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

A Circle of Friends: Remembering Madeleine L’Engle

A Circle of Friends: Remembering Madeleine L’Engle

circle-of-friends_1

A Circle of Friends: Remembering Madeleine L’Engle
Edited by Katherine Kirkpatrick

Lulu.com

Adult readership

Available at Lulu.com as first edition (deluxe color) and second edition (black-and-white photos).

“We don’t always know where the story is going. We don’t need to.”—Madeleine L’Engle

Millions of readers know Madeleine L’Engle (1918–2007) as the author of internationally acclaimed books that ignited our imagination and affirmed our place in the universe, from A Wrinkle in Time to her memoirs, The Crosswicks Journal series. Some people were also privileged to have known Madeleine as a writing mentor, friend, or both. To these lucky people, Madeleine poured out her many gifts: her philosophies for living and writing, her generosity of spirit, her deeply held spiritual beliefs.

A Circle of Friends brings together the remembrances of nearly three dozen of Madeleine’s closest friends and students, including many distinguished writers and artists. Here are distillations of her writing advice, personal stories from those who knew her over a forty-year period, essays, poems, and more. As the writers of these essays and poems explain how Madeleine transformed their lives, each one also offers insights on universal themes of love, marriage, friendship, and faith.

Madeleine once observed that stories unfold in their own time. A Circle of Friends was created in this spirit of “unfolding” as a testament to the life of a remarkable writer, teacher, and friend.

Interview with Katherine Kirkpatrick by Susan Hill Long

Susan: What made you realize you wanted to be a writer? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Katherine: In the sixth grade, I wrote a story about vampire bats attacking a scientist. That year I won my first English prize, the first of many, and writing became “my thing.” I followed a family pattern. My mother did quite a lot of writing, and my brother Sidney (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidney_D._Kirkpatrick), sister, cousin, and grandfather chose careers in writing and/or publishing.

My advice to aspiring writers is to take all assignments, paid and unpaid. Contribute to your school’s alumni magazine and local newspaper. Think about what organizations you belong to. Blog. Write a heartfelt reminiscence when your favorite teacher retires. Volunteer your talents, make people laugh, feel appreciated, hone your skills. I’m so proud of the biography of my father I self-published, The Dale Kirkpatrick Story (http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/allegra1943).

Susan: Why did you choose to write historical fiction for young adults?

Katherine: My mother loved history and partly for that reason my parents chose to settle in a community rich in colonial and maritime lore, the Three Villages (Stony Brook, Setauket, Old Field), Long Island, New York. My family liked to tour historic houses and visit old cemeteries and our local carriage museum http://longislandmuseum.org/, which has a jauntily painted American gypsy wagon, circa 1870, that always captured my imagination. Once I took a children’s writing class held in the museum’s 18th-century one-room schoolhouse.

When I started to write novels, I found myself drawn to the coming-of-age themes of independence, discovery, maturity, and relationships in young adult fiction.

Susan: Where did you get the idea that sparked Between Two Worlds?

Katherine: In the Hall of Meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I noticed a photo of four-year-old Marie Peary, the daughter of Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary, onboard a ship with a gigantic meteorite. After researching Marie’s life, I started a novel. I showed it to editor Mary Cash at Holiday House, along with stunning photographs of Marie in Arctic Greenland. With the photos in mind, Mary encouraged me to write a nonfiction book, The Snow Baby, http://www.katherinekirkpatrick.com/book_01.html, published in 2007.

Years later I returned to the novel. It took on new life when I decided to switch perspectives, telling the story from Billy Bah’s, an Inuk girl’s, point of view.

Katherine Kirkpatrick with Jessica Baloun, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, WA

Susan: I really enjoyed reading The Snow Baby! Can you tell us a little bit about your work writing both fiction and nonfiction, and how one approach may inform the other?

Katherine: I’d published four novels before I wrote The Snow Baby, so I brought to that photo essay/biography the novelist’s ability to think in terms of drama and scenes. After eight years of publishing nonfiction books, I returned to fiction with Between Two Worlds. Because I’d already researched Arctic Greenland, I focused on plot and character development without thinking so much about getting the history right. It’s been my tendency, like globbing on too much icing on a cake, to pile on historical details. This time around I started with the cake itself and with better results; Between Two Worlds has received excellent reviews.

It’s not a good idea, career-wise, to do the kind of zigzagging between genres that I’ve done. To establish a readership, it’s best to do the same kind of book over and over, preferably with the same publisher. But there’s value, too, in publishing individual titles. A friend of mine puts it this way: “Go to the party where you’re invited.”

Susan: Between Two Worlds is based on a true story. What’s real and what’s made up?

Katherine: About 80 percent of the book is based on historical events. Sixteen-year-old Billy Bah joined the Peary family on his ship Windward, which became locked in ice for eight months in 1900-1901. Just about everything but the triangle love story and conversations with the ancestor-ghosts is historically based.

Susan: Tell us about the real Billy Bah.

Katherine: Billy Bah, also known by her Inuk name, Eqariusaq, was born around 1884 in a remote coastal area of Arctic Greenland. When she was about eleven, she spent a year in Washington, D.C. with Peary’s family. She was both orphaned and married around age fourteen. Peary referred to her as his most expert seamstress. She sewed the fur coat that explorer Matthew Henson wore during the famed Peary expedition of 1909 to the North Pole.

Susan: The setting of 1901 Arctic Greenland plays a distinct and significant role in the novel. Also, you use a lot of Inuktun (Polar Eskimo) words in the book. Were these challenges for you, in terms of making Billy Bah’s story come alive for YA readers?

Katherine: The key to historical fiction is to put the past into the present, to bring out universal themes that a modern-day audience can relate to such as the desire to belong or the need for independence. No matter when, people have always shared many of the same core fears and desires. One common teenage dilemma is that at some point we must act under pressure and make difficult choices. The theme of romantic love is also powerful and universal. Billy Bah’s love affair with the sailor Duncan is the aspect of the book that I feel will most appeal to teen girl readers, fully drawing them into 1901 and the foreign world of Arctic Greenland.

In earlier drafts, I used a lot of Inuktun words. My editor Wendy Lamb cut out most of them, smoothing out the prose, while skillfully leaving in hints of the native sounds. Wendy also had me tone down aspects of traditional Inuit life that modern readers might find off-putting. I deleted the gory chapter in which Billy Bah’s people slaughter walruses and downplayed the cultural norms of uncombed hair, unwashed bodies, head lice, and body lice. Over five rewrites, Billy Bah became more assertive, more mature, and less historically Inuit in terms of personal hygiene.

Susan: What’s the most unusual thing you’ve had to Google for a work in progress?

Katherine: I researched Inuit women washing their hair with urine. It would have put off readers, so I ended up not including that info. Again, sometimes we need to sacrifice a little accuracy for accessibility.

Susan: We all struggle to maintain “balance” in our writing lives. Could you describe your typical writing day?

Katherine: I block out about fifteen hours of morning time, Monday to Friday, for writing, and this time is for writing only. I’ll work in email or phone calls before or after, and in between my family-related commitments, such as taking my 90-year-old father-in-law to his medical appointments and my two middle-school-age children to their music lessons and other activities. I also try to squeeze in exercise time. I like to cook and we make a sit-down dinner a priority. Though I don’t write in the evenings or on weekends, I’ll sometimes do work-related reading or editing. Evenings I like to relax with my cat and play the harp.

Susan: What are you working on now?

Katherine: My novel in progress is set in England and Egypt in 1922-1923, during the opening of King Tut’s tomb. Two years ago, with my sister, brother-in-law, and niece, I visited the book’s Egyptian settings. We toured archaeological sites by small boat on the Nile and flew over the Valley of the Kings in a hot air balloon. This past April, during a family trip to England, I visited my novel’s main British setting, Highclere Castle in Berkshire, outside of London, for the second time. Highclere is now popular as the set for the hit British TV series “Downton Abbey.” I’ve been enjoying myself researching and writing, and I hope that spirit of fun and adventure will go into the book.

Susan: What was it like to have the great Madeleine L’Engle as a writing teacher?

Katherine: Madeleine was the most extraordinary person I’ve ever known. Quite tall, regal, and magnificent in her long purple and blue dresses and exotic jewelry, she projected the same sense of wonder as her classic fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time. She was more than a little like the three otherworldly presences Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which. Her expansive vision included a belief in angels, whom she was sure appeared regularly to all of us. She emanated power, knowing, and love, and had a great talent for bringing out her students’ inherently good qualities.

As a writing teacher she wasn’t what you would expect. Instead of talking about plot, character, or story structure, she preferred more abstract themes about the larger role of writing and art in our lives, such as the concept of story being truth. Invariably she advised, “Write for an hour. Don’t think. Attempts to direct only interfere with creative work.” Her belief about writing was that it’s an entry into the larger Cosmos. Publishing books is a happy by-product, she said. The shared journey is what matters.

In the ten years I knew Madeleine, she taught me about the life of spirit and the value of community. I met most of my closest friends through her. To learn more about Madeleine as a teacher, see the book I edited, A Circle of Friends: Remembering Madeleine L’Engle ( http://www.katherinekirkpatrick.com/book_02.html ).

Thanks for interviewing me, Susan!

 * * * * *

This interview was previously published in abbreviated form on the fabulous historical fiction blog “Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks” http://corsetsandcutlasses.wordpress.com/ on June 30, 2014.

published by Wendy Lamb Books/ Random House, 2014

Celebrating Fifteen Years of Redcoats and Petticoats

jacket

            Recently an envelope arrived in the mail from the literary agency that represented my earliest published work. Only one of those titles, my 1999 picture book Redcoats and Petticoats, remains in print.

When royalties start to dwindle, an out-of-print notice usually follows. It seemed to me I had a fifty percent chance of receiving disappointing news about Redcoats and, especially since I was about to leave for London the next morning, I decided not to open the envelope. Several weeks later, home again but caught up in busyness, I continued to shelve the envelope and any feelings of sorrow that might come from discovering its contents.

Finally, one evening I felt ready to face what the wheel of fortune had dealt me. As I took out my paper knife, a favorite Buddhist teaching popped into my mind: “The dharma wheel turns, pay no mind to it.” In other words, when we’re down we’re on the way up and vice versa, so knowing that ever-changing state of things let’s try to live with grace, trust, and equanimity. Somewhere, at the center of the wheel, I reminded myself, there’s always a place of peace.

I’d hoped to find a check of at least six hundred dollars. I feared I’d receive a hundred or less. The check in my hand amounted to nearly four thousand dollars. Woo-hoo! Score! I could hardly believe it. Then I remembered that the subject of my book, George Washington’s spies on Long Island, had been featured in a recent AMC television series, “Turn.” Obviously, the public’s renewed interest in the topic accounted for my boon in sales.

I laughed so hard I felt giddy. I told one of my daughters what happened. Grinning, she gave me the thumbs up. I giggled some more, at the sheer surprise of the news, but also at myself for the way I’d behaved by waiting to open the envelope.

Redcoats and Petticoats, published by Holiday House, Inc., and illustrated by Ronald Himler, has continuously been in print in hardcover since 1999. Privately owned and managed, Holiday House remains one of the few independent book publishers in New York.

 

* * * * *

            Redcoats and Petticoats tells the real-life story of a brave woman named Anna (Nancy) Strong who used her clothesline to help her group of fellow undercover agents relay news to General George Washington. I’ve known the story as long as I can remember. I don’t think it’s possible to grow up, as I did, in the Three Villages of Stony Brook, Setauket, and Old Field, on the north shore of Long Island, New York, without knowing of our beloved Setauket Spy Ring. This handful of heroic citizens, via a person-to-person assembly, on foot and by horseback, by rowboat, and finally by whaleboat across Long Island Sound to Washington’s headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut, passed on news of Tory battle plans that secret agents had overheard in the tearooms and taverns of the city of New York. In Setauket, sixty-three miles from the city, Nancy Strong did her part by signaling to a fellow spy a code that indicated the rendezvous spot in one of the nearby coves, where the secret missives would be waiting for a whaleboat captain to row them across the Sound to Patriot shores.

As part of a fourth-grade school assignment, my mother took me to meet Kate Strong, a blind woman, by then well into her nineties, the great-great-granddaughter of the famous clothesline patriot. The essay I wrote subsequently won me my first award in a writing contest sponsored by the Long Island chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. No doubt this early recognition contributed to my becoming a writer.

bow

The locations in Redcoats and Petticoats, beautifully and accurately rendered by artist Ronald Himler, serve as fixed points in my childhood. The Setauket Neighborhood House on Main Street, where George Washington paid a visit, was where I’d taken ballet and where my mother attended historical society functions. In the waters off Strong’s Neck, near the spot where Nancy Strong hung her clothesline, I’d clammed its muddy shallows, rowed, sailed, and, with my high-school chum Elke Dee, learned to water-ski. In the summers during college, and after, I spent many happy evenings star-gazing, boating, and barbecuing with my dear friend Lisa Lesko and her family.

The book’s opening spread shows the Battle of Setauket on the Village Green, in front of the Setauket Presbyterian Church. Here my parents, Audrey and Dale Kirkpatrick, performed marionette shows at church fairs. And here, loudly bellowing traditional Highland melodies, a bagpiper opened and concluded our family weddings, including my own in the same year Redcoats was published. Six years later, in the church cemetery where the Tories camped and uprooted tombstones to use as cooking tables, my father was buried, and four years after that, my mother laid to rest beside him.

The present Setauket Presbyterian Church structure was built in 1812. Its graveyard dates to the 1660s.

The present Setauket Presbyterian Church structure was built in 1812. Its graveyard dates to the 1660s.

Walking the path of history.

Walking the path of history.

The Caroline Church of Brookhaven, on Setauket’s Village Green, was built in 1729.

The Caroline Church of Brookhaven, on Setauket’s Village Green, was built in 1729.

Writing the book put me in touch with our distant Revolutionary War past. Reflecting on the book now puts me in touch with my own past, the flow of my life, and the lives of many dear to me. Through beloved local landmarks, I see and appreciate the distances we’ve traveled, and the well-worn, age-old paths still ahead of us.

I’m so grateful that my book has beaten the odds in the competitive venue of publishing and I now celebrate its fifteenth anniversary. Viva Redcoats and Petticoats!

Checking proofs for Redcoats with editor Mary Cash.

Checking proofs for Redcoats with editor Mary Cash.

 

Boreal Ties: Part I

While I was writing Between Two Worlds, I returned again and again to the stunning photographs in a gorgeous book called Boreal Ties: Photographs and Two Diaries of the 1901 Peary Relief Expedition, edited by Kim Fairley Gillis and Silas Hibbard Ayer III. Its panoramic shots of the towering cliffs and massive ice floes of the Greenland Arctic set me in the mood to write. And best of all, the book’s informal shots of both Inuit and Westerners offered me a rare chance to view my main characters: Inuk girl Eqariusaq, also known as Billy Bah; Robert E. Peary’s wife, Josephine; and his daughter, Marie.

The photos and journals were created by two New York businessmen, Clarence Wyckoff and Louis Bement, who journeyed to the Arctic as what we would call today “adventure tourists.” Explorer Peary’s ship Windward, carrying among other passengers Peary’s wife and daughter, did not return to America as expected in the summer of 1900. So the following summer Peary’s financial backers in New York arranged for a relief party, journeying to the Arctic on the steamer Erik to investigate. Paying a fee of $500 each, Wyckoff, 25, one of Peary’s supporters and a manufacturer of typewriters, and a friend, Bement, 35, a salesman of hats and caps, joined the expedition.

Louis Bement, left, and Clarence Wyckoff, right. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Cover of Boreal Ties, edited by Kim Fairley Gillis and Silas Hibbard Ayer III, published by University of New Mexico Press, 2002. Louis Bement, left, and Clarence Wyckoff, right, with the icebound Erik in Melville Bay, Greenland. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

The businessmen traveled with multiple cameras, the latest and best Eastman Kodak had to offer. Though not professional photographers, Wyckoff’s and Bement’s unique images far exceed Robert E. Peary’s own photographs both in technical and artistic qualities. While the adventure tourists enjoyed nearly three months of intense sunshine, Peary often took his tripod and old glass plate cameras out in typically poor Arctic weather.

Fortunately for Wyckoff and Bement, they weren’t in Peary’s employ, or else they wouldn’t have been permitted to have cameras. Always thinking of public relations and secretive about what he was up to, Peary kept tight control of all images taken on his expeditions. (He made a rare exception when he allowed Matthew Henson to publish a few photographs in his 1912 autobiography).

The businessmen endured maggots in their soup, hives, and head lice. Three weeks into the journey all the meat on ship went rotten and had to be thrown overboard. More than once, the Erik’s incompetent crew almost steered the ship into mountain-sized icebergs.

After the voyage, the friends pasted copies of each other’s prints into their scrapbooks; in some cases they annotated who took the photograph, and in other cases not. The Wyckoff photo labeled “Billy Bah, a girl of 16” offers a vivid portrayal of a young Inuk woman looking straight at the viewer. She seems pleased; it appears she feels appreciated by the photographer. There is reciprocity between them. It is a close-up portrait taken in a spirit of friendliness.

Billy Bah, age 16, by Clarence Wyckoff, 1901. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Billy Bah, age 16, by Clarence Wyckoff, 1901. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

This photo, more than any other, worked on my psyche and helped many images and facts coalesce as I created the main character in Between Two Worlds. And later, when the story was complete, illustrator Sam Weber used this same picture as reference to recreate Billy Bah’s face on my book jacket. He modeled the Windward, which appears in the background, after another image in the collection.

Historians are lucky to have Wyckoff and Bement’s rare and extraordinary record of their voyage, and as a novelist I absolutely cherish my copy of Boreal Ties.The businessmen were not only in the right place in the right time, they were paying attention. To take such photographs, they clearly put themselves on scene, front and central, entering into a landscape and into the lives of people they depicted.

This fundamentally is what making art is all about.

Keystone glass negative of explorer Robert E. Peary’s ship Windward (right) and his expedition’s relief ship Erik (left), 1901. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

Keystone glass negative of explorer Robert E. Peary’s ship Windward (right) and his expedition’s relief ship Erik (left), 1901. Copyright © Kim Fairley and Silas Hibbard Ayer III.

 

The cover for Between Two Worlds, copyright © 2014 by Sam Weber.

The Commander and I

Commander Edward P. Stafford, USN (Ret), July 16, 1918 – Sept. 24, 2013, was the grandson of polar explorer Robert E. Peary and son of Marie Peary, called by the newspapers “the snow baby.”

The Snow Baby published by Holiday House, 2007, was a James Madison Award Honor Book and a Booklist Top Ten Biography for Youth.

A photo of a spunky four-year-old Marie Peary, posed near a gigantic meteorite on a ship, inspired me to write a book called The Snow Baby. A photo biography, it tells of Marie’s childhood, from her 1893 birth in the Arctic to the age of sixteen, when her father, Admiral Robert E. Peary, reached the North Pole in 1909. My forthcoming novel Between Two Worlds also includes Marie as a character.

It was easy for me to fall in love with this child, who at the age of eight, dressed in seal furs on an ice-locked ship, played tricks on sailors and found ways to celebrate Christmas while the adults around her worried for their lives.

In 2005, in the early stages of writing The Snow Baby, I met Marie’s son Commander Edward Stafford, who was at that time in his late eighties. Though he lived in Florida, he periodically returned to Eagle Island near South Harpswell, Maine, to lead tours of the Peary family’s former summer home, now a state park. I was so eager to go on one of these tours, I took a plane trip of 3,000 miles from Seattle to New York with my four-year-old twins. After meeting up with my dear friend, author/illustrator Sanna Stanley and her three-year-old son, we drove three hundred miles to Portland, Maine. A small outboard motorboat took us across Casco Bay, past many green, forested islands, to our destination.

Set on Eagle Island’s rocky bluff, which to Admiral Peary looked like a ship, Peary placed his house where the pilot house of the ship would have been located.

Considering his age and how my previous attempts of e-mailing him through a university museum had gone awry, I’d thought perhaps he suffered ill health. On the contrary, the man I met on Eagle Island, wearing long shorts, T-shirt, and baseball cap, vigorously marching up and down the narrow stairs of the old house, was astonishingly robust. He held his back straight. His face conveyed the certainty of a man sure of himself. Indeed he’d earned seven battle stars in World War II on anti-submarine duty on naval destroyers and destroyer escorts in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Stafford remarked that though his illustrious grandfather died when he was nineteen months old, he knew the man through Peary’s wife and daughter who loved him. Through them, something of his grandfather’s force of character transferred itself to him. True, as far as I’m concerned.

In my great enthusiasm to meet Stafford, I made a nuisance of myself, asking him one detailed question after another. Perhaps with a frown or inclination of his head, Stafford conveyed his irritation to his wife, who was on the tour with us. She asked me to please refrain from asking Stafford questions until the end. “He needs to save his voice,” she said diplomatically. Meanwhile, for the next hour, ten other tourists fired away their questions and he happily answered them. Then as we stood on the house’s sloping green lawn near the boat dock, he finally gave me ten minutes of his time.

Katherine Kirkpatrick, Commander Edward Stafford, Peggy Stafford, and tour boat captain.

Reflecting back, I realize it was naïve of me to assume Stafford would be happy to meet me just because I was writing a book about his mother. Celebrity families often keep to themselves for good reason. Stafford’s initial brisk attitude had everything to do with defending the honor of his often maligned grandfather.

But setting aside any feelings of disappointment about Stafford’s reaction to me, I spent an absolutely wonderful day on Eagle Island. Stafford told stories with flair, as well as with knowledge and authority. He was the best of guides. He said the island was part of him, and obviously he took great pleasure in sharing it.

I loved the house with its snug, shiplike, wood-paneled rooms, its panoramic views, its many tokens and reminders—such as Peary’s stuffed birds, mounted twenty-pound lobster, and Marie’s collection of tiny ivory figures—of the way an extraordinary family lived. My friend and I greatly enjoyed the island’s seventeen acres of fragrant woods, foxgloves everywhere in the underbrush, and rocky beaches. While I’d toured the house, she kept our active young children from the dangerous rocks and wild surf. Then the five of us explored the island together.

A three-sided stone fireplace separates the downstairs rooms in the Peary family’s home on Eagle Island.

The view from an upstairs room in the Peary family house.

Marie Peary’s books and keepsakes.

What’s more, just prior to leaving for an enchanted return boat ride in which dolphins leapt about our craft, Stafford gave me his business card. On the top right, printed in dark blue ink was the icon of a ship’s wheel with his name “Edward P. Stafford, Commander, U.S. Navy (Ret.)” and his address and phone number in Florida.

I wrote to him, enclosing a first draft of my manuscript for The Snow Baby, which by then was contracted to be published. About two months later I heard back, not from Stafford, but from a man whom Stafford had given the manuscript to, a representative of an historical society in Maine. He pointed out numerous shortcomings in the draft, then concluded, “if I should decide to go forward” (implying I should abandon my book?): “Keep in mind you have chosen to work over ground that has been covered many times over the past 100 years by experienced writers, many of them well versed in Arctic lore and possessed of years of actual Arctic exploration experience. To cover this subject matter with anything less than thoroughness and accuracy could expose you, the Peary and Stafford families, and organizations devoted to Arctic education programs to serious ridicule and embarrassment.”

With that splash of frigid polar water thrown on me, I set about a new draft, this time enlisting the expert help of members of a university museum. Within the next two years, I completed eight more drafts, two of which Stafford provided helpful feedback on.

By then, though I had no expectations whatsoever that Stafford would like my book, I myself felt pleased with it. In the end, the commander did voice his approval. Inside a Christmas card picturing Santa Claus delivering packages by rowboat to a lighthouse, he’d written in block capital letters, “A BEAUTIFUL BOOK, WELL-WRITTEN AND A PLEASURE. THANKS SO MUCH. ED STAFFORD.”

Sanna Stanley.

The Peary family house on Eagle Island, Maine.

Christmas Card from the North Pole

Floodlights cast yellow circles over the snow, over blocklike buildings, over a dark ocean full of icebergs. Small figures dart from the direction of the ocean toward the buildings. Under this photo, e-mailed to me from Qaanaaq, northwest Greenland, the hunting culture’s most northerly town in the world, the caption reads: “I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Our weather is fine. Right temperature for the area with snow. All my best, Navarana.”

Qaanaaq, Northwest Greenland

Qaanaaq, Northwest Greenland

There may not be a Santa Claus, but there are indeed people living 550 miles (885 km) from that invisible point in the Arctic Ocean known as the North Pole.

Navarana is one of many interesting friends and acquaintances I’ve made over the years through my writing. A native speaker of Inuktun, she helped me with words and phrases for my forthcoming young adult novel, Between Two Worlds (Wendy Lamb Books, Random House, April 2014), a historical fiction adventure story about an Inuk girl on Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary’s ice-locked ship in 1900. Based on a number of true characters and incidents, the book features sixteen-year-old Eqariusaq, also known as Billy Bah, who lived in America with the Peary family for one year, returned to the Arctic, and sewed furs for members of Peary’s expeditions.

Getting to know people like Navarana, whose backgrounds are very different from my own, is my favorite perk of being an author. Here I am in Seattle, the “emerald” city of towering evergreens, and there she is in the treeless polar Arctic, surrounded, at least at this point in the year, by snow and ice.

For the next seven weeks, Navarana will live in total darkness, though the springtime will bring brilliant sunshine and, with the melting snows, patches of green with an abundance of plants and flowers. All summer, beautifully and intricately formed icebergs pass by in the fiord in front of the town. Temperatures in the winter months can drop as low as -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit). The town has cars, pickup trucks, SUVs, a water truck, an oil truck, and an ambulance, though people also travel by foot or dogsled; the only outside road leads to a small airport. At most times of year, residents use motorboats for hunting and other transport.

Navarana has Internet access at home and through her work at the local hospital, where she serves as interpreter and translator. In this community, Danish, Kalaallisut (or West Greenlandic) and the predominant local Thule dialect, Inuktun, mix together with low, wonderful gutteral sounds and long complex words that form whole sentences. Here’s a sample of Inuktun: takuleqangakkit nuannaartunga (“I am happy to see you”). And yes, natives of the hunting culture use cell phones, though, speaking from personal experience, the around-the-world service is a little erratic and very expensive.

Navarana Sørensen

Navarana Sørensen

Over the past four years or so, while answering questions for my book, Navarana has occasionally offered intriguing glimpses into her life. Once, while explaining a several-month hiatus from her computer, she told me she’d been filming a documentary movie called Vanishing Point (National Film Board of Canada, 2012). During two successive summers, the directors had taken her on narwhal hunts both in her local waters and off Baffin Island. Scenes in the film include Navarana and her group traveling on sea ice by dogsled, hunting, preparing narwhal meat, and feasting. Another scene shows the group capturing little auks and stuffing them in sealskin bags for fermenting into a delicacy to be eaten later. Making the movie was great fun, she said. While in Canada, she’d also enjoyed a visit with her two daughters and grandchild.

During the final editing of my manuscript last winter and spring, I tried reaching Navarana a few times, to no avail. My book had changed titles from Box of Secrets to Between Two Worlds. Because the title represents an important theme in the book, I wanted to include the Inuktun phrase for “between two places” somewhere in the text, but the translation cannot be found online or in any printed dictionary. (It’s pivvit mardhuk akornganni, as I later learned.) What had happened to my living-and-breathing, and occasionally whale-hunting, resource?

Worried when I didn’t hear back from Navarana, I contacted the director of an Arctic museum in Maine who’d first referred me to her; the museum director, too, had unsuccessfully tried to reach Navarana. She confirmed what I’d vaguely suspected: Navarana was ill.

A few more months passed with silence from that wintery top of the world. In early summer, my publisher returned first proofs to me with further language-related questions. By this time, nearly a year had elapsed since my last communication with Navarana. I feared the worst, but I thought I’d try to reach her again anyway.

To my surprise and delight, Navarana, ever her cheerful, friendly self, shot back an immediate reply with many apologies. She’d been in Denmark for medical treatments, she said, but she’d recovered and was overjoyed to be back among her own people again.

What happy news! All that day, I walked about with a light heart. My friend and collaborator whom I’d thought dead was alive. We exchanged a few more e-mails. I sent her my book cover, which shows an Inuk girl running against an icy landscape. She wrote back, “Waow!” which, I think, means she likes it.

Between 2 Worlds cover

It’s happened to me so many times now but it still seems miraculous that I can reach out across continents and oceans to touch another life, and that a faraway person can touch my life in return.

I’ll close with the memory of another holiday card: the now ubiquitous UNICEF image of children of different ethnicities holding hands and encircling the globe. However diluted the message has become through commercial use, it’s still true, powerful and relevant:

The world is one big family.