Two or three days a week, I work at the Barrow Bookstore in the middle of Concord, where I buy and sell (and read) secondhand books. One thing you will learn about me early in your life, Molly, is that I love books. Each spring, I teach a course in writing fiction at Simmons College in Boston. Years ago, when I was first invited to join the faculty at the Center for the Study of Children's Literature, I had serious doubts: first, about whether I could teach anybody anything (I'd never tried before), and second, about whether creative writing could be taught at all. But since I began, I've developed a course that I feel has some value for people who are interested in writing, and by teaching it, I've learned a lot about writing myself. I've also made some of my best friends at Simmons: Joan Tieman (who gives you books), and Canadians Kit Pearson (I have a photograph of Kit feeding you a bottle), Sarah Ellis, and Judi Saitman among many others.
And I write. At this moment I'm sitting at my antediluvian and well-loved IBM Selectric typewriter (I've lost track of the times people have said, "You mean you don't use a word processor?" in tones of disbelief. I seem to be quite happily stuck midway between a quill pen and a computer, although the last time I had this discussion with someone—quite recently, too—we almost came to blows when she told me firmly that I couldn't possibly write without a word processor in spite of the fact that I can and do and have proof; I'm afraid I can be very stubborn, Molly; comments like that make me dig in my heels!). At any rate, here I am, where I spend several days a week, at the Emerson Umbrella for the Arts. From my third-floor window I can look out at the bright blue sky over Concord, laced down around the edges with the bare branches of trees, and at the neat frame houses across Stow Street. Under its roof, the Umbrella shelters some sixty painters, potters, photographers, weavers, sign painters, furniture and model boat makers, writers and illustrators, all of whom rent space to pursue their various crafts. It's a refuge for those of us who need space away from home to close ourselves in, where we can make our messes and feel a sense of community with other people who are struggling to create things.
It wasn't always the Umbrella, though. From 1958 to 1960, I went to school in this building; then it was the Emerson High School. Now it's too small and antiquated to be a public school. In 1960, the "new" (well, it was to us) high school opened. The Umbrella, battle-scarred and shabby, is very familiar to me, though when I left it as a soon-to-be junior, I hadn't the faintest inkling I'd ever come back to it again. My little room is full of books (my life is full of books—they seem to multiply by themselves as soon as I turn my back on them), my typewriter, a few chairs, an electric hot pot for making endless cups of tea, and my grandfather Lynch's desk, which is really too small but I won't replace it. All around are pieces of my current project, a story set in New Zealand. I've been to New Zealand twice in the last twelve years, and there are photographs and maps and posters on my walls to remind and reassure me when it seems very far away. Well, it is very far away—it's on the other side of the world, where the seasons are reversed and Christmas comes in the summer holidays, and I'm finding the book very hard to write. But at some point or another, I've found every book hard to write and that gives me a little comfort to remember. It also gives my writing students comfort to hear as they work their way through their own problems. If it doesn't get easier, at least you learn you can do it.*
Although I wasn't born in Concord, I did most of my growing here and this is where I feel rooted. I was born January 8, 1945, the last year of World War II, in a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. By that time, Molly, your grandparents were in their thirties and lived in Washington, D.C. My father was in the Communications Department of the Navy where he worked at breaking enemy codes. He was bound by the Official Secrets Act not to talk about what he was doing; a long time afterward he did try to explain to us, but the idea of secrets was more intriguing than the secrets themselves, which were very complicated, and I don't remember what he said.
He had grown up in York, Pennsylvania (P.A., we always called it), the only child of Ethel and Walter Bond. His father owned and ran the Weaver Piano Company; the piano that stands in our living room was made especially for my great-grandpa Bond. My grandfather used to demonstrate for customers by playing "Hail Pennsylvania," which was about the extent of his repertoire. My grandmother, Grandy, was the Girl Scout Commissioner in York. It was she who brought my parents together when she hired my mother as a Girl Scout director. (On one of their first dates, they went at the crack of dawn to watch Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus pitch its tents on the York Fairgrounds.)
My mother's parents, Helen and Wilbur Lynch, came back from Mexico City (Grandpa Lynch was director of the American school system there at the time), long enough so that she could be born in Windsor, New York. Her only sister, your great aunt Barbara, was twelve years old then. Grandpa Lynch died when I was only three and a half, so I never really knew him as I did my other three grandparents.
After the war, instead of returning to York to go into the piano manufacturing business, my father, who had gotten his Ph.D. in English at Harvard, accepted the job as assistant to the director of the rare book library there. Later he became curator of manuscripts, and finally librarian himself. By the time I was six years old, and my memory really begins to function, your mother, Sally, had been born, and we were living in Arlington, Massachusetts, one of the cities that creeps up on Cambridge from the west, flowing into it so it becomes hard to tell where one stops and another begins. We had a first-floor apartment in a neighborhood of straight streets and sidewalks, rectangular blocks and fenced-in backyards. I remember making a wish. It was winter, I know it was, because the success of this wish had something complicated to do with the way the ice on a puddle cracked when you jumped on it. On that particular afternoon, I was playing with Chichi Albanese. I closed my eyes, concentrated hard, and jumped. Whichever way the ice was supposed to crack—that detail I've forgotten—it did, because I knew that my wish would come true. I wished for a house in the country, and a dog.
Actually, I cheated a bit. I think I already knew that the house was a pretty sure thing, although it hadn't been built yet. Probably I'd even heard my parents talking about a dog. At the beginning of the 1950s, they joined a group of about a hundred families, all of whom wanted to own their own houses somewhere more rural than Cambridge, but hadn't a lot of money to invest. A housing development had been proposed in Concord, about twenty miles to the west, on a large piece of wooded land beside the Sudbury River. It was called Conantum, after the farmer, Conant, who had owned the land in Henry David Thoreau's time. Each family chose an acre-sized house lot, roads were bulldozed, and houses began to take shape. On weekends, we took picnics out to our land to see what progress had been made, decide which trees should be cut and which saved (most of them), explore the woods (I distinguished myself on our first visit in the middle of winter by falling into our brook), and meet our new neighbors. As the houses were finished one by one, the families moved into them. We came in early spring, 1952, when the road past our driveway was still unpaved, deep in mud and full of rocks. My father lost a tire chain in that mud; it lies to this day buried under layers of asphalt. Feeling like pioneers, we watched as more and more lights sparked the blackness between the trees at night. We no longer lived in the city. Instead, we lived some three miles from the middle of Concord, separated from it by a highway and the river. Like most of our neighbors, we could only afford one car. My father was part of a carpool, and for the first time I rode a bus to school. There were lots of children in Conantum younger than I, quite a few older, but very few my own age. I didn't consider your mother someone to play with back then, Molly. We spent much of our time fighting, actually. It took us a number of years to recognize one another's virtues. Two other girls and I formed a complicated, jealous, and uncomfortable triangle. I can still remember the intensity of feeling we generated, the triumph of being in favor, the misery of being the odd one out. I was never the one in the middle—always either in or out. I honestly don't know why we couldn't all three get along, but it was impossible.
I spent quite a lot of time by myself, less by choice than by circumstance. Now that I'm considerably older, I realize that I need time alone, and I'm usually quite happy in my own company—and Amos's—one reason I can be a writer. But I wonder sometimes if I can be alone now because I learned how when I was young, or if I was born needing time by myself, so that when I was seven, nine, twelve, I didn't work as hard as I might have to find friends. I was unhappy back then mainly when I was aware that I was missing out on something; when I knew that Gretchen and Diane were together and I knew I couldn't join them whether I wanted to or not. Otherwise I had acres of woods to play in, the river nearby, and several muddy little ponds to explore. I invented stories in which I was the main character; I used to narrate them in my head as I acted them out. Or I joined the characters in my favorite books, usually Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons. The Walkers and the Blacketts made themselves the kinds of adventures I liked best: active, out-of-doors, and plausible. I knew those books by heart.
Our neighborhood was wonderfully safe. All the parents knew one another and which children belonged to whom. The dangers were natural ones: falling out of trees, drowning, getting lost. I never worried about such things; I always knew where I was and what I was doing; and if my parents didn't every minute of the day they wouldn't be needlessly upset, or hamper me with unnecessary restrictions. Every now and then they happened to observe or learn secondhand from some well-meaning, meddlesome neighbor about some project of which I had guessed they might disapprove for mysterious adult reasons, but the repercussions were usually minor and I survived pretty much undamaged. Only once when I was small did I break a bone: my collarbone, falling out of bed.
Aside from the jealous triangle, and my battles with your mother, I had a fairly ordinary, undramatic childhood. I had no doubts about my parents' affection, although there was a brief, uncomfortable period when all the girls I knew took enormous pleasure in recounting the dramatic arguments they had with their mothers. It worried and embarrassed me a little that I got along so well with mine. I yearned for a pony, and got a sand-box and a bicycle. I scaled my sights downward to a donkey, but had to be content with unsatisfactory white mice and a succession of parakeets, the best of which actually learned to say "Pretty birdie," but succumbed to a chill during one of our family vacations on Nantucket Island. (My father remembers that event chiefly because he got to wait in line to see the vet behind Beatrice Lillie.) Your mother, Molly, favored fish and turtles.
But we did have a dog. There were all kinds of dogs all over the neighborhood, allowed, like the children, to run loose. One was a half-wild afghan hound that made itself a nest in the blueberry bushes in front of the house next door.… Ours, acquired from neighbors, was the result of a hasty romance between Pandora Brown, a very proper black-and-tan cocker spaniel, and a dashing young Airedale called Sandy Van Etten. We called this puppy Hobbit because he had furry feet and dug holes into which he could retreat during hot weather. One of his holes still survives, drifted with pine needles and oak leaves, although Hobbit himself is more than twenty years gone. He was an odd, square, black-and-tan creature, with short, sturdy legs and a wiry coat, much valued by his family, but regarded with justifiable suspicion by others. He treed the son of a neighbor once, and had to be quarantined for biting the Fuller Brush man. Although not the dog of my dreams—at that time I was infatuated with collies, having read and reread Ladadog and every other Albert Payson Terhune book I could get my hands on—I loved him dearly, and he satisfied the second part of my six-year-old wish.*
But I'm getting ahead of myself—I've left out England, which came before Hobbit, and just after we moved into our new house. We'd barely had time to arrange the furniture when my father got a Fulbright Fellowship. He and Mother found tenants, packed us up—I was seven and Sally just three—and we set sail on the SS United States, from New York to Southampton. Mother made the two of us matching navy blue skirts and jackets for going-away, and bought us navy blue berets. There's a picture of me, standing knob-kneed next to a life preserver, my beret pulled down firmly around my ears. I loathed that beret—the tight feel of its band on my head. Somewhere in the middle of the ocean it blew off and I was so glad to see it go that I was overwhelmed by guilt—it was as if I had wished it off. What peculiar things lie buried under layers of memory, like that tire chain in the road outside our house.
Nineteen fifty-three was the year Elizabeth II was crowned queen in Westminster Abbey. My father, squashed among the throngs lining her route through London that day, caught a glimpse of the carriage, a flash of something white inside. My mother, Sally, and I were privileged to be invited to watch the ceremony on telly at a friend's flat. Not many people had televisions then. Britain was still recovering from the war: many things were still rationed in the shops, and there were gaps like missing teeth along the streets where buildings had been destroyed by bombs. Of the broadcast of the coronation which I actually saw, I remember nothing. What I do remember is that my father saw the queen.He worked at the British Museum and we lived in a flat in Kensington; I was old enough to fall passionately and permanently in love with Britain, although I didn't know it was happening to me at the time. During the winter of 1952–53, London was beset by the last of its Great Fogs: Sherlock Holmes's pea-soupers. The air would become so thick and black that you not only couldn't see across the street, you couldn't see across your own living room. Soot got into everything. I would blow my nose and the hanky would turn black. It was dreadfully unhealthy of course, but what an adventure! And it taught me the evocative power of smell. To this day, without fail, the reek of coal smoke or the stink of diesel exhaust (chief ingredients of those fogs) gives me a sharp stab of longing, even before I know why. Surreptitiously, I suck in deep breaths, and for an instant I'm a little girl of eight again. (Much later, when I spent a winter in a little town on the coast of Wales, I'd walk up the cwm 'valley' in the evenings to mail my letters home and I'd pass a house where the inhabitants burned wood instead of coal in their fireplace. Always, I'd stop in the darkness and inhale the wood-smoke, and for a minute or two I'd be back in Concord, smelling the smoke from our chimney.)
I went to the Weatherbee School. Every day we went for walks in two straight lines, like Miss Clavell's little girls in Madeline. And we had rice pudding for lunch, which I hated every bit as much as A. A. Milne's Mary Jane. I was made to sit and look at it for what seemed like hours, because "they" thought I was being stubborn. Actually, I couldn't eat it—it made me ill. There were family expeditions: boat trips on the Thames, visits to Madame Tussaud's waxworks and the Battersea Fun Fair, picnics on Hampstead Heath, and excursions further afield to places like Stratford-upon-Avon, Molly, where your mother, age four, stood in the middle of the upstairs bedroom at New Place and said loudly, "Well, I know where Shakespeare was born, and I know where Shakespeare died, but what did Shakespeare do? " There was a charwoman who cleaned the flats at 17 Courtfield Road. Her name was Mrs. Brice, and her face is still clear in my mind (she wore a beret), while the faces of the children I went to school with and all the teachers I had are blank. Mrs. Brice gave me cards out of her cigarette packages: stiff little oblongs with pictures on them of flowers, dogs, military uniforms. I saved them with my extensive collection of used bus tickets.
While I was away, I missed out on handwriting and Nancy Drew, and never caught up with either one. Instead, I discovered the Famous Five: Julian, Dick, Anne, Georgina (who only answered if called George, because she wanted to be a boy), and Timmy-the-dog. There were dozens of books about them. Once I was taken to stand in an enormous line to get Enid Blyton's autograph—my first encounter with a live author. When, at the end of the year, my father reckoned up expenses and decided we could afford to spend a few days in Paris, I took my precious autographed book with me, not wanting to be parted from it. After all this time I can still picture the hard, round bolster pillow on the bed in our hotel room under which I left it by mistake. Otherwise there's very little left to me of my first trip to Paris.
Always in my life, as far back as I can remember, there have been books. You've already begun to get them as presents from me, Molly, although you don't know it yet, just as your mother and I got them from our relatives. I always felt the books I was given were special, and I read and reread them. Long after I could read on my own, my father continued to read aloud: The Just-So Stories, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Sword in the Stone, The Rootabaga Stories, Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard, The Hobbit, The Borrowers, Finn Family Moomintroll, and all twelve of the books about the Swallows and Amazons (in our family, Molly, there are three complete sets—your mother and I each have our own). When The Lord of the Rings was published I was ten, and I begged my father to read it. A bit reluctantly he agreed; we got as far as the Black Riders in the first volume when I made him stop. They terrified me. But in high school, I decided that Tolkien was my favorite writer, and I laboriously taught myself the alphabet in runes.
My father read me C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and then I wanted all the other "Narnia" books as well. They came as presents, but I read them to myself. Later, when I wondered about that, I asked why he hadn't read them aloud and he confessed he didn't really like them much. It was his entirely sensible rule only to share aloud the books he enjoyed himself, but that never meant I couldn't read them. I don't remember ever being forbidden to read a particular book. If I began one I didn't like, or wasn't ready for, I simply closed it.
But here we are, in 1953, back in Concord. I was quite annoyed to find that the good new box of crayons I had carefully hidden behind the mirror in my room was gone when I got home.… In the fall I began fourth grade in the Concord public schools. I was never an outstanding student. Every now and then, some project would spark my interest and I'd do a really good job on it, otherwise I merely scraped along. If I'd been cleverer I'd have realized that my sudden bursts of enthusiasm did me more harm than good. For years my report cards bore the same sentence under "comments": "Not working up to estimated capacity." I liked English and I hated arithmetic (later math, algebra, geometry). My spelling was erratic. It still is, come to that, but now I use a dictionary. Back then I used to argue that if I didn't know how to spell a word, I didn't see how I could be expected to look it up.
I realize now that my parents had my best interests in mind, but the summer they made me write an essay every day, I felt I was being unfairly punished. These pieces are still known in the family as "Nancy's Esas" (my spelling again), and I don't think they've survived, which is probably just as well, though one day you might find them amusing, Molly. I don't remember what I wrote about, only my feelings of resentment as I sat staring at a blank sheet of lined notebook paper while the sun shone and there were dozens of things I wanted to do. I doubt that writing those essays made me a better student, and I would have been incredulous if anyone had said to me, "One day, child, you'll be a writer," but who knows what effect they had? I wrote stories for myself on paper, as well as in my head. They were mostly beginnings and mostly slavish imitations of the books I admired. There are a couple of relics I wish I'd kept from our year in London: my drawings of "Daintish Water Fairies" (all I remember was that they wore long dresses and had luxurious hair that sprang from the top of their U-shaped heads; I learned to draw them from one of my faceless classmates at the Weatherbee School), and an endless story I wrote about a little ghost, using as stationery that curious, hard, shiny toilet paper once favored by the British, and still not entirely obsolete. Much of my supply came from museums, where each sheet was stamped "Her Majesty's Property," which added a certain cachet to my work. But these have disappeared. And it's possible that, like certain well-loved books from childhood, it's better to cherish the memory than to return to the real thing. Skags the Milkhorse is a case in point; it holds an honored place on my bookshelf to this day and I will never willingly part with it, but neither will I risk rereading it.*
Scattered through my school years were those special teachers who, in spite of my lack of application, recognized a glimmer of potential here and there, and pushed me into things I'd never have attempted by myself. I was coeditor of the literary magazine and president of the drama society in high school. I had a handful of good friends, mostly on the quiet side. I was awkward socially; I had no boyfriend and I didn't go on dates. I was miserable at those barbaric, organized social occasions to which my parents, again with the best of intentions, felt I should go in order to be well-rounded. I observed my well-rounded classmates with a mixture of envy, incomprehension, and resignation. I didn't know how to be one of them. It astonished me when senior year they voted me "Most Independent," less because I thought they were wrong than because I hadn't thought enough people were aware of my existence to vote me anything. I got through high school. I wasn't wretched or rebellious, but I've never had the slightest desire to relive those years.
And somehow—thanks in large part to those exceptional teachers who encouraged me and wrote recommendations (not on the strength of my grades which were altogether average)—I was accepted by two of the four colleges to which I applied. I was part of the Baby Boom, the population explosion that occurred at the end of World War II, and competition for colleges was quite fierce. I've often wondered how my life would be different if I'd chosen to go to McGill University in Montreal instead of to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. What if.…
But I chose Mount Holyoke, the college my mother had chosen thirty-three years earlier. When I was in the middle of making up my mind, one of my teachers asked me where I would feel most comfortable, and the answer was Mount Holyoke. Sometimes I wonder if that was the right question; perhaps I should have dared to be uncomfortable. At any rate, Mount Holyoke was small and rural; it was away from home, but not far away from home, and I didn't feel the need to distance myself from my family. It was a good place for me, Molly, and I spent four reasonably happy years there. My chief regret is that I didn't have a clearer notion of what I was going to college for. In 1962, nobody I knew took time off between the end of high school and the beginning of college to see what being out of school for the first time in twelve years felt like, to try working and earning money instead of studying. My parents had both gone to college and expected that your mother and I would go in our turn, and so we did. Many of my classmates and I shared the mistaken notion that a liberal arts education was supposed to prepare us for jobs in the Real World, but most of our courses had no obvious practical application: history, religion, philosophy, literature, art … they didn't teach you how to run a business, work in a bank, sell advertising. Some years after I graduated, I finally understood that a liberal arts education isn't preparation for working but for living —for everything I do every day, not just what I do to earn money. Blind as I was at the time, Mount Holyoke's a good enough school so that I got a lot of that preparation willy-nilly.
I took piano lessons for the first time in my life; the pleasant, patient woman who gave them to me looked at me in perplexity when she discovered I couldn't read music and said, "Isn't it rather late in life for you to start, dear?" I suppose it was—I never got very far, but at least I can pick out a tune on the Weaver piano. I discovered art history; I hadn't realized it was possible to study art without being artistic, and I was convinced that I wasn't artistic. (No one had looked at my Daintish Water Fairies and exclaimed, "This child has real talent!")
Eleven years after your mother had demanded to know who Shakespeare was, I began to find out in glorious detail, so that when I lived in London in 1968, I hungrily went to every play the Royal Shakespeare Company put on. I approached Boswell's Life of Johnson with anxiety—I've always read slowly and it's a very thick book—but I loved it. With a class of "baby" geology students, I went to see the dinosaur tracks frozen in the ancient mud of the Connecticut River Valley, and learned about oxbows and floodplains, drumlins, eskers, and kettle holes.
I took anthropology to find out what it was, and English history because I loved England. But I was afraid of Chaucer in Middle English, and too intimidated by a notoriously difficult course called Lit. Crit. to dare try it. I regret them both now. I took writing courses—description, short story, poetry, even journalism—but I enjoyed them all too much to consider them real work. Anything that was fun couldn't be serious. I'm not sure where I got that idea, but it's so thoroughly embedded in my brain that every now and then it still pops up despite my best efforts to squash it. And, of course, it isn't true.
I made friends, in my usual slow, cautious way. Some of them lived in or near the dangerous and exciting city of New York, and they took me home with them for weekends. I loved visiting, but even then I knew I would not be comfortable living there. During my four years at college, I discovered I was firmly rooted in Concord.
In November 1963, I returned to my dorm on a grey, dark day to find everyone silently gathered around the television in the living room. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Texas. Life braked to a violent halt, then painfully started up again as we struggled to comprehend what had suddenly happened: not in history, but in our present. At his inauguration, Kennedy had invited Robert Frost to speak; I had written an editorial about that for my high school literary magazine, and I had been in the audience at Mount Holyoke when Frost came and read to the college. The personal connections made by such tiny threads are often invisible at the time they're made, but looking back, I see them woven through my life.
With a handful of other students, in the spring of my senior year, I signed on with a local farmer to pick asparagus in the early mornings. He came for us in his pickup—I have no idea what we were paid, it was just for fun. And I took a course in ornithology from a Scottish biology professor. Bessie Boyd taught us anatomy, physiology, behavior and identification. We went on field trips and I bought my first copy of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds. Until then I hadn't thought much about natural history as a subject. I'd picked up a lot without conscious effort from your grandparents, Molly, who'd plunged with enormous enthusiasm into life in the country. Instead of being surrounded by sidewalks and traffic and someone else's backyard, we had trees, birds, squirrels and chipmunks, flowers and ferns outside the door. Our home library expanded to include all kinds of field guides—if you don't know, look it up! Mother planted a wildflower garden and got a part-time job teaching nature studies at a private elementary school in town (where she was known unofficially as Mrs. Nature). Every year we struggled with her to relearn electricity and magnetism—she much preferred flora and fauna. We bought a secondhand aluminum canoe, and put up bird feeders. For one of my school science projects, I drew a map of our acre and made an inventory of the wildflowers on it. The judges weren't terribly impressed, but I wish I still had that map.
We spent summer vacations on Nantucket Island (when there were fewer people on it, and longer stretches of empty beach) and collected whelk and jingle shells and made beach plum jelly. We went camping in Maine where I remember canoeing among the beaver in Baxter State Park. For years it was tradition that we celebrate your mother's birthday on top of a mountain, and once she had a cake baked quite successfully in a reflector oven. The summer she was eight and I was twelve, we packed Grandfather Lynch's camping gear into our Chevrolet station wagon and headed West—clear across the country. He had bought an immensely heavy canvas umbrella tent with steel poles from Abercrombie and Fitch. Each time we pitched camp, we'd unroll it flat on the ground and your grandfather would crawl inside; the whole thing would heave and toss as he struggled with it, uttering muffled curses. As well as Disneyland in California (which was brand new—Disney World hadn't yet been dreamed of), we camped in the Tetons and saw the geysers at Yellowstone and the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. My father and I rode muleback to the Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, while your mother and grandmother waited at the top.
In an unsystematic way, by the time I acquired my first bird guide, I had absorbed a good deal of natural history. Suddenly it became something I was consciously interested in. These days when I take Amos walking, I automatically pick up my binoculars as well as his leash because I know the day I leave them behind will be the day I see a blur high in a tree that's probably a great horned owl, but as I grow increasingly nearsighted I will be unable to tell for sure. Amos is very patient with my bird-watching; he sits waiting while I make peculiar bird-attracting noises and search for results. Together we've explored the countryside around Concord, and I'll introduce you to it when you're old enough, Molly. I think it's important to be on familiar terms with the landscape—the trees, plants, creatures, hills, and swamps. The more we look around us and see and recognize what's left of the natural world we inhabit, the better able we are to value and protect it. And it needs protecting! Also, for me, familiarity brings a sense of belonging, and belonging—or not belonging—is a matter that has preoccupied me most of my life. I find myself writing about it over and over again in my books.*
But back to the story. When I graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1966 I had a B.A. in English composition. At that time there were two obvious choices for English majors who didn't want to go on to graduate school (perish the thought! I'd had enough school forever, I decided): teaching and publishing. I had no interest in teaching. I didn't know enough to teach anybody anything. But publishing. The word had a magical sound. I had the sense to realize that first I needed to equip myself with some practical skills, so that summer I signed up for an intensive six-week secretarial course. For the first time in my life I learned to type using all my fingers, and to take a form of shorthand called speedwriting. Clutching my certificate, I went for an interview with a Boston publishing company (I was given a typing test which ought to have made me suspicious, but I was too bright-eyed and naive) and was hired as an overseas correspondent. It sounded impressive, and paid, as I recall, seventy-five dollars a week. My first salary, and I was in publishing.
In a very short space of time I discovered that under its title, my job was purely secretarial. I took dictation, typed letters, and filed orders for military schools overseas. This was not what I had envisioned. I lasted a year, during which I made friends with another correspondent (we used to play word games by interoffice telephone), who agreed with me that it would be a wonderful adventure to find work in London together. In 1967 we resigned, leaving a large hole in the overseas textbook department, got ourselves work permits, and set sail on the Queen Elizabeth.
After a good deal of confusion and some frantic transatlantic telephone calls, Ginny and I found jobs and a flat. We rented the top floor of a tall Victorian house in North London, with a dense, overgrown front garden, a view of Alexandra Palace and Muswell Hill out the bathroom window (if you craned your neck far enough), and a family of tawny owls nesting in the tree outside my bedroom window. We were up under the eaves so all our ceilings sloped in different directions, and the furniture was middle-aged and comfortable, and it suited us perfectly. (Years later, when I went back to see it again, the house at 107 Hornsey Lane was gone, in its place an ugly modern block of flats. But it's safe in my memory.)
Whatever my parents said to each other in those first, desperate days before we were settled, to me they were unfailingly reassuring and encouraging. If they had doubts (and they certainly must have), they hid them from me, and I was much too busy sorting myself out to worry about whether they were worried. Ginny and I spent our first few weeks living at the YWCA near the British Museum: clean, cheap, and convenient. Eventually I went to work for Oxford University Press, which at that time had London offices in the Bishop of Ely's former residence in Mayfair.
Ely House was right in the middle of the city, near Piccadilly and St. James's Park, appearing very elegant to visitors—less so to those of us who worked in the inefficient little warren of offices at the top of the sweeping staircase. My window opened onto a central shaft, with a glimmer of daylight at the top, and every day the smells of the cooked lunch being served in the executives' dining room below wafted up to me. I was not an executive. I was hired to do publicity for an obscure department that produced schoolbooks in English for Commonwealth and former Commonwealth countries—India, Africa, the West Indies. Even the man who hired me had only the haziest idea of what he was hiring me for; after I'd been there several months, he called me into his office for a chat and, in a round-about way, asked me what I spent my time doing. To be honest, Molly, I don't remember very clearly myself now, but I was busy enough. And in the evenings I went to the theatre. I saw an immense variety of plays—whatever struck my fancy. On weekends I went to museums and wandered all over the city exploring, or took bus and train excursions into the country. For the first time I was living independent of my family, taking responsibility for myself, and I was pleased to find that I wasn't making a mess of it.
At the end of a year, I sailed home again on a German ship, leaving Ginny behind to get married and settle permanently in England, where she still lives. My skirts were unflatteringly short, my hair was long, and the inside of my head was crammed with new stuff it would take me years to sort through and understand. In my luggage, I brought home quantities of books, naturally. Among them was a series of historical novels for children by Rosemary Sutcliff. I had been wandering the maze of corridors at Ely House one day when I had accidentally come across the children's book department, and there on the shelves were rows of her books. I read The Lantern Bearers out of curiosity and was hooked. That's when it first penetrated my consciousness that there were people who earned their living from children's literature—not writing it, that realization was still some years off—publishing, selling, distributing children's books. This is my old problem, Molly: not allowing myself to believe something enjoyable can be work. I'd been home from England about six months, filling in time as a temporary secretary at a computer company (I had no trouble seeing that as work), when Heddie Kent, the children's librarian in a small town near Concord, offered me a job as her assistant. Well, that sounded fine. Suddenly there I was surrounded by heaps of books (literally—my first week at the library we packed the entire children's collection into boxes and moved it from one floor to another), and there I stayed, contented, for two-and-a-half years, reading, reviewing, ordering, recommending, discussing children's books and getting paid for it. Librarianship was easily the most congenial way I'd come across to earn a living, but there was a snag. Without a library degree, I hadn't much future. So, reluctantly, I began to think of going back to school.
To make the idea more palatable, instead of looking at American library schools, I applied to the University of London, and to the College of Librarianship Wales. London, it turned out, didn't want me, but in the autumn of 1971 I again embarked, this time on the new Queen Elizabeth II, bound for Southampton. The College of Librarianship Wales (CLW—pronounced "Clue"—as it's known familiarly) stands on a hillside a mile or two inland from the seaside town of Aberystwyth, almost exactly halfway up the coast of Wales. It was being built around us when I was there; the library and lecture theatre were in use, rather grimly rising from a sea of mud and construction, but many classes were held in two rows of temporary buildings known as The Huts. I lived in digs, which meant I rented a room in a private house. From my window I could see the college, its lights glowing in the Welsh darkness each night, but between us lay a very steep wooded cwm, with a brook at the bottom. (I often saw foxes and rabbits—sometimes together—in the field beyond the brook.) In order to get to school, I had to walk down to the village of Llanbadarn Fawr, and up the hilt again on the other side. It was very good exercise, although at first I thought it would kill me. The house, called Swny-nant, was very small and full of people. Two Indonesian women, Dene and Oeke, also students, shared the guest room and took meals with me in the living room. I slept in the nursery, its walls papered with pink and blue giraffes, elephants and hippopotamuses, while the Hughes family—Howell, Margaret, and two small daughters Sharon and Susan—somehow squeezed themselves into one bedroom and the kitchen. The seven of us shared one bathroom and the hot water, what there was of it.
This time I had a very clear idea of what I had come to school for. The course was practical and I was diligent. I actually enjoyed cataloguing and classification, and even bibliography (I did my main project on peregrine falcons), though I didn't see much use in a theoretical course called "The Library in Society." Best of all was my elective course in children's literature—but that was fun, so not to be taken too seriously, of course.
I was one of two Americans at the college that year (the other chose to disguise himself as British—I never got to know him). I made one of my best friends at CLW, Molly, your honorary Scottish aunt, Patricia Runcie, whom you'll meet before long. But, as usual, I spent quite a lot of time on my own. On my free days, I often went off on foot to Aberystwyth and along the coast path north or south, or back into the hills on farm lanes and tracks. I never learned Welsh to speak, only to pronounce place names so I could tell bus drivers where I wanted to go, but I loved the sound of the language. In the fall I found the hedges thick with brambles (blackberries); in the spring the lanes were lined with primroses, and lambs bleated in all the fields. When it rained, which it did a lot, I went out anyway. As someone remarked, either you wore a mac and got wet, or you didn't and you got very wet. We suffered through a winter of electricity cuts, when the miners were on strike. I remember feeling dreadfully homesick, especially at Thanksgiving, and while I was in Wales, my grandfather Bond died, so that when I came home there was a piece missing from the family. But I never wished I hadn't come, and at the end of the year I received my diploma: my Dip. Lib. Wales.
When I set off for CLW there were dozens of library jobs available in Massachusetts. A year later there were almost none. For eight or nine months, I lived—jobless—in Concord again, with my tolerant family, while I hunted for work. I distracted myself in the meantime by thinking about Wales and reading everything 1 could get my hands on—all the books I should have read before I'd gone, but wasn't interested in until after I'd been. One of the results, of course, was that I learned about everything I'd missed, as well as what I'd seen.*
Eventually I was appointed director of the Levi Heywood Memorial Library in Gardner, a small furniture-manufacturing city about thirty miles west of Concord. I used to drive through Gardner on my way to and from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley half a dozen times or more a year and wonder about it. It was known as Chair City, and there was something that appealed to me about the jumble of frame houses, factories, and steeples spreading down the hillside by the highway.
I spent the next two years learning that I wasn't good at being an administrator. It's always been hard for me to ask someone else to do a job I know I can do perfectly well myself, even though I'm being paid to spend my time on more important things than shelving books. I don't really like supervising other people, or being supervised myself, for that matter. Once I know what has to be done I want to be left alone to do it. I also found myself, for the first time in my life, having to defend reading and public libraries to people who didn't simply take them for granted. By the time I got to Gardner, many of the factories were closing or had already closed, and money was tight. But it was a shock to me to find reading considered an expendable luxury; to me it had always been in the same category as eating and sleeping, and only slightly less essential than breathing. No matter how carefully I prepared to defend the library budget in front of the mayor and city council, I came away feeling inadequate. They weren't hostile, or even unsympathetic, just unconvinced.
While I was muddling along at the library, struggling to articulate a philosophy of reading and books, I finished and sent off my own first manuscript. Even though, to paraphrase the Water Rat (The Wind in the Willows ), I'd always liked messing about with words, I'd never taken it seriously (!) and certainly never imagined getting paid for what I wrote. Being "in publishing" had always meant working with someone else's books. However, during the months I was looking for a job after library school, when I had lots of time and no money and all this great mass of material that had accumulated while I was living in Wales, I began playing with the idea of writing a full-length novel. I'd never written anything long before, only poems and short stories that I could finish in a few days or a week at most. I had no idea if I'd have the patience and persistence needed to get all the way to the end of a novel once, let alone several times. To protect myself, I didn't tell anyone what I was doing. I'd go off by myself and spend hours pounding away on my little Olivetti portable typewriter, never admitting I was trying to write a book. And my family behaved with enormous restraint; they never asked. For me this secrecy was essential. I learned how to write a novel by writing one. When I began, I had no clear idea of what exactly I was doing and no guarantee that I'd finish, or, when I did, that I'd have anything but, as one of my friends says, "a book-shaped object." As long as no one knew what I was doing, I wouldn't have to admit to failure if it came to nothing.
By the time I moved to Gardner, I had about two-thirds of the first draft completed. I packed it into a carton and took it with me, and for half a year it languished with the dust bunnies under my bed while I learned about being the director of a library. But as I became surer I hadn't found the right niche for myself, I began to think about that carton. Eventually, I pulled it out, dusted it off, and filled my evenings with writing and Welsh phonograph records.
At the end of 1974 I finished. I had gone as far as I could with the manuscript on my own, so with what seems to me now astonishing boldness, I wrapped it up (it was in two ring binders) and sent it to the editor I most admired: Margaret McElderry at Atheneum Publishers in New York. It turned out to be the most providential choice I could have made; in the years since, Margaret has become a true good friend as well as always being a perceptive and understanding editor. By that time I'd confessed to my family that I'd written a book, but I hadn't shown it to anyone. In the cover letter I wrote I never mentioned the word "publish," I only asked Margaret for an opinion. Was the manuscript worth continuing to work on? What should I do next?
As I write this fifteen years later, Molly, I find myself grinning. Two months after I sent my package, Margaret invited me to come to New York to meet her and discuss the manuscript. I was dazed to think that someone might actually want to buy that thick stack of typescript from me, publish it, and turn it into a genuine book with my name on it and my words between its covers.
When I went to New York, I was kindly shepherded through the hazards of the city by a college classmate, still a valued friend, whose native turf it was. Meredith Thomson gave me the gift of being almost as excited about the whole thing as I was myself. During the course of my first conversation with Margaret, I discovered that she too was a Mount Holyoke alumna; not only that, but when I got home and told my mother, we dug out her college yearbook, and there, in the Class of 1933, were Helen Lynch and Margaret McElderry, within a few pages of each other. More of those invisible threads.
A String in the Harp is the story of an American family, the Morgans, spending a year on the coast of Wales, living in a rented house near Aberystwyth. There's a lot of my year at library school in that book: the rain, having goose bumps sitting in a hot bath in a cold bathroom, overcooked vegetables, eating fish and chips out of brown paper, walking on the foggy shore at Borth, the inflection of Welsh speech, the all-pervasive layers of history, the possibility of magic. When I got home from Wales, I was so full of it I was bursting to share my experiences with everyone, but I quickly discovered that even the most patient of friends tired of listening long before I tired of telling. I could see eyes glaze slightly as people began to think of other things, and I realized that in order to fully appreciate what I was trying to share, they would have had to have been there; not just with me, but inside my skin. In spite of all the things that bind people to one another, I began to see that we're each of us isolated by our individuality; no two of us are exactly alike.
One way we connect, however, is through books. Long before I understood that behind each story I loved was the person who wrote it and who was therefore speaking to me through it, I had begun forming ties with authors. I started to write A String in the Harp as much out of my desire to share Wales with other people as my desire to tell a story. At first I didn't really have a story, not until I remembered something a friend had told me about another American who'd been teaching at CLW when I was there. He and his family lived in Borth for a year. During that time, they'd grown extremely close; there were none of the distractions pulling at each of them that they felt at home: Little League, piano lessons, Girl Scouts, faculty meetings, tennis. Instead, while they were in Wales, they'd spent most of their time doing things together. A String in the Harp gradually became the story of a father and his three children, thrown together in an unfamiliar place after a tragedy, and slowly—at first unwillingly—learning to function as a family.
Although A String in the Harp is considered a fantasy because of the involvement of Peter, the middle child, with the sixth-century bard Taliesin, the heart of the book for me has always been the "real" story of the Morgans and how they find each other. I used Taliesin to isolate Peter, and to give readers a feeling for the enormous depth of time in the Welsh countryside, and the possibility of magic I'd been aware of myself. In the end, I wrote it as I've written all my books, using bits from every part of my life, not just my year in Wales. I remembered, for instance, being desperately homesick when I first went to overnight camp, and how it felt to be eight and living in a foreign country, bickering with my sister, and family expeditions. They're all in the book.*
In 1976 A String in the Harp was named a Newbery Honor Book. It also won the International Reading Association Award, and the Welsh Arts Council's Tir na n'Og (for the best English-language children's book about Wales). I was astonished, delighted, and overwhelmed by it all. Exciting as the first two honors were, I felt the Tir na n'Og to be a special blessing on the book.
The success of A String in the Harp gave me the excuse I needed to leave my job in Gardner so I would have more time to write. After giving me a chance to catch my breath, Margaret McElderry had begun to ask what I was working on next. This came as a shock. For nearly three years I'd been focused on A String in the Harp. First I'd thought, "If only I can write a whole first draft"; then I'd thought, "It needs work. If only I can revise it"; then I'd thought, "Right. But will anyone else think it's any good?" Step by step I'd worked my way along, keeping my eyes firmly fixed on the ground just in front of my feet, and I hadn't fallen flat on my face. I'd inched across the finish line, and there was the book! But it turned out not to be the finish line at all, only the first leg of the race. Now Margaret was saying, how about the second?
I've heard it happens to many writers, this sudden realization that more is expected. The flutter of panic. The doubt that having done it once means you can ever do it again. Maybe the first was a fluke? Suppose I've used it all up? Have I got anything else to write about? And there were those prizes (which, I have to confess, Molly, I feel I've been living down ever since). This time people were watching me; I couldn't creep off secretly. At least I had sense enough to be evasive when asked if I was writing, and what I was writing about. I learned that if I discuss my ideas in any detail before I've worked them out on paper, they leak away, like helium out of a balloon, leaving a limp, uninteresting rag.
While I floundered around, looking for another story to write, I took a job as a secretary at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. It didn't pay very well (I've often thought I ought to incorporate myself as a nonprofit organization), but I enjoyed the people I worked with and believed in what we worked for. I was living in Concord again. I slipped happily back into the place where I'd grown up, and discovered my second book there. The centerpiece for The Best of Enemies is Patriots' Day, a peculiarly local holiday which Concord celebrates on the 19th of April. Each year, the town commemorates the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775 with a ball, a parade, and ceremonies at dawn on a hillside overlooking the Old North Bridge, where, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "once the embattled farmers stood, and fired the shot heard round the world." (People who live outside the area don't even know it's a holiday, Molly. I once asked a group of Gardner schoolchildren if they knew what Patriots' Day was named for, and one little boy said, "The football team.")
The Best of Enemies, and six years later its companion, A Place to Come Back To, are about growing up in Concord: going to school and making friends and celebrating Patriots' Day, changing, and accepting changes, getting along with brothers and sisters and parents. The main character is Charlotte Paige, youngest member of an otherwise grown-up family. Not all readers, I'm told, find her particularly likeable, which always gives me a pang, because Charlotte is very close to my heart. Although by now you know that our family is very different from hers.
Molly, I share her reluctance to embrace change. I often long for the things I love to stay just the way they are forever, even though I know they won't, can't, shouldn't.
At any rate, I typed up my second manuscript and sent it off to Margaret with a sigh of relief. Even if she didn't like it, at least she'd know I'd tried. But she did like it, and after a certain amount of revision, it went on the shelf next to A String in the Harp. Now, for the first time, Molly, I began to think of myself tentatively as a writer. It took me a long time to work up the nerve to put that word, WRITER, in the space for "profession" on passport forms and applications. LIBRARIAN had always seemed so much safer; I never needed to explain it to anyone. Declaring myself a writer felt like a terrible risk, and even when it doesn't satisfy me, I hanker for safety. After two years I left MassAudSoc (as one of my friends used to call it), tired of being a secretary. I had in my head the beginnings of another story triggered by a phrase I'd heard at a lecture about coastal ecology. The speaker, whose name I've forgotten, talked about "the dunes marching," and from that point on the notes I was taking stop being about coastal ecology and start being about my embryonic story. I was fired up with this idea, but when I began to write, I found I couldn't. I hadn't enough pieces to make it work. I wrestled with it for a while, then put it away and turned to something else. I wrote Country of Broken Stone, which is about an archaeological dig on the site of a Roman fort in the north of England. The roots of this story go back to the days when my father read aloud Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill. I took the title for it from his story "On the Great Wall": "Red-hot in summer, freezing in winter, is that big, purple heather country of broken stone." Kipling connected with Rosemary Sutcliff for me when I read her books: The Lantern Bearers, The Silver Branch, and my favorite, The Eagle of the Ninth. This last is the story of the Roman legion that marched north across Hadrian's Wall and was never seen again. I'd been to the Wall myself, several times, and was fascinated by the still-wild border country between England and Scotland, the traces everywhere of the Roman occupation.
After that, I was able to go back to my sand dunes on Cape Cod, and write The Voyage Begun, which owes a great deal to the summers we spent on Nantucket Island when I was young. I was learning that for a writer, nothing is wasted, even if it doesn't seem particularly useful at the time it happens.
Each book has a specific starting place, although I don't recognize it immediately. The beginning of a story is like a grain of sand in an oyster: it embeds itself in my mind and keeps irritating me, gradually accumulating layers around itself until one day it's gotten so big I can't help but see it. I need a few characters, some idea of what in the broadest sense is going to happen to them, and—always—the right place to set them down. What I end up with, when I've finished writing, is never what I thought I'd have when I started; each book is exploration and discovery for me, which is another reason why I don't like talking about a story before I've written it: I honestly don't know where it's going, how it will turn out, or even that it will amount to anything in the end.
In each of my stories I hadn't known I was writing the last sentence until I'd put the period at the end of it and was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of completeness, of having arrived at a destination. That period finishes the journey, and once I put it on the page I can begin to understand what it is I have been writing about for so long. It's a bit awkward to tell people I don't know what I'm doing until after I've done it, but it's true. I write my books in order to find out. I suspect, in spite of the false starts and wrong turns, and the problems that at first seem insoluble, that if a story weren't this kind of exploration—if I began with a map already drawn, showing precisely the best route from beginning to end—I would lose interest and either stop or go wandering off in another direction. There have been times during the writing of each book when its difficulties seemed so great, and my ability to solve them so insufficient, that I've been tempted to give up. What drives me back each time is knowing that the story and the characters will exist only in my mind if I don't finish. No one else will ever have the chance to know them. And once started, my brain keeps working away at a story, whether I want it to or not. In the middle of a shower, or cooking hamburgers, or walking Amos, I'll suddenly have the solution to one of those impossible puzzles—Eureka!—and back I go.
I spent four years writing Another Shore, which was published in 1988, but the idea that started it off occurred to me when I was eleven or twelve and wondered about people accidentally crossing into each other's times, under a very particular set of circumstances. For more than twenty-five years, I carried the notion in my head until the summer I visited the historical park in Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, on a camping trip with my friends Patricia Runcie and Kate Paranya. I knew, when I saw Louisbourg, that this was the place for a story, and which story it was. Much of that book is based on historical fact, and I had to do a lot of research, more than I have for any other book. I remember clearly all the times I despaired of ever getting it right: that is, of fitting the pieces into a cohesive whole. But I hung on because I had become so thoroughly involved in the lives of the people I was creating that I couldn't abandon them. I taught my classes, I sold secondhand books, I went on vacation to Maine and Vermont, Iceland and Vancouver, I did the grocery shopping and the laundry and got my teeth cleaned. And I kept thinking about the story—filling pieces of paper with notes, writing pages and pages, some of which I could use, lots of which I couldn't.
I worried a great deal about the end of the book. I had always thought the climax would come with the battle that took place between the French and English in 1745 at Louisbourg. I hadn't much confidence in my ability to describe that battle; I actually began to dread it. So I wrote and I worried (I am a champion worrier, Molly), and then one afternoon I typed a sentence, put a period at the end, heaved an enormous sigh of relief, and thought, "So that's it. That's how it ends." No battle. The story I was telling was over before the battle began, because that was only an event that happened outside my characters, and what was important to the book was the resolution of what was happening inside them.
So here I am, Molly, on the verge of my forty-sixth birthday, and it occurs to me that what I've just been telling you about the way I write is also true about the way I live. Life is an exploration: there's no map, and I won't know the end until I get there. I'm making my way as best I can, finding out what it means to me as I go along, sometimes striding out with confidence, sometimes feeling my way, often getting distracted, confused and worried when I take wrong turns or reach dead ends, elated when I discover useful shortcuts, enchanted by marvelous detours, and grateful for all of my wonderful travelling companions.
With love to the newest of these,
from your delighted and devoted aunt,
Nancy Bond contributed the following update to SATA in 2005:
As I write, it's April here in Concord. The last of the ice has gone from the Sudbury River. Redwings call along its edges, and I've seen wood ducks and mergansers on the water. All the snow except a few hard-frozen, gritty plowbanks has melted; the sun has real warmth again, and the days are opening out at both ends. On my early evening walks, twice lately I've seen a large beaver swimming parallel to the path at remarkable speed, pausing frequently to eye me suspiciously, then dive and smack the river with its tail. The other night, the two dogs Tucker and I walk with encountered a fully loaded skunk at close range and got sprayed so thoroughly that by the time Tuck and I got home we smelled almost as bad at they did (although our "aura" disappeared much faster). A neighbor reported watching a tom turkey right outside her dining room window, strutting and displaying for two unimpressed hens. Finally spring—tinged with skunk—is in the air. Here in New England it has felt like a long winter and the change of season is very welcome.
My only niece, Molly Picardi, was born in the spring. There's a photograph of her near the end of my autobiography—that's Molly, sitting on my sister's lap, grinning out at a world she was just beginning to discover. In those days she didn't have much hair or many teeth, and she hadn't learned to talk. This May she'll be fifteen: a freshman in high school, almost as tall as her mother. She's in Girl Scouts and 4-H (she has two rabbits, a hamster and a guinea pig, and made prize-winning spiced blueberry jam for the fair last summer), plays softball, sings in the school chorus, and is on the Honor Roll. She also loves to read. In fifteen years, her view of life has changed a lot, and so has mine.
I've been thinking about that a great deal lately. At the end of that earlier essay, I admited that, like Charlotte in my book The Best of Enemies, I wasn't fond of change. "I long for the things I love to stay just the way they are forever, " I said, "even though I know they won't, can't, shouldn't." How glib that sounds to me fifteen years later—not the part about wanting things to stay the same, the part about knowing they won't and shouldn't. When I was forty-five, my own life felt comfortably immutable, in spite of what I said. There are periods in our lives like that: weeks and months—even years—when the changes that occur are so tiny you don't notice. They're happening, but you can pretend they aren't, until one day they add up to something too large to ignore.
When I wrote that, I was coming to the end of one of those long, deceptively calm spells, when nothing seemed to change. I was still living in the house in the woods with my parents and my big black dog, Amos. Two or three days a week, I sold second-hand books, and on Wednesdays I taught my creative writing seminar. The other three or four days I could generally be found in my third-floor room at the Emerson Umbrella for the Arts, pounding away on my ancient IBM Selectric typewriter (or gazing distractedly out the window) for hours at a stretch. I was deep into my seventh book, a novel set in New Zealand.
Back in the 1970s, when I began writing seriously, I believed that once I'd successfully completed a book or two I'd have learned the secret. After that, writing would get easier. I was very naïve. Now I know better! The trouble is, each book comes with its very own unique and brain-twisting set of problems and that figuring those problems out is the hard—sometimes well-nigh impossible—work. It doesn't matter what I learned from writing the last book because it's never precisely what I need to know for the next one. Each time I begin a new Chapter One, I find that the idea that seems so clear in my head, turns out to be much less clear when I try to pin it down to words on paper, and the story I thought I was going to tell turns out not to be the story I really want to tell after all.
One of the major problems I had to solve for Truth To Tell was how to write it about a country on the other side of the world. Even though I'd been to New Zealand twice, brought back piles of maps and guides, and taken quantities of photographs, I kept running up against things I didn't know and hadn't expected to need to know. What was it like to actually live in Dunedin? Where would fourteen-year-old Alice Jenkins have gone to school, and what would she have done afterwards? What birds would she have heard outside her window? What was the weather like in June? In the southern hemisphere the seasons are upside down, so Christmas comes at the beginning of summer vacation. All the animals and many of the plants are different from ours, there are volcanoes and glaciers and millions of sheep—life has a very different rhythm. I'd have loved to drop everything and go back to New Zealand find the answers, but that was totally impractical, so instead, feeling a little desperate, I wrote to Dorothy Butler, owner of a well-known children's bookstore in Auckland. She put me in touch with Joan de Hamel.
Joan is an expatriate Brit who lives on the side of a hill outside Dunedin with her husband, Francis, and a flock of angora goats. She also writes children's books, and she understood about my obsession with picky little details. I asked her for all kinds of odd information which she cheerfully provided, even, at one point, tracking down an elderly gentleman in her neighborhood who could tell me all about the Dunedin-to-Christchurch railway service and furnish me with a genuine timetable. I'd never have found that any other way.
With Joan's invaluable help, I finished Truth to Tell. It was published eleven years ago and we're still corresponding. Only now we write about ourselves and our families. She tells me how the goats are doing, and I tell her the news from Concord, and we exchange books at Christmas. Every time I see an envelope with a New Zealand stamp in the mailbox, I'm grateful to Dorothy Butler for introducing us.
As I was finishing Truth to Tell, I began to feel the stirrings of change. In the fall of 1992, with the book substantially done, I took off for Britain to visit old friends Ginny Carlton, with whom I'd lived in London in the 60s, and Patricia Runcie, with whom I'd gone to library school in Wales. When I came home, I scheduled an appointment with a dermatologist to check a spot on my face. He examined it and told me it was nothing. Instead, he biopsied a suspicious-looking mole I hadn't noticed under my jaw. Several long days later, it was diagnosed as melanoma, the most malignant form of skin cancer, the result no doubt of summers spent in the sun when I was careless about hats, long sleeves and sunscreen. My fair skin turned pink (a couple of times painfully red ), then faintly tan. I'd always believed a little color made me look healthy, but that was before scientists began talking about holes in the ozone layer, and doctors began to warn of the dangers of too much sun exposure. After a couple of anxious weeks, I had surgery to remove the tissue around the lesion, and this time the report was negative. When the incision healed, leaving only a faint scar, I added the dermatologist to my list of annual check-ups and considered that I'd had a lucky escape.
Then followed the winter when my father went into the hospital for a hip replacement, and unexpectedly had two emergency surgeries for a perforated ulcer. He spent three weeks in intensive care and another month in rehab—and it snowed and snowed. I was just beginning to think about my next book, but teaching, days at the bookstore, doctors' appointments and hospital visits, shoveling snow, dog-walking, miscellaneous errands and household chores didn't leave me any time to actually write. That was a difficult winter but we got through it, and with spring came a brief return to what seemed like normal life.*
Summer brought one of those changes I couldn't ignore: my eleven-year-old dog, Amos, died of cancer, leaving a big hole in my life. I missed him terribly. When friends in Maine called a month later to tell me about a litter of eight Gordon setter/golden retriever puppies, just in case I was interested, I allowed as how I might as well drive up to look at them, even though I knew I couldn't replace my dear old Amos. My family was understandably skeptical; two hundred miles was a long way to go just to look, and they knew how susceptible to puppies I am. No one was very surprised when I went back up in mid-September to collect eight-and-a-half-week-old Tucker, black with a tiny white star on his chest. He was remarkably calm for a baby who'd never left his mother before. He made the long trip down from Mount Desert sitting on my friend Patricia's lap and only had one small accident. That fall was pretty strenuous. My mother, who suffered from extreme osteoarthritis and was not very mobile, spent much of it sitting on the couch in the living room behind an old fire screen, set up to protect her from Tuck's needle-sharp milk teeth. All our hands were covered with scratches and punctures before he learned that civilized dogs do not chew people. He was a determined puppy, stubborn and—fortunately for him—very cute. We had some pretty spirited battles of will, he and I. In my journal the entry for 4 October begins: "I don't get much done these days except TUCKER." He needed discipline and exercise—lots of exercise.
As soon as he was old enough, we enrolled in obedience class and every day I took him for long walks at Mount Misery, a nearby conservation area where I'd often gone with Amos. This time, instead of the solitary, meditative walks I was used to, I found myself hunting for company: any one with a puppy about Tucker's age with whom he could play until he was exhausted so I could count on a quiet(er) evening. I became shameless about attaching myself to complete strangers. Fortunately there were a number of equally desperate puppy owners at Mount Misery that fall.
For a long time we knew each other by our dogs' names and by the cars in the parking lot. When I saw a white Explorer, I knew I'd find Grogan; a red Toyota meant Sophie was in the woods; Tobey came in a Subaru Legacy. Somewhere in the maze of trails we'd meet and eventually end up standing in a group of half a dozen or more on the edge of the fields while our dogs roughhoused. A couple of times we held grand, pre-arranged parties when every one came at the same time, bringing dogs, treats and toys.
The pack grew and shrank as we added new members and people moved away, got new jobs, had babies, recruited friends, but it held together in a loose way for several years. It was a whole new experience for me—you could say that Tucker and I were both being socialized at the same time. Occasionally I'd miss my peaceful walks with Amos, when there were no distractions and I could spend the time thinking about some intractable problem to do with the book I was writing, but there was a trade-off: I met some of my closest friends on those walks at Mount Misery. Although I didn't realize it then, Tuck and I were building a support group that I'd soon need.
About the time I adopted Tucker I started working on a new book. I had known ten years earlier that I wasn't finished with Charlotte Paige and Oliver Shattuck, whose story I had begun in the The Best of Enemies and continued in A Place To Come Back To. At the end of the second book I'd left them at a crisis: in the middle of their sophomore year in high school, about to be separated after the death of Oliver's great-uncle Sam. Oliver's mother and stepfather had appeared to carry him off to London to live with them, but I wasn't sure then what was going to happen to them next. Anyway there was another book I was itching to write—two, as it turned out—so I pushed Charlotte and Oliver to the back of my mind. The new book, I decided, would begin with Charlotte visiting Oliver in Britain, a year and a half later. They would go on a trip together. In my head I began planning their itinerary: the Cotswolds, the Lake District, the Scottish Border country, Edinburgh—some of my favorite places—and we set out, Charlotte, Oliver, and I.
Very soon I realized that things were not going well. The problem was that we were on my trip and I was merely sightseeing, but Oliver had a quest, an urgent one, and he was not at all pleased at being sidetracked by the author. At first I was reluctant to admit my mistake, but once I let him take control it was obvious that his trip was much better than mine. It took us to the little fishing village of Cullen on the northeast coast of Scotland, where my friend Patricia Runcie had grown up, and where Oliver's great-uncle's best friend lived. I'd been there with Patricia years ago, long before I'd had any thought of writing The Love of Friends. The memory of Cullen had stuck in my head and I knew it was the right destination.
One day in May of 1995 I was working at the Umbrella when I happened to feel a lump on the side of my neck, just below my jaw. It was very small, almost imperceptible, and ordinarily I wouldn't have paid any attention to it, but it was in almost exactly the spot where the melanoma had been three years earlier. I panicked. But neither of the doctors I went to see thought it was anything to be concerned about, so relieved, I went back to work and that summer and fall I pretty much finished The Love of Friends.
On my annual visit to the dermatologist in January, he felt the lump and said I should have it biopsied. The lab report came back positive. It was a recurrence of the cancer. This time surgery was more extensive, and was followed by radiation and immunotherapy. For the next year I injected myself three times a week with a drug called Interferon; while it didn't make me as sick as many kinds of chemotherapy drugs would have, it left me feeling tired all the time and as if I had a mild case of flu.
Those twelve months seemed endless. Not only could I not concentrate well enough to write anything, I couldn't read. I kept trying, but got no pleasure from my attempts, and there were even days when I found it a struggle just to sit in the bookstore surrounded by books. It was a weird kind of nightmare; I had always been sure, no matter what, I could count on books for distraction. Now, when I really needed them, they didn't work. At the time I didn't realize that this was because of the drug I was taking: it acted as a depressant. My family was unfailing sympathetic and supportive, and so were my friends—especially my dog-walking friends. I needed company, and they provided it, almost daily. Louise and George, Barbara and Sophie, Peggy and Grogan, Nancy and Sandy and Pippin, Hester and Bob and Tango, Nancy and Tobey, Dana and Michele and Henry, Carol and Barbara and Pluto, Hans and Shadow, Sandy and Lily. Without Tucker I would never have met any of them.
Reluctant at first, I also joined a support group at the Greater Boston Wellness Community. I'd never been much of a joiner of organized groups, and I had no idea what to expect. There were about a dozen of us—sometimes more, sometimes fewer—of various ages and backgrounds: a teacher, a realtor, a musician, the owner of a bed and breakfast, a librarian, a caterer, the mother of a young son. We had one thing in common. We'd all heard the ominous diagnosis, and we were all struggling with some stage of cancer treatment. For two hours every Wednesday afternoon, we sat and talked. Some of our discussions were intense and difficult: about fear, family relationships, disappointment; some practical: about diet, exercise, alternative treatment. Nothing was out of bounds. There were tears sometimes, and—surprisingly—there was lots of laughter. In the group I learned that not all questions have, or even expect, answers—that simply listening to someone else is a gift. For more than a year I made the trip to Newton to be with people who became my friends. The hardest part was having to say goodbye to some of them: Bill, Natalie, Ron, Ruth, and Jeanne. When I think of them, which I do often, I hope I helped them as much as they helped me. It's no exaggeration to say they changed my life.
Six months after I finished treatment, I left the group; eight years after that I'm still in remission. At the Wellness Community one or another of us would often wonder aloud if, once you'd been diagnosed with cancer, no matter how successful the treatment, you could ever say with confidence you no longer had it. That was a question no one could ever answer with certainty, but I remember my oncologist, on whom I learned to depend, saying to me the second time I saw him, "You're an unusual patient. We're aiming to cure you." I knew he wasn't saying it lightly, and I hung onto his words for dear life. I hope he was right, and most of the time I live as if he was.
Once I was finished with the Interferon, I began to feel better, although it took me longer than I'd expected to recover. Gradually I regained my enthusiasm for reading, much to my relief, and I began to write again. I can't write as fast or as fluently as I used to—I don't know if that's because of my lost year, or if there are other reasons: simply being older and slower? more distracted with other things? less able to juggle several at once? I keep working, although I haven't finished a book since The Love of Friends.*
There have been more changes, too. Six years ago my mother died at age eighty-six, after a long, slow decline. Before her arthritis prevented her from getting around much, she'd loved the outdoors—particularly our little piece of it in Concord—and adventures of all kinds, large and small. She and my father took the train across Canada, a ship around the British Isles; they'd been to Scandinavia and cruised the Greek Islands. They'd visited friends in England and Ireland. Closer to home, they'd spent much time in Maine and explored the back roads of Massachusetts. Concord history fascinated her; she'd worked part time as a guide in one of our local museums. She'd been a potter, a reader and a knitter. Every Christmas, she'd devoted most of December to baking cookies—more than a dozen different kinds—to give friends and neighbors as gifts. As soon as we got old enough, my sister and I helped. She'd had, as she often told us, a good life and she had enjoyed it. We knew how much she wanted to stay at home, and during her last difficult year, with the help of Hospice and wonderful nurses and aides, we were able to take care of her until she died. Often these days, when I catch myself doing something I can picture her doing, or I hear words she might say come out of my mouth, I know she's still with me even though I can't see her. A couple of years ago I signed up for an adult ed. course in Concord history, passed the exam at the end, and became a licensed town guide, aware all the while that it would have pleased her very much. My sister and I carry on the Christmas cookie tradition, although I have to say that every December, when we're up to our elbows in dough and trying to figure out how to finish wrapping packages, writing cards, decorating trees and baking all those millions of cookies, we look at each other a little wild-eyed and wonder why she couldn't have chosen something less labor-intensive. But neither one of us is willing to give it up.
Another person now missing is my Aunt Barbara, who lived to be 102 and died three years after her little sister, my mother. One of my favorite Christmas "tasks" each year was shopping for and wrapping an assortment of little treats for her: special tea, imported biscuits, fancy jam and candies. And Meredith Thomson is gone. Merry was the friend who piloted me through the streets of New York City to the offices of Atheneum back in 1972, when I first met Margaret McElderry and she told me she was going to publish A String in the Harp.
A few years ago I began feeling an urge to consolidate. In 2001, I stopped teaching my writing course at Simmons College, tired of the weekly commute and eager to spend time on things other than class preparation. Much as I enjoyed each new crop of students, I was ready to turn the course over to someone with fresh ideas and enthusiasm.
I no longer have my studio at the Emerson Umbrella, either. I packed up my books and files and moved them home along with the IBM Selectric and my grandfather Lynch's desk. I've set up a study for myself in the basement where the view out my windows is of our pine trees. When I get fed up with whatever I'm working on—frustrated and stuck—I can get up from my computer (yes, my computer—after all those years and protestations!) and go clean the bathroom or take Tuck for a long, therapeutic walk. I'm back to solitary, meditative excursions again, though not nearly as often as in earlier days. I've discovered how much I like people.
My father will be ninety in August. He and Tucker and I share the house most companionably. I still work at the Barrow Bookstore. I've joined the town fitness center and the local garden club (Mother would be pleased at that, too). Even though I don't consider myself much of a gardener, I enjoy the company. This year I became editor of our monthly neighborhood newsletter: The Kalmia Woods Bulletin. It's not a very onerous job, but it connects me in yet another way to the community.
I remember in those first fearful days after I was diagnosed with melanoma, among the jumble of thoughts that kept going through my mind was this one: But I really want to know what I will be like as an old lady. I'm not there yet, and I still want to know. My view of the future, and my sense of myself in it, has changed a great deal over the past fifteen years—I wonder what's next?