THE ELUSIVE MISS ELLEN CHURCHILL

Issue Thirty – Summer 2017 SHARK REEF LITERARY MAGAZINE

The Elusive Miss Churchill

By Judith Works

About the only enticement encouraging me to sort second-hand books in the dank room under our local sports stadium is the prospect of finding a first edition signed by a major author – unlikely, although not unheard of. The thousands of books are contributed by local citizens for our annual Friends of the Library sale, the proceeds going to sponsor library programs.

Inevitably, we receive a few unusable donations like investment guides from the 1970s and musty, outdated textbooks. One day, I saw a small leather-bound volume with gold-tipped edges dumped in a box of old photo albums and dog-eared paperback romances. It seemed to be just another sad discard with its cover disintegrating into brown powder and broken spine. I was about to toss it into the trash, but my curiosity was piqued because of its obvious great age. I opened it.

A bookplate pasted inside the front cover announced: “This is my Book.” Below, in old-fashioned script written with a steel-nibbed pen, was “Ellen B. Churchill, Boston.”

I put the book aside to take home for a closer look. The next morning, coffee in hand in my warm kitchen, I studied the ruled pages. The first entry was captioned: “List of books I have read since 1889.” The following two-page spread was headed “Number of Book, Titles, Subject, My Opinion, Name of Author, Number of Books by Author, Number of Pages.” It was like looking at a prehistoric version of an Excel spreadsheet. As I leafed through the book, I saw that about half of the pages were filled with a record of a Miss Churchill’s reading.

 

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Would a list of books reveal the personality of the reader? I could not resist trying to picture her as the list lengthened. The first entry was Longfellow’s Hiawatha, described as an “Indian Poem,” its 90 pages rated as “Excellent;” Number 9, Guy Mannering, by Sir Walter Scott, was a lukewarm “Fair,” as was Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield. On the contrary, Ramona, about southern California received a “Splendid.” Could this be a clue that she dreamed of the Wild West?

Book number 35, Ben Hur by General Lew Wallace at 560 pages, was “Excellent.” Cycling for Health, number 78, was “Good.” Later there were 32 books by Captain Charles King, although none was rated better than the book on healthful bicycling. Maybe she was given a complete set of King’s work by some uncle and felt obliged to slog through them. Numbers 151 – 154 were by Conan Doyle. They were also “Good.” Next on the list, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, one of my favorites, was dismissed with tepid sniff as “Fair.” Apparently Miss Churchill did not have much of a sense of humor or a desire to tour Europe and the Holy Land.

Eight works by James Fennimore Cooper garnered either “Excellent” or “Very Good,” but An Old Maid’s Paradise did not receive a review. I theorized she saw it as a glimmer of her distant future without a husband. And so it went with the numbers of books and pages piling up. Number 481 was With Dewey at Manila, by the Reverend William C. Gannette. She thought it “Very Good.” Shortly before she judged number 526, The Veiled Doctor by Varina Anne Jefferson Davis, as “Terrible,” the handwriting changed dramatically to a looser style, while the ink color was now blue instead of the staid black of earlier entries. I supposed she received a fountain pen as a gift.

In 1899, ten years after she began her entries, Miss Churchill began to write the year at the top of a page. Time was moving on, and with the turn of the century, she might have been thinking more about her future: She found What Women Can Earn was “Very Good.” Soon after, she read a biography about Sappho by Alphonse Daudet, which she did not like. Did Sappho’s feminine appetite make her uncomfortable? Her style changed from decisive pen to tentative pencil about the same time. Surely ink wasn’t too expensive, or was she growing careless? Could she have been depressed or suffered from what used to be called “female troubles” requiring doses of laudanum—a proverbial spinster dozing in an attic rocking chair, an open book on the floor?

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Despite the change in handwriting, Miss Churchill continued in her quest to compile a complete list. In 1908, she noted books 892 – 899 along with a remark: “Additional books read years ago.” Was she trying to up the count in a long-running contest with some unnamed competitor? By 1914, she had passed book number 1000. She liked California and the Missions and A Tenderfoot in California, again giving the impression the West was on her mind. Edna Ferber’s Dawn O’Hara was added in 1917, along with Zane Grey’s westerns. In 1920 her record was limited to 14 books, although there were many more for 1921 including Laramie Holds the Range and Fruit of the Desert. The first of these two westerns was considered “Bum;” the second was “Dandy.” Loose words from a proper Bostonian.

Then something out of character occurred: The years between 1926 and 1939 were a blank. The hiatus ended with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in 1940. She remarked that it won the Pulitzer Prize, confirming her rating of “Very Fine.” What was she doing all those intervening years instead of keeping her list? Whatever caused her to put it aside, she never brought the catalogue up to date if she read at all during the period.

The War years arrived, and she continued her list until number 1714: Secret Marriage, by Kathleen Norris. No description, no opinion, and ever more crabbed handwriting. The date at the top of the page is March 1943, 54 years after her reading marathon commenced. The bookmarks must have been put away for good because the remaining pages were empty except for the last one, a recounting of what must have been two heavy blows:

“Cricket left – Oct. 10, 1942 Same day and time as Joe E. Brown’s son was buried at 2:30 P.M. Dr. Baxter took her.”

“Oct. 13 – Judge Houser died my unknown friend of appellate court at time of my accident.”

 

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The mystery deepened. I turned to the back of the book, hoping for more clues. Inside the cover I discovered three enigmatic penciled entries:

“I was W. C – Secretary”

“Berlin Diary – Shirer”

“Can I Do Bus. With Lettie Mallin Lutes?”

On the opposite page were five words. Three were legible: “spell,” “additional,” and the plaintive word, “fulfillment.”

 

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A number of clippings were loose between the pages: Two slips of yellowed paper mentioned the Thursday Afternoon Club in Glendale, California and their new officers of which Miss Ellen B. Churchill was the corresponding secretary. The cuttings had no date but were probably from the 1940s because on the reverse of one was an ad for a sale of men’s dress and sport shoes in a style from those years: “Values to $7.95 now $4.88.”

Four more scraps from a magazine appeared to be from the same era. Each was headed “What’s the Name, Please?” with important people and the correct pronunciation of their names, such as “Furtwaengler – Kapellmeiseter of Berlin State Opera – foort’vengler, n as in sing;” along with “Du Bois – Negro editor and author – pronounced dew-boyś.” How did she drop these rather daring tidbits into a conversation given the War and the discrimination of the times? And did a Bostonian accent impress or amuse Miss Churchill’s Glendale social set?

As I was contemplating these fragments of someone’s long-gone life, a small piece of stiff paper fell out of the book’s tattered spine. The antique penmanship read: “(T)he work of composition and I hope the result will give you your reward. Very truly yours, O. W. Holmes.” Was Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court Justice, a family friend? Or, had Miss Churchill been at his father’s famous breakfast table? I resolved to read Autocrat at the Breakfast Table by Holmes, Senior.

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I closed the book, my mind full of more questions. I wondered how the fragile journal made it to my small town a thousand miles north of Glendale, California. And I wondered if the record was ever meant to be seen by anyone. Was I a voyeur to be looking at it? And most important: Who was the list maker?

Obscurity is the fate for most of us, even if we struggle against it with our Facebook and Twitter accounts. The single reference I could find for someone called Ellen Churchill of the relevant epoch was a woman born in Massachusetts in May 1877, who died in California in 1943, when she was 66, the year of the final entry. In our era where everyone can find out about everyone else, it is almost inconceivable that Miss Churchill, who began her serious reading efforts at age twelve, is now such a faint mark on the pages of history that her life is reduced to a castoff notebook and a few other crumbs of information. Perhaps she followed the Victorian sentiment that a woman’s name was never in public except for birth, marriage, and death, a concept few of us would recognize today.

Another image came to mind: a middle-aged woman sitting with her books and Cricket, her lap dog. Someone who had a dreadful accident that accounts for the gap in her entries. Someone worried about another woman called Lettie Lutes. Someone who came from a cultivated family striking out on her own to make her way in California and finding the most modest of lives. Someone searching for fulfillment, that state of grace we all desire.

But then I thought, who was I to take someone’s private chronicle and anxious jottings and turn them into a plot for a story to please myself? Rather than invent anything, I decided to stick with what little I could glean, even if it was the merest glimpse into another’s book lover’s life. I intruded enough by looking at a record probably never intended for others’ eyes. Still, I can’t help remaining curious about her, and her secrets.

Unfortunately, no matter how we try, some literary puzzles can’t be solved. Big ones like who wrote Beowulf or Genesis, and medium-size questions like the identity of the person who put three red roses and a half-emptied bottle of cognac on Edgar Allen Poe’s tomb for many years. And my small one: Who was Miss Ellen Churchill, my ambitious reader, who suffers unjustly from obscurity?

How interesting it would be to meet her in some heavenly book club. We could have tea and talk books. I could ask her what happened to her library and then she could tell me about her life and about Cricket. But what would she think of my own list, retained in my memory rather than as a written record unless I manage to post a review on Goodreads? Whatever her judgment, I would like to know her thoughts about some of my recent readings like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Goldfinch? And, could I convince her Innocents Abroad should have been rated as “Excellent” instead of “Fair?”

Copyright Judith Works 2017

TEARS

Flash fiction published in the literary journal soundings.

Was it heartbreak or hay fever? My mother is long gone and I’ll never know.

 

“Why are you crying?”

“I’m not crying. I’m sleepy. Yawning always brings tears to my eyes.” She put her head back on the pillow and closed her eyes.

I didn’t buy it, but I left her alone in the darkened room anyway. The only sound coming through the window on the quiet summer afternoon was that of a neighbor across the street using a push lawnmower. The whir of the machine as the grass and weeds were lopped off stopped every time the man and his mower reached his flowerbeds. Then he turned, and the sound began again. It was a large lawn.

I had hay fever that summer, cut grass making my eyes run and my nose drip. My mother never mentioned that as a cause for her wet checks. Instead, she continued to yawn.

When my father died a few years later, I never saw her shed a tear. I’d outgrown my hay fever by then. The man who mowed his lawn had moved away, and my mother had turned my father’s photo to the wall.

 

 

 

 

 

GUEST POST: G. Elizabeth Kretchmer

 

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WHALES AND WRITERS

While visiting the Big Island of Hawaii a few years ago, I went on a whale-watching excursion with Captain Bob. Soon after we left the marina, a humpback launched its 40-ton body out of the water. Someone asked why whales breach. “I think they do it to entertain us,” the captain said. I suspected it was more complicated than that.

People ask mountain climbers why they climb. Parents ask teenagers why they do all the crazy things they do. And readers ask writers why they write. One thing I’ve learned is that there’s rarely a simple answer to the question that starts with “Why?”

When I first sat down to write The Damnable Legacy, I thought I was writing to entertain readers. Woman has regrets. Woman goes on quest and faces adversity. Woman conquers all. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that life wasn’t that simple. And if fiction is supposed to emulate life, then the novel needs to be more complex.

So I started over. This time I delved into research, and the more I discovered, the more I wanted to learn. I researched adoption and attachment disorder. I research mixed ethnicity relationships. Climbing Denali. Teens who self-harm. The afterlife. When I re-wrote the novel, it was no longer just a book to entertain. It was a book that would surely educate.

But still, that wasn’t enough. I had crafted characters who did things and said things, and I needed to understand and embrace why they did so. I therefore dove into the world of psychology and mined the psyches of my characters. I studied Freud and Jung and the concept of shadow selves. I read about single moms with unplanned pregnancies and superstitions and men who rape—or don’t rape. And then I wrote the novel again, this time from a place of far deeper personal understanding of my characters’ motivations—and my own curiosities and biases.

So now when people ask why I write, I tell them my goal is to entertain, educate, and enlighten. I can never be sure if I’ve met that goal until the work is out and I hear back from readers, but I can at least use myself as the initial litmus test. If I’m not delighted with the story, it’s not good enough. If I haven’t learned along the way, it’s not ready. And if I haven’t personally grown and begun to look at some aspects of our world from a new perspective, I have more work to do.

We don’t know for sure why whales breach, but we do know that breaching is in itself an act of breaking through. In that vein, breaching is like writing.

Then again, Captain Bob said that maybe “the whales just breach for fun.” Yes, indeed. Writing can be fun, too.

G. Elizabeth Kretchmer is the author of The Damnable Legacy and Women on the Brink. She’s currently working on another novel about women helping women, as well as a self-help book about writing for wellness drawn from her experience teaching workshops to survivors of cancer, domestic violence, and brain injuries. She has an essay in the recently published anthology, Just a Little More Time, and her other short work has appeared in the New York Times and other publications. Visit her website at www.gekretchmer.com, like her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.

 

Guest Post: Kay Vreeland

A writing-group prompt for an exercise in which the pencil never lifts from the paper for ten minutes produced this from Kay Vreeland, working from the prompt: “Where did she come from—how long would she stay?”

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She came in, all dandelion fizz and pearl sugar, heads turned and she ignored them beelining to the old man in the armchair by the fire whose oiled-walnut face cracked with pleasure, then the chatter began, like snowdrops losing their petals and gladdening his heart, in fact, once he laughed and she realized then and looked around the room at last, and saw him, and he didn’t see her and that was a disappointment since he’d said she was like a sunbeam wherever she went—she’d hated that—sunbeams were insubstantial and above all she wanted to be very substantial, maybe not supper-gong-voice substantial, but looked-at substantial but the sunny blur of her did not mass together into something he had to keep looking at, so, mindful of the old man starting to get restless, she began the bird chirps he loved so much, little snippets of gossip were his favorite, so she made up as many as she could, always tying them to some real moment, even in another life, another place, just to see the delight spurt about until someone finally thought to bring the champagne over and that was welcome since why did people always forget to pass the champagne, so she gave the old man some, in a shorter, squatter glass, and he was delighted, delight being something she found she was never short of and no one thought to wonder why she stayed at his side, the fire must be too warm, the chair too uncomfortable, the repartee so sadly absent but the bubbles from that corner of the room were as frothy as the champagne sparkles everywhere and no one could ever figure out how she did it and more than one wallflower was so intensely jealous it nearly upset an entire table, but the spoiled-brat smile of the envious one just curdled a few glasses of champagne and the girl and the old man became sorts of magnets, the cluster of chatter around them thickened and the party was a resounding success, a party that had no right to be, being thrown for all the wrong reasons like a tea bowl on a brand-new wheel, not the right thing to do at all, but at least someone had thought to invite her and almost everyone was glad that she had come and most of all, of course, the old man, who ….. TIME’S UP!

Have you ever tried this writing exercise?

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Kay spent her 35-year university-teaching career in Kobe, Japan, and once back in the U.S., she was a book marketing manager for a couple of years, and now coaches authors who are hesitant about book marketing. She uses other hours in her day as president of a large women’s group running multiple activities, on the board of the local Timebank and on the board of our local EPIC Group Writers. Kay hopes someday to add “published author of a popular novel” to this list.

INTERVIEW: Mary Kay Sneeringer, owner of the Edmonds Bookshop

 

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We all know you as the owner of the Edmonds Bookshop. How long has it been in business?

The Edmonds Bookshop was established in 1972. David Brewster and I are the 4th owners of the business, we came on board in 2001.

How did you come to be a bookseller?

Accidentally, or perhaps you could say it was by fate. I was going to school at the UW and got a job at the University Bookstore in the photography department. After a few years and a lot of asking I was able to transfer into the general book department. After I graduated (with a degree in German) I just kept on working at the job I had and I loved it. I became a bookseller, not just a person who worked in a bookstore. It was while working there that I met David, we married and had two daughters.

And why Edmonds?

From the University Bookstore both David and I moved onto other jobs in the publishing world which led to a 7-year stint in Boston with David working for publishers there. When it was time to return to the Seattle area we ended up in Edmonds because of the school system and the timing of a mid-summer move. My sister lives in Edmonds and she kept an eye out for a good rental house.

How do you select the books?

I find books for the store in many different ways. I read publisher catalogs and talk to publisher representatives. I read newspapers, magazines, blogs and I listen to customer requests. There are certain authors or topics I watch for and I am always watching for emerging talented writers. Other booksellers are a great source for book suggestions, we are a very collegial lot and love to help each other find writers who have captivated our attention.

When I come to the shop I see some books in the window, some on the big table, some face out on the shelves. How do you decide the displays?

With the windows we generally have a theme. It can run the gamut from an upcoming holiday to a celebration of wonderful first lines to a current event or author appearance. The tables are for newer books. The faced-out books on the shelves are either books we have multiple copies of because that title is selling well or sometimes just because it works out with the spacing of books to fit a particular title face out.

Tell us about your book club.

The book club is drop in and anyone is welcome to join. The books we read are chosen from a list of twelve or so suggestions drawn up by our booksellers. The groups vote on which 5 or 6 titles they would like to read from that list. The evening group meets on the first Thursday of the month at 7 p.m.; the morning group meets on third Wednesday of the month at 9 a.m. Both meetings last one hour and are held in the bookshop. Both groups read the same book. People can go to either, or both, of the discussions as they wish. The books are listed on our website: edmondsbookshop.com

How has the book business changed since you became the owner of the shop? And do you see any major changes in the book business coming in 2017?

We continue to see huge changes in the book business. Independent bookstores went through a period when stores were closing at a rapid rate and many people thought that they had seen their last days. Big box stores, online discounters and warehouse clubs sold books at a loss and small stores lost sales of the very books that kept them afloat. E-readers came along and people foretold the death of the paper book. Self-publishing blossomed and people foretold the death of the traditional publisher. The bookstores that lasted through those scary days have seen a resurgence and renewed profitability as book buyers consciously choose to support their local bookstores, recognizing the importance of such places to their community.

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In 2017, I see major changes as there is more and more consolidation of publishers and as the lines of distribution are concentrated. With one major player able to squeeze publishers for bigger discounts at the threat of not carrying their books I fear we will see fewer publishers willing to risks large advances for non-fiction books that require years of research and writing. Some of America’s most important works have resulted from the ability of publishers to support writers before a book is even published. Publishing and bookselling are businesses in that they must make money to stay afloat but the exchange of information, the marketplace of ideas and the cultural value of the written word have always been the driving forces of the book business. I fear we may see a restriction on the freedom of speech due to monopolistic control in the marketplace.

Do you have a rewards system for frequent buyers?

We do. After a person buys 12 new books they receive a bonus equal to the average price they paid for the 12 books. It is our booker’s dozen.

How does Edmonds rate as a book-loving town?

Edmonds has supported their local bookstore for 45 years. They are avid library users and supporters. I think Edmonds has one of the highest percentages of Little Free Libraries of any community. Edmonds rates high!

What books do you recommend we should put on our reading lists for this year?

There are several really good books out now about race and class in America and I think people should read at least one of these to help frame discussion about current issues. Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, Between the World and Me by Ta Nahisi Coates, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, or the National Book Award winner, Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi would all be worthy of your time and thought.

There are also some great new mysteries by Tana French, John Grisham, Louise Penny, Amor Towles and Lee Child. On Feb. 14th a weird and wonderful novel by George Saunders called Lincoln in the Bardo will be released.

Thanks Mary Kay! And happy reading to all!

The bookshop is at 111 5th Avenue, Edmonds, near the fountain. They have a great stock and are happy to order if you have other needs. Website: edmondsbookshop.com. Phone: 425-775-2789

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GUEST POST – Celebrate Poetry for Winter

Two poems for the season from poet and novelist Paddy Eger

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Winter

The eagle scans the canal

From his tree snag above the shore.

Gulls glide and squawk

Disappearing into descending clouds

Winter ducks float and dive

Creating waves of concentric circles.

Perching birds nibble cones

Flitting deep into protective foliage.

Squirrels race along branches

Barking at competitors.

Fog blanks out the world beyond the shore.

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Winter Senses

 Smell

winter in its home of fir bough and pine cones

Listen

to crackling fires drowning out icy winds

See

clear blue skies, frosty windows, and icicles

Taste

festive spiced wine and mingled warm flavors

Touch

icy ledges, cold door knobs, and woolen scarves

Blended together, we’ll enjoy the season

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Paddy Eger is the author of the award-winning ballet-themed trilogy: 84 Ribbons, When the Music Stops-Dance On, and Letters to Follow- Dancer’s Adventure. She also writes Educating America, materials for classroom assistants.

 

Housework

 

A little humor for this busy time of year

 

. This story first appeared in Cirque, A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim in their Winter Solstice 2015 Edition. It was a prize winner from Ooligan Press in Portland, Oregon.

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HOUSEWORK

 

Today I mailed my mother. She deserved it but I had hesitated to take the final step out of some remnant of family loyalty. Every time I opened the closet door there she was on a shelf wedged between the spare vacuum cleaner bags and the bottle of easy-care floor cleaner. She would have liked the location had she been sentient because housework was her profession and she was a pro. Never a speck of dust on the furniture, never a dirty window. Never an unmade bed or waxy-yellow buildup on the kitchen floor.

And of course that was the problem. I always felt her specter looking over my shoulder, pointing out my housekeeping shortcomings like she did whenever she came to visit, which was too often. “Look at this! The dust must be an inch thick. You could write your name in it.” “The bathtub has a ring just like your husband’s shirt collars. Poor man!” On and on. It was no wonder he left home. I hope my next one doesn’t have a mother. It’s a great relief I don’t have one any longer, at least one like her. No one but me and the cat who deposits fur balls on the bedspread and sheds rolls of fluff on the back of the sofa where she watches out the window for birds. We’re a team.

I know my goody two-shoes sister was desperately sad not to have been around for the services and will shed tears of happiness when she receives the package. She’ll put the urn on the mantel above the hearth in her gracious living room, the place of honor between her wedding photo and the one of all the kids on their summer vacation at the lake last year. Her house has a gas-burning fireplace so there are no ashes to clean out. Soon, she will be able to take a few moments from dusting her immaculate house so she can contemplate the remains and her relationship with our mother any time she wants. My sister is a good housekeeper.