When my grandmother was five years old she was separated from her parents and siblings and taken to her grandparents to be raised. Hearing the story as a child, I failed to understand how deeply hurt she was by this rupture in her family life; to me it seemed another arcane practice from a bygone era, akin to the fairy tale struggles of Hansel and Gretel or Cinderella. Over the years, though, Grammy continued to tell the story of being “given away” and I began to see the event for what it was: a seminal childhood experience that had shaped and influenced the woman she became.
Many years later, I inherited a basket of letters written by my grandparents during their courtship. In transcribing these letters I discovered a rich trove of historical detail and glimpsed the people my grandparents had been in their late teens and early twenties.
While reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, I had a dream in which my grandmother and Francie, the book’s main character, talked about their lives. Approximately the same age, both girls had ambitions to escape the narrow worlds that defined them and both had to leave school after eighth grade to contribute to the economies of their respective households.
It occurred to me that my grandmother’s story was the rural equivalent of Francie’s; one that illustrated the cultural and familial mores of a particular group of people in a particular place early in the last century. Betty Smith had her recollections and experiences. I had my grandmother’s childhood memories and her courtship letters. And the inspiration to tell her story.
A Writer's Digest
Notable book for 2013.
Even after twelve years, Gemma Enman can still remember her amazement and pride at being singled out from among her siblings by her father to travel with him by train from Prince Edward Island all the way to Brookfield, New Hampshire. But seven year old Gemma had no way of knowing how long and tedious a trip it would be or that her father planned to return to their island home without her.
Now a young woman, Gemma has met and fallen in love with Lionel Maines, a man of honor, integrity, and prospects. As Gemma and Lionel plan for their future together, Gemma continues to be haunted by her past.
She knows that before she can fulfill her pledge to Lionel, she must keep a promise to herself.