New England Reads
All at once Kit was aware that this New England, which had shown her the miracle of autumn and the white wonder of snow, had a new secret in store. This time it was a subtle promise, a tantalizing hint of beauty still withheld, a beckoning to her spirit to follow she knew not where.
She had forgotten that summer would come again, that the green would spread over the frozen fields, that the earth would be turned up to the sun and the seed sown, and that the meadows would renew themselves. Was this what strengthened these New Englanders to endure the winter, the knowledge that summer's return would be all the richer for the waiting?
Elizabeth George Speare
The Witch of Blackbird Pond
As someone for whom New England holds a special place in their heart, the above quote by Kit, the fiercely independent protagonist of Elizabeth George Speare’s book The Witch of Blackbird Pond, holds a great deal of meaning. We see Kit thrust from her home on the tropical island of Barbados and into the chaotic seasonal shifts of Connecticut, with the bitter winter matching the somber attitudes of her new Puritan family.
The realities of colonial witchcraft hysteria are what makes Speare’s story so compelling. Alice Hoffman, however, brings overt and authentic magic into a New England setting in many of her stories. Painting a broad brush with Blackbird House, Hoffman weaves several vignettes taking place across hundreds of years, but centered around one house and its occupants. While the fantasy elements are subtle in this case, they come to the forefront in Practical Magic, which features two witch-sisters navigating a slew of very human issues. The success of this book brought about a Hollywood film in 1998 and, finally, a prequel: The Rules of Magic, focusing on the more magically inclined and fabulously ostentatious aunties.
Small towns and other isolated settings characteristic of New England set the perfect stage for some mid-century horror. Enter Shirley Jackson. With haunting psychological themes and eerie atmospheres in which her stories are set, Jackson pulls the veil back from the idyllic coziness that would define her worlds if not for the fact that there is just something not quite right about reality. So grab a cup of tea (but pass on the sugar) and pick up We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or if a classic haunted house is more to your taste (I know Halloween just passed, but bear with me), check out The Haunting of Hill House.
Contemporary New England can boast of a strong tradition of liberal arts education, from the mighty Ivies to the small campuses, and everything in-between. There's nothing quite like being surrounded by picturesque scenery, but missing it all due to pulling yet another all-nighter in a claustrophobic dorm room. How characters in fiction have so much time on their hands, I'll never know. Donna Tartt’s sextet of classics students are focused enough to become adepts of their field. Yet, the nefarious series of events that manifest in The Secret History arise from what I can only describe as the combination undergraduate pretentiousness, delusions of grandeur, and good ol’ fashioned boredom. Also, don’t miss Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch.
The above examples provide larger-than-life stories set in New England: magic; haunted houses; murder mysteries. However, I love the real New England for its earthly qualities. From lakes to rolling mountains and salty shores, the six states that make up New England share a character and community that are a sort of magic in their own way. Author Elizabeth Strout captures this magic in her slice-of-life short stories centered around New Englander Olive Kitteridge. We see the life of a small town affecting—and being affected by—Olive and her sharp but flawed personality.
Myriad works of fiction take place in New England, and these and many others reside within our collection. While this piece represents a thin slice of the overall picture of the region, I hope that this helps bring a bit of New England fascination, along with scents of apples, maple, and nutmeg, into your libraries.