A Gathering Light was inspired by many things – by Grace Brown’s heart-rending letters * , particularly the last one where she talks about never seeing her home and her mother again. By my own love of words, and my childhood frustration at rarely finding myself or my world in any of the novels I was told to read. It was inspired by the stark, almost frightening beauty of the Adirondack mountains . And mainly, it was inspired by my family.
Like Mattie’s family, mine is from a little town in upstate New York . It’s called Port Leyden and it lies at the western edge of the Adirondacks . Most of my relatives on my father’s side live there, and because they are all of Irish extraction, I grew up hearing stories.
Harrowing stories about a man dying in a blizzard ten feet from his home, and a great aunt slowly going mad on the family’s remote farmstead. Funny stories about prize piglets coddled like infants in the best blankets. Wild stories about the KKK getting run out of town, bootleggers hotfooting it downstate from Canada, and a fishing trip into the mountains made in a water plane with a canoe strapped to the pontoons – a canoe which my uncle Jack swears he sat in during takeoff, landing, and the whole way in between.
As a child I couldn’t wait for the meal to be over at family gatherings and the storytelling to begin. There, with three generations at the table, I learned firsthand what immense power words have. Strung into stories, words could work magic. They could make my proper grandmother and her stern sister young again as they dissolved into laughter over the one about the awkward suitor and the toppled outhouse. They could make my tough state trooper father turn beet red as my uncle finally got him to admit that he was the one who pried the cannonballs off the war memorial and rolled them down the hill in the summer of ’53.
Narrative drive in action
There was plenty of laughter on those evenings. Some sorrow, too. Years and years before I would know or care what things like narrative drive and pacing were, I saw them in action. Saw how masters used them to hold their listeners, to make them blush and smirk, wince and laugh and gasp. I learned to listen to the pauses and the hitches and the empty places between the words, hearing in those silences what it meant to be hungry, to birth children miles away from any doctor, to be hired out to strangers at the age of twelve.
Watching a gray head bowed with the weight of remembering, I saw that words could do more than tell a story, they could tell a life.
Small names as well
In school, I learned that what I’d been hearing were only stories, and that stories were not literature. And so I got busy reading what I was told I should. I journeyed to the past in The Scarlet Letter and The Grapes of Wrath. To the then future in 1984 and A Clockwork Orange. I met fascinating people like Jay Gatz and Holden Caulfield and Heathcliff. I read and I wrote, dutifully completing book reports and essay questions, and sometimes I even fell in love with characters here and there – Scout, Hester Prynne, Tom Joad. But in my heart of hearts, I secretly wondered, like Mattie does, ‘Why is it always other places and other lives that mattered?’ It made me simmer as a grade school kid, being handed Faulkner, Hawthorne, and Crane. Who were these guys? What were their credentials and why did I have to read them? Did they ever fly over Big Moose Lake in a canoe? No? Well, there you are.
There is a difference between stories and literature, and I’m nowhere near qualified enough – or foolish enough – to try and define it. I’ll say this much, though – the great names matter, and they matter for so many reasons – but so do the small names. The ones that never made it onto any bestseller list, the storytellers whose stories never got reviewed in any literary journal. The names of the mothers and fathers who walked the floor with us when we were tiny and out of sorts, whispering tales in the small hours, showing us even then that whatever hurt, a story could help make it better. The names of the grandmothers and grandfathers who shared the stories of their coming up, making us understand that the only way to repay the debt to those who came before is to tell our own stories to those who will come after.
And so my biggest thank you is for my family, who, by handing down their stories, showed me that it’s all of our stories – the ones told to us, the ones that live inside of us – that matter.
This article is a shortened version of Jennifer Donnelly’s Carnegie Medal acceptance speech reproduced here by kind permission of Bloomsbury . A Gathering Light (0 7475 7063 9) is published by Bloomsbury at £6.99 pbk.
*Grace Brown’s Letters
On July 12, 1906 , the body of a young woman named Grace Brown was pulled from the waters of Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack Mountains . Grace Brown’s death appeared to be an accident and neither the men who dragged the lake nor the staff at the hotel where the couple had registered could have foreseen that they would soon be embroiled in one of the most sensational murder trials in New York ‘s history. Grace Brown, they would soon discover, was unwed and pregnant and the man who had taken her boating was the father of her child. His name was Chester Gillette. Chester originally stated that Grace’s death was an accident, then later claimed she’d committed suicide. George W Ward, the District Attorney who prosecuted the case, reconstructed Chester ‘s activities before and after Grace’s death and argued that Chester had killed Grace. Instrumental to Ward’s case were Grace’s own letters. In A Gathering Light, I’ve taken the liberty of having Grace give a fictional character – Mattie – all of the correspondence between herself and Chester.