My next book, And So We Dream, takes place in the summer of 1970 in a small Midwestern town, much like the one where I was born and raised — Carlinville, Illinois. So on a recent trip back there, I paid close attention to the sounds, scents, colors, and feel of summertime. The train whistle, the low hum of lawnmowers, the warbling of robins. The scents of freshly-cut grass, strawberries from the local orchard, and flowering bushes that perfume the humid air. The colors of summer — shades of green and blue.
My visit was in June, one of my favorite times of year back there. Everything is green and lush, and flowers grow in abundance — masses of wild honeysuckle, cornflowers alongside country roads, shady green meadows dotted with wildflowers.
Though it is now fifty years later from the action in the story, much of the town and countryside remain the same. Long stretches of country roads —
including a few parts of historical Old Route 66, just outside of town.
Tree-lined streets with beautiful old homes,
and small-town charm woven throughout.
Other places show the passage of time: the old wooden bridges that can still be found out in the country,
an abandoned farm house,
peaceful old cemeteries with tombstones leaning this way and that.
There’s a sense of sky and openness that impresses with its beauty and grandeur. The sky dominates the landscape with every-changing drama
and stunning sunsets that are commonplace.
In my new book, a young boy remembers how they found pictures in the clouds, and I found myself doing the same: A lotus cloud! The profile of a lady? a Roman emperor? a marble bust? it shifts before I can decide.
A low line of clouds and trees that seemed to march on together in the same formation.
Storm clouds and rain over a farm in the distance, an illuminated puff over the grain elevator.
Though I left the Midwest many years ago, those formative years in small-town Illinois form the core of who I am. I am grateful to have been raised in such a specific place, so quintessentially American — though I imagine everyone feels something similar.
Wherever we end up, our hometown forms a part of us that no other place can fill.
(And So We Dream will be available later this summer.)
Forget-me-nots are one of summer’s many beautiful flowers. They grow in clusters in varying shades of blue and are almost fairy-like in their daintiness. They are small and unassuming — yet packed with significance.
In my novel The Garden House, the flower, and more particularly, its name, takes on a special meaning. They are related to Miranda and her memories of when her children were young, and are significant to the secondary plot involving the mysterious William Priestly.
In preparation for the new tenant, Miranda plants flowers outside the garden house and then comes inside to clean it.
Tired, she sat down on the floor, resting her elbows on her knees. Then with a sigh of fatigue she stretched out, the hardwood floor feeling good against her back.
She let her eyes wander over some of the details of her beloved garden house – the Dutch blue of the dresser and window trim, the pillows and curtains she and Clara had made. They had spent so many hours over the years down here – painting, sewing, transforming the run-down garden house into a charming, livable cottage. Clara had loved the profusion of forget-me-nots that surrounded the garden house, and decided to christen the cottage the Forget-Me-Not House. It had seen many tea parties and birthday celebrations, and Clara’s favorite, the fairy parties.
Later, Miranda shows the garden house to William who decides that he will rent it for the summer.
It’s all very comfortable. It feels – ” he looked around for the words to describe it. “It feels like – a real home.”
Miranda laughed. “It is a real home – an extension of the house.” She gazed lovingly at the garden house, the window boxes and potted flowers. “A lot of happy memories here.”
William stepped off the porch and looked at the garden house from a few paces back, clearly admiring it. He noticed the small hand-painted sign nailed above the door, and read, “The Forget-Me-Not House.”
“My daughter named it that when she was little. But somehow we always refer to it as the Garden House.”
Spring seems to be the perfect season to read a Jane Austen novel, or one of the many books inspired by her work. Perhaps it’s because her stories end on a hopeful, spring-like note.
Perhaps it’s because milder weather allows the heroines to be out and about more, as with Elizabeth Bennet’s strolls through the spring countryside in Pride and Prejudice,
or Fanny Price in Mansfield Park enjoying a spring day in Portsmouth with its “mild air, brisk soft wind, and bright sun, occasionally clouded for a minute: and everything looked so beautiful under the influence of such a sky,”
or Persuasion’s Anne Elliot “hoping that she was to blessed with a second spring of youth and beauty.”
The fresh beauty of blossom-time and the promise of milder weather are just the right time to reread your favorite Austen book or to discover a new one.
About this time of year I start to think of gardening. I look out at my snow-covered window boxes and imagine them filled with geraniums, petunias, and thousand-bells.
I see my brick steps covered by the latest snowfall and remember the year I filled terra cotta pots with flowers in purple, rose, and blue, one pot for each step, and how happy they made me every time I left or returned home. I look at my little patch of New York City garden, and wonder which annuals I will plant this year, how many I can squeeze in next to the perennials.
My novel The Garden House is set in Seattle, which has a nearly year-long growing season. In such a place, gardeners — such as the book’s main character, Miranda — would already be planting potted flowers and enjoying early blooms.
Potting sheds and garden rooms would be hubs of activity, crowded with tools and pots and packets of seeds, alongside open bags of potting soil and well-used gardening gloves.
However, for those of us still in the heart of snowy winter, a little armchair gardening is just thing to weather the cold.
I used to have a tradition of reading a Dickens book every December, as part of my holiday celebration. I love the humor, empathy, and the depictions of Victorian England that Dickens wove into his stories. Though he wrote about harsh realities and the struggles of life, the overall tone is hopeful and uplifting, where love, loyalty, kindness and generosity emerge as the highest values.
Threads of Dickens runs throughout the Christmastime series. In the first book I wrote of the series, Christmastime 1940, the connection was unintentional and I didn’t see the similarities until later. The book first began as a short story (“Old Man Drooms”) that takes place in the snowy winter. However, once the tale developed into a longer story, and I moved the action to the Christmas season, the connections became quite obvious. I realized that all those years of reading and rereading Dickens had worked its way into my narrative.
For the prequel, Christmastime 1939, I made the reading of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol a part of the story. It was actually my way into the story, though it is the character of Lillian who dreads the Christmas season and can’t wait for it to be over.
In the first chapter, Lillian and her boys, Tommy and Gabriel, have returned from her sister’s house upstate where they usually celebrate Christmas. Lillian is completely unprepared for the holiday season and the boys are argumentative as they worry about how they will spend Christmas on their own.
“A tug-of-war began that Lillian feared would result in a broken kaleidoscope. She got up and took the kaleidoscope away and set it on the bookshelf.
“Why are you two so fussy tonight?”
She spotted the book that Annette had tucked into the lunch basket, just as they were leaving for the train. She had forgotten all about it, and lifted it with a sense of being rescued.
“Look here!” she said, showing them the cover. “Annette said this will put us in the Christmas spirit. Come,” she said, returning to the couch. “Let’s begin it. It will be the start of our holiday celebration. We’ll read a little bit each night. How about that?”
Gabriel was all for it and jumped onto the couch next to her. Tommy sat down on her other side and read the title. “About singing?”
“No. It’s a story about a grouchy old man who hates Christmas. I read it many years ago.” Lillian turned to the first page.
Tommy leaned over and read, “Stave One: Marley’s Ghost.” His eyes brightened and he sat up in anticipation.
Gabriel, never one for ghost stories, snuggled closer. Lillian began to read. “Marley was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that.”
I also used a touch of Dickens in Christmastime 1942. Mr. Mason indulges in the comforts of home and enjoys his holiday tradition of reading Dickens. Since one of the main themes of the book is the theater, the stage, and acting, I have Mr. Mason reading Nicholas Nickleby.
“Mason was indulging in his Christmas tradition of reading Charles Dickens. Every December he decided on a book by his favorite author. Last year he had chosen Bleak House – this year he was rereading Nicholas Nickleby. He was just settling into his book when his domestic bliss was abruptly interrupted by the whirlwind of his mother and his youngest sister, Alice, as they burst into the room.” (71)
And later in the novel,
“Mason arrived home and felt cheered by all the bustle and laughter that filled his house. This was the way he liked it, everyone busy with some Christmas activity. He would prepare himself a cup of coffee, sit in his armchair and pick up Nicholas Nickleby – read smack in the middle of it all. He chuckled inwardly, remembering where he had left off in the book, with the Infant Phenomenon.” (141)
This December, I can think of no better way to celebrate the holiday season than to curl up with a good book, and Dickens is just the thing to reaffirm our belief in the goodness of the human heart.