In the early- to mid-1990s, I lived in Massachusetts, outside of Lawrence, along New Hampshire’s tiny coastal strip, and worked for a Girl Scout council on the North Shore, which included Lawrence, Lowell and Lynn, Salem, Marblehead and Gloucester. I also did an internship a bit to the west, around Worcester. What I remember the most is the history, and the coffeehouses–several of the musicians I saw at weekend coffeehouses went on to become pretty well-known in folk music circles. And the birding–I had several friends who got me interested in keeping a life list. I enjoyed Boston, but didn’t spend a lot of time there.
So I knew I wanted to include books for Massachusetts that were set in other parts of the state than just Boston or the stereotypical coast–Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard. Granted, Massachusetts is small, but there is a big difference, for instance, between living in the coastal or Berkshire resort towns and weekending there. So the books you’ll see below span the state.
I also wanted something a little different than the many standard historical picks set in Massachusetts for Young Readers (Johnny Tremain (which I didn’t much care for) or Little Women (which I love), for instance). I was tempted to pick Bread and Roses, Too (2006) or Lyddie (1991), both by Katherine Paterson, who wrote my favorite Young Readers book from my childhood–Bridge to Terabithia. Both of these choices are set in Lowell in the textile mills. I also read Mercer Girls by Libbie Hawker a while back, which is mainly set in historical Seattle but describes the adventures of some of the early settler women who were recruited by Mercer from Lowell–it gives some descriptions of mill life but not a lot. Instead, I’ve chosen Emmeline by Judith Rossner for my Lowell pick, and Green by Sam Graham-Felsen for my Young Adult selection.
One of the other things that immediately comes to mind when thinking about Massachusetts is the Salem witch trials. My family is actually descended from Rebecca Nurse’s family, so I’ve already read The Crucible by Arthur Miller and am a bit over-familiar with the witch trials. I’ve also read most of the Hawthorne novels. Ideally, I wanted something that was set in Salem at a point in history other than during the witch trials (1692), or a contemporary Salem setting that didn’t have a paranormal twist. I found a Young Reader’s historical book set in the 18th century: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham (1955), but had a harder time finding an adult pick that I was excited about. If you have any suggestions, let me know!
So… here are the books for Massachusetts.
Run by Ann Patchett (2007) – Goodreads link – a novel examining the intersections between poverty, wealth, and race set in Boston. The former mayor of Boston (white) is walking home from a public political lecture during a snowstorm with his two adopted adult sons (black), when one is pushed out of the path of an oncoming car by a black woman. Patchett covers Irish Catholicism, family connections–both blood and chosen, a New England snowstorm, race, class, loss and mourning, and so much more.
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (2011) – “In 1665, a young man from Martha’s Vineyard became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Upon this slender factual scaffold, Brooks has created a luminous tale of love and faith, magic and adventure” (from the Goodreads’ publisher’s blurb). I have read and enjoyed People of the Book also by Brooks, and am looking forward to this one.
Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman (2004) – Goodreads link – although I didn’t really want a retelling of the Salem witch trials or a contemporary paranormal Salem novel, I did want a good book with a touch of magical realism for one of my Massachusetts choices. In short, I wanted a book by Alice Hoffman. This one takes place on Cape Cod.
Emmeline by Judith Rossner (1980) – Tells the story of a young girl sent to work in the textile mills of Lowell by her family in Maine in 1839. (Goodreads link above.)
Time’s Betrayal by David Adams Cleveland (2017) – I haven’t read a good spy novel in quite a while! This one sounds fascinating, spanning one family’s history from the Civil War to the Cold War, and it’s set (at least partly) in western Massachusetts. Goodreads link.
OR (I will probably only review one of these two)
The Locals by Jonathan Dee (2017) – Set in the Berkshires, this one sounds like a great study in the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest of us–particularly as it relates to resort towns and the people who live there, both the weekenders and the full-time residents. Goodreads link.
Green by Sam Graham-Felsen (2018) – Young Adult choice – The main character here is a white kid in a predominately black school in Boston in 1992. So we get race relations from Boston, but also for the US as a whole because the LA riots are happening in the background. It’s a new book by a debut author, so not well-known at this point, but, as I said above, I wanted to include something a little more contemporary for my YA or Young Reader’s choice(s). Although the main character is 12, what I’ve seen so far indicates it may be more of a middle school or high school choice.
Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham (1955) – Young Readers – This is a Massachusetts historical novel for young readers, but I’m adding it to my list because it doesn’t cover the American Revolution or the Salem witch trials, despite being set in Salem. It’s a Newberry Medal winner, telling the story of Nathaniel Bowditch, “an eighteenth-century nautical wonder and mathematical wizard” (from the Goodreads’ publisher’s blurb).
Bread and Roses, Too by Katherine Paterson (2006) – Deals with the 1912 textile mill strikes in Lowell, however, the main character is sent to Vermont to live with family until the strikes are over, so this one may actually fit better in Vermont. It’s a much more recent book by Paterson than Bridge to Terebithia or even Lyddie, so I’m interested to see her growth as a writer as well. (Lyddie is also set in the Lowell mills, but in the 1840s.)
The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl (2003) – This one appeals to me as a literary translator as well as a book nerd who’s read many of the characters as well as Dante. It’s set in 1865 Boston and peopled with some of the time’s American literary giants, who are working on an American translation of the Divine Comedy. Add in a murder mystery and the race and immigration debates of the time, and I’m very much intrigued. Only the fact that I already have several Boston novels on a list of well over my goal of 5 books per state is holding me back.
The Wedding by Dorothy West (1995) – This was made into an Oprah Winfrey Presents mini-series on ABC starring Halle Berry. It’s set among the African American middle class on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1950s, “illustrating one family’s struggles to break the shackles of race and class” (from the Goodreads’ publisher’s blurb). It’s also one of the books chosen by the Other Blogger for her trip through Massachusetts. Since I’m trying not to cover the same books Andrea does, I won’t be reviewing it. (But I may read it on the sly anyway!)
We Love You, Charlie Freeman! by Kaitlyn Greenidge (2016) – I’m really tempted to read this one because of the connection to another book I read back in Indiana (I’m not linking because I didn’t do a full review as it turned out not to work for my challenge, and I’m avoiding writing the title as the connection is a surprise twist for that book!). This one features a family taking part in an experiment living with/raising a baby chimpanzee at an ape research institute in the Berkshires, with the added twist of the family being black and moving from a predominantly black working-class community to a mansion in an all-white resort area–and an undercurrent of race-based research added to the mix. Goodreads link.
The Bostonians by Henry James (1886) – A classic satire of the early feminist movement in America by a great American writer.
The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851) – Goodreads link – a good, old-fashioned Gothic tale set in Salem. I’ve visited the house it’s based on, but I’ve never actually read the book. If my first choice for a Salem setting doesn’t work out, I’ll switch to this classic, which discusses the theme of guilt and the sins of the father being visited on the sons, and is set in a haunted house based on a real house in Salem. Andrea (the Other Blogger) read The Scarlet Letter, which added to my reluctance to put a Hawthorne on my Massachusetts list, but unless I can find something more contemporary that doesn’t involve witchcraft, I’ll go with a classic New England read.