The New England Connection: Authors We Love – by Charlotte Canelli

Read Charlotte Canelli’s column this week in the January 23, 2014 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

It goes without saying that we live in a region of the country abundant in literary tradition.  For several centuries, much of the literature of our country had its roots in Massachusetts and the five other states in New England. No college American literature course is complete without a discussion of John Winthrop, William Bradford, Increase Mather and Roger Williams. And while many of us may have struggled to keep awake reading “The History of the Plymouth Plantation”, we only had a century or two to get through before we could indulge ourselves with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” and “House of Seven Gables”.

And yes, it’s a very short drive from Norwood to Salem, Massachusetts where Nathaniel Hawthorne’s very real house still stands. And that is where the past comes alive for us. Other authors’ homes in New England are popular places for vacation and summer driving trips.  The poet, Robert Frost, lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Shaftsbury, Vermont, and Derry, New Hampshire – his homes and farms are shrines for American and world travelers who love his poetry.

Even authors who rarely stepped foot in New England have left a legacy here. Willa Cather who wrote about Nebraska pioneers (but spent her last years living in New York City) asked to be buried in the shadow of Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.  Sleepy Hollow cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts is the final resting place for a many literary stars. Any trip to New England to honor the lives of American literature would take months to accomplish.

Three contemporary New England authors are household names and yet many Americans may not associate them with New England.  Of course, those of us who live here know that we can call them our own and are proud to do so. (Please note that I’ll make sure to focus on contemporary woman authors of New England in another column.)

Gregory Maguire, author of “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West”, “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” and “Mirror, Mirror”.  His book “Wicked” has been a sensational success, having been produced as one of the favorite recent musicals on Broadway.  Maguire has also written dozens of children’s books since 1978, and that, essentially, was how he got his start as an author.  As a children’s librarian, I suggested his Hamlet Chronicles to children who devoured them.

Although he wrote “Wicked” in 1995, it wasn’t until it was adapted as a musical in 2003 that it became famous world-wide. Maguire has sold the rights for the book to be adapted as a movie musical and it is rumored to be released as early as 2014.

While Gregory Maguire was born and educated in Albany, New York, he moved to Massachusetts where he spent time as a professor in the Children’s Literature department of Simmons College in Boston and he founded Children’s Literature New England.  It was while he lived in Concord, Massachusetts that he married his partner, Andy Newman, and adopted three children. He and Newman were married shortly after same-sex marriage was legalized in May of 2004, and he spoke at length about this commitment when I attended a Children’s Literature New England summer symposium held at Williams College in the summer of 2004.

While most New Englanders recognize the Maine connection in Stephen King’s large repertoire, many others across the country and world probably think less about it.  However, those of us living near the hardy New England coast know the legacy that King has AND and will continue to leave for us.

King was born in Portland and educated at the University of Maine.  Despite his celebrity status and Hollywood connections, he really has called Maine home ever since (although the couple now winters as snowbirds in Florida).  He and his wife recently pledged $3M to replace the copper roof (originally installed in 1912) on the Bangor Library. (The renovations will actually cost $9M and the rest of the money must be raised in order for the Kings to follow through with their donation.  The Kings have been generous with other worthy causes such as The Coalition for a Safer Maine).

Stephen King has written over 50 novels, many of them adapted to film.  He also wrote seven novels under the pen name Richard Bachman.  (“Thinner” and “Running Man” are the best known.)  He married his fellow U Maine student  (Tabitha) in 1971, and they’ve been married since. King has continued his prolific writing (which includes 200 short stories) and published “Dr. Sleep” in 2013 which continues the story of Danny Torrance who we met in the “The Shining”.

The settings for Dennis Lehane’s books are quintessentially New England and all of us “locals” recognize scenes from the books in the film versions.  Lehane was born in nearby Dorchester and he, like Stephen King (and despite his celebrity status in Hollywood), still lives in the Boston area.  He was a student at Boston College High School but moved to Florida during his undergraduate and graduate studies in writing.

After his first books were published, and like many local authors, Lehane appeared at libraries across New England (many times his nominal fee was donated to a non-profit organization).  Of course, times have changed but Lehane still speaks at many large library association events, and I’ve found him very personable, funny and down-to-earth at author talks.  He is a strong proponent of public and school libraries and often credits the libraries in his life with having created the author that we all love.  “I would not be an author if it were not for libraries” and “librarians are a natural resource” are two of his best-loved statements for those of us who work in them.

I can’t imagine living anywhere else in the country where literature has such a strong tradition and history.  Maguire, King and Lehane are just a few of its many treasures.

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