Reflections on My Stepping Stones Lighthouse

Reflections on My Stepping Stones Lighthouse

 

I have always felt that City Island in the Bronx, within greater New York City, where I lived in my twenties and early thirties, possesses a certain magic. There’s a feeling, when listening to the symphony of halyards chiming against the masts of sailboats or the eerie sound of wind blowing through the rigging, that it’s possible to slip back in time one hundred years or more. And if you sail from the island in the dark of night toward a redbrick Victorian lighthouse, its green light flashing through the cold mist, you may see the eternal visage of a ghostly man peering through the glass windows of his tower. He watches over you to prevent your vessel from crashing on the jagged, partially submerged shoal of the “Stepping Stones.” Magic, indeed.

Not one but two working lighthouses flank the mile-and-a-half-long City Island. Stepping Stones, my favorite because of its picturesque architecture, was first illuminated on the evening of March 1, 1877, with an oil-fired mantle within a Fresnel lens. Every morning when I waited for the express bus that took me to my book publishing job in Manhattan, I gazed out over the water, a mile away, at Stepping Stones lighthouse. The sight of the lonely place never ceased to fascinate me. Like many people who enjoy lighthouses, I am drawn to the romantic notion of living in a house surrounded by water. From the vantage point where I often stood, near the terminus of City Island Avenue, Stepping Stones appears in Long Island Sound as a small, square building atop a round platform. The building has a handsome rectangular tower and mansard roof.

Delacorte Press cover by Kam Mak

Sometimes when City Island friends took me out on their sailboats or motorboats, we circled around the lighthouse. Then I could make out certain details such as the square balcony near the top of the tower, the bright green automated lantern, the tall windows (bricked-in to prevent vandalism), and the mount on which a large bell had once hung. Whenever I crossed the Throgs Neck Bridge to go to Long Island to visit my parents, I’d enjoy yet another view of the lighthouse, one from above. From that high, arching suspension bridge, the lighthouse resembles a tiny, antique doll house, surrounded by deep blue water on all sides.

Like many City Islanders, I came to regard Stepping Stones as “our” lighthouse (never mind that all maps and charts indicate that it belongs to Great Neck, Long Island). Eventually I wrote a novel set there. Called Keeping the Good Light and intended for a young adult readership, the novel takes place in 1903, during the heyday of City Island yacht building and sail making. My friend the late Skippy Lane, a retired captain of oil tankers, helped me research the book and provided many interesting anecdotes. The shipwreck incident in the book came directly from an experience Skippy had as a boy on City Island. Another plot choice, the idea of putting messages in bottles and casting them out to sea, came from Skippy’s pastime of releasing such messages. Sometimes he’d sign his friends’ names with their addresses as a joke.

Delacorte Press published Keeping the Good Light in the fall of 1995. The cover by Kam Mak shows my main character, sixteen-year-old Eliza, in a long vintage dress, seated in a rowboat (Skippy’s) with an accurate representation of Stepping Stones lighthouse in the background. Skippy quickly pointed out when he saw the cover image that anyone just sitting in a craft like that, hands crossed on her lap, not holding the oars, would quickly be blown back out to sea. Mary Cash, the book’s editor, replied, “She’s so pretty it doesn’t matter what she’s doing.”

Captain Fred (Skippy) Lane

 

Katherine Kirkpatrick poses in Skippy Lane's rowboat

Katherine Kirkpatrick poses in Skippy Lane’s rowboat

Sara (Sally) McPherson at The City Island Current, the island’s local newspaper, reproduced the book cover in its exact size—5-1/2 by 8-1/4 inches—on the front page in 1995. As a result of this phenomenal publicity, my book signing party at the City Island Nautical Museum, a former school building, was extremely well attended.

Writing Keeping the Good Light brought me, at least on City Island, the greatest celebrity I will probably ever enjoy. “She’s the one who wrote the book,” I’d hear people say. Occasionally, if I visit the island, someone will make the same remark even now. Always it is “the book,” although I’ve now published eight. For the Clam Diggers (those who grew up on the island) it obviously remains a matter of great importance that “the book” features “our lighthouse.” The late Bronx historian John McNamara told me he’d been reading the novel at JP’s Restaurant on the island and a passerby offered to buy his copy on the spot.

Those were fun times, times of sharing and community. For my thirtieth birthday party, my sister made a cake with a model of a lighthouse on top. The house where I rented a room, 150 Marine Street, a former telegraph station that contained a glass-paneled rectangular chamber reached by an upright ladder and trapdoor, filled to overflowing with visitors of all ages and backgrounds come to celebrate my birthday. Old, heavy-set Skippy, known to be a little rough around the edges, entertained my friends from Manhattan with his lively storytelling, replete with occasional swearwords.

Katherine Kirkpatrick signs copies of Keeping the Good Light

Katherine Kirkpatrick signs copies of Keeping the Good Light

Skippy regarded the publication of Keeping the Good Light as a highlight of his later years. He called it “our book” and proudly gave an autographed copy to his friend and next-door neighbor on Horton Street, Oliver Sacks. To my surprise and delight, I received an autographed copy of one of his own books in return. On the title page of a British paperback edition of Awakenings, its pages now a bit yellowed, is inscribed:

            For Katherine

            (I loved your book!)

            With best wishes,

            Oliver Sacks

            City Island

            Xmas 1996

 

autograph by Oliver Sacks

autograph by Oliver Sacks

 

Now, a quarter of a century after I first became acquainted with Stepping Stones lighthouse, I love the lighthouse just as passionately as I ever did. Perhaps even more, because my feelings about the place combine with a sense of remembrance and of longing for City Islanders I knew who are now dead. Others island friends have, like me, scattered around the country. We won’t ever live together on that mile-and-a-half-long island again. I also find myself reacting to further commercial development that has taken place and missing the way the island used to look. But whenever I visit the island or drive across the Throgs Neck Bridge, there is Stepping Stones lighthouse, rising as ever on a shoal in Long Island Sound. The lighthouse serves as a visual, tangible reminder to me of a time in my life that remains very dear to me. Not only that, but I have a special place in my heart for historically significant places.

Very recently, my personal chronicle involving Stepping Stones lighthouse has gained a new chapter. I have recently made a new friend through e-mail, Alice Kasten of the Great Neck Historical Society, who keeps me informed about her organization’s exciting new plans to restore Stepping Stones lighthouse. The town of North Hempstead, the Great Neck Park District, and the Great Neck Historical Society have joined in a public/private partnership, with assistance from the City Island Maritime Museum, to raise $4 million for the renovation. Already they’ve had some success with garnering grants from New York State and the National Park Service. I can hardly believe that this gargantuan, expensive venture is actually happening in this day and age of dwindling funds for worthy projects and causes.

Ravaged by salty seas and severe weather, in recent years Stepping Stones developed a hole in its roof and another hole in its foundation. The U.S. Coast Guard might well have demolished it and replaced it with a navigational beacon mounted on steel poles if not for the Great Neck Historical Society’s commitment to saving the building. Engineers who completed an underwater survey have now identified places where pilings for a dock will be put down. Once a dock exists and more funds become available, building materials can be delivered and the renovation can begin.

This past summer, the society has organized a number of tours for people to see the lighthouse from the outside. I can’t wait to go on one of the tours next summer. I’ve also decided it’s an apt time to put Keeping the Good Light back into print. A new Kindle version is available on Amazon.com, and a print-on-demand paperback edition will soon be in the works. I do not have the rights to use the Delacorte cover for new editions, so I commissioned a new one. (Note that the girl in the vessel is now actually rowing.) Victoria Yeh, the talented new cover artist, created the cover when she was only seventeen.

Half of the net proceeds from the new editions of Keeping the Good Light will go to the Great Neck Historical Society for the lighthouse renovation. I’m honored and grateful to help preserve this good lighthouse.

New Kindle cover by Victoria Yeh

New Kindle cover by Victoria Yeh

Keeping the Good Light

Keeping the Good Light

Keeping

Victoria Yeh's cover art for Keeping the Good Light, available on Kindle in 2014

Keeping the Good Light

Delacorte Press

Ages 12 and up

Recommended by the New York Public Library, “Books for the Teen Age”
Winner, New York State Marine Education Association’s Herman Melville Book Award

Soon to be released on Kindle

“Gr. 5-9. Whether she’s spearing eels with her brothers or exploring the shoreline with renegade Ralph, Eliza Charity Brown is not easily contained by the tedium of life at Stepping Stones Lighthouse off the coast of Long Island. In the tumultuous year beginning in September, 1903, she experiences great loss, liberation from her routine, and heart-wrenching romance with a feckless dreamer. She also encounters the strict social expectations of a traditional community, where young women do not go abroad at night or think independently. Eliza does both, and consequently is expelled from her beloved school. When she sees a loveless marriage as her only viable option, she is rescued, at the last moment, by a job offer that takes her away from the closed society of City Island. The plot is engaging and enriched with substantial historical detail, bringing time and place vividly to light. Eliza’s personality is vibrant and irresistible; secondary characters are varied and multidimensional. Formal diction is appropriate for the narrative and, in contrast, the dialogue is more natural. Overall this is an outstanding book with a truly contemporary heroine in a historical setting. Readers of L. M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” series will find in Eliza a kindred spirit.”—Carolyn Noah, School Library Journal.

As Good as It Gets

The price of one of my young adult novels, throw in a few bucks for tax, is about what you’d pay for a bottle of wine to take to your host for dinner. People used to stop by the autographing party at the local museum’s bookshop to purchase Katherine Kirkpatrick’s latest young adult historical tearjerker, and then continue up the road a half mile, past the duck pond, through lush woods, to Audrey and Dale Kirkpatrick’s home and a gourmet meal. Anyone from the Three Villages (Stony Brook, Setauket, Old Field) of Long Island, New York, might be there: the tennis players, the bridge players, the bank teller, my mother’s hairdresser, the neighbors, some of the teachers my siblings and I had had at school, and people my parents knew through the Presbyterian church, puppetry, charities, real estate, Dad’s travel agency, or his heart surgeries.

Whether anyone read my books or not didn’t matter, not really, because I had the great satisfaction of selling a hundred hardcovers in an hour. Even better, the sense of celebration that filled the air was as palpable as the aroma of sautéed onions and mushrooms. The Kirkpatricks knew how to throw a party. Chicken cacciatore, anyone? Genoese seafood risotto? Champagne cocktail? In the octagonal living room decorated with carved screens from India, in pivoting chairs with colorful satin pillows, around a central coffee table and low-hanging lamp, the drinks and the conversations flowed.

Audrey and Dale Kirkpatrick.

Audrey and Dale Kirkpatrick.

Autographing copies of my first novel, Keeping the Good Light.

Signing copies of my first novel, Keeping the Good Light.

This was how my parents celebrated the publication of my first three books in the mid-to-late 1990s, when I was in my early and mid thirties, before I married, moved coasts, and gave birth to twins. Four other books for older children and young adults, both fiction and nonfiction, followed. But three thousand miles away from family, friends, and my New York writers community, I found it difficult to attract more than a handful of people to my book events. For a while I stopped doing signings altogether. I stopped celebrating. It was as if my last two titles dropped into holes the minute they were published.

There is nothing more depressing for an author than to sit at a table with a forced smile in front of a pyramid of books, facing a room full of vacant chairs. The feelings of loneliness and isolation of such situations can be intense.

I’m happy to say I’ve found a middle path, a joyous way of celebrating new books that comes in second to my mother’s former parties. Our Western Washington chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) hosts a fabulous twice-yearly event called “The Inside Story.” In this event, fifteen or so local book creators share “the story behind the story” in short presentations of their new and upcoming books to independent booksellers, fellow authors and illustrators, and their families. Many school and public librarians also attend.

Our November 3, 2013, The Inside Story at Seattle’s Mockingbird Books drew several hundred people. In her introduction, Laura McGee Kvasnosky spoke of how The Inside Story has greatly expanded in scope and in popularity since she and fellow children’s book creator George Shannon launched the program on October 4, 1998. “I feel like the proud mother and George the proud father,” she said, “and I’ve enjoyed watching the event grow up.” I happened to be sitting near Laura in the crowd and, indeed, like a proud mother, she was smiling and smiling during the trivia prize awards and presentations.

The Inside Story #31 at Mockingbird Books.

The Inside Story #31 at Mockingbird Books.

I am so grateful to Laura and George for creating this wonderful community forum where we can give ourselves a boost. Book releases can be as stressful as they can be joyful, because of the expectations we set for ourselves and our publishing companies have for us. Knowing that I can bring my new young adult novel to the Inside Story when it comes out this spring transforms a responsibility into an honor, a burden into a celebration, a dread into a feeling of optimism.

Also, by the way, there are small mountains of fruits and cookies served at our Inside Story events. Next time, at Mockingbird Books on May 6, I’ll also contribute goodies home-cooked according to recipes left to me by my greatest literary supporter of all time, Audrey Kirkpatrick. She who cut sun-dried tomatoes into strips for me, who shredded prosciutto and grated Parmesan cheese for me, who invited everyone she knew to her home for me, would have enjoyed our Inside Story festivities and approved.

Audrey Kirkpatrick celebrates.

Audrey Kirkpatrick celebrates.