Friday, June 19, 2015



Couldn’t be more appropriate, I thought, for I’ve spent my week going over galley proofs of my latest novel – pages and pages of type, of writing, of words: Copyright page, title page, dedication; table of contents, running heads, pagination; acknowledgements, notes on sources; chapter heads, introductory quotes…
          …two hundred fifty-eight pages…
…seventy thousand, nine hundred fifty-seven words.
Four years.

I used to think that writing a novel is an act of faith.
I mean, you start at what you think is the beginning, and you go until you reach the end.

You start with a town, say, a particular stretch of roadway, the river that runs near it. You start with a house that you own and love; you start with a deed that helps you go back to the people who first lived there nearly two hundred years ago – the people who built your house.
You learn their first names, their middle initials.
You find the years of their births and marriages, the names of their children, the years of their deaths; you go to probate court and read their wills, their legal papers; you hold documents they have held, you see their handwriting.
          You read the public remnants of their lives.

You walk in their barns with the memories of their horses and cows, their sheep, their oxen and swine; you find the old foundations of their sheds and cribs, their chicken coops.
You smell their lilacs in spring, you watch their apple blossoms fall.
You stand on their front porch in moonlight.
At night you cook dinner in their kitchen and read the newspaper in their front room; you climb their stairs to their bedrooms and dream of broad fields and woodlots, orchards and old stone walls.

After a while, you realize you have a sense of them, and that they are still here. You are living in their house; you begin to understand that you owe them something for this gift they have given you.

And that’s when you realize that you were wrong – that writing a novel is not an act of faith; it is, rather, an act of integrity.

You start over, and you write a novel for them – it’s the best you can do.

Friday, June 12, 2015


My father was a civil engineer.
So was my grandfather and three more up the line – it runs in the blood, it seems.

John Allen Gould III, my great-grandfather, was born in Newton Upper Falls (MA) in 1852. When he was just married, he “took employment” (as they used to say) with the Boston Water District; he became an expert in the engineering of distribution systems – eventually consulted all through the New England states.
One of his first jobs was the Sudbury River Conduit, an aqueduct system that delivered water from the outlying Sudbury River to the water mains of Boston.
It was a big deal, and the Boston Water Works hired a photographer to record the development of the conduit system – a series of one hundred stereopticon cards, numbered and dated; each head engineer received a set of them.

The top photo, workmen are finishing centering the large arch over the Charles River. They built the framework first – all by hand, of course, without power tools or machinery. There are a few men on the top; the design of the support work is beautiful to me, and the wavering reflection of the trusses in the Charles River below is amazing. Photo taken September 13, 1876.

After the wooden structure was complete, the masons moved in, and applied the stonework. Here they’re nearly half-way through their part of the job – they’ve filled in some spaces between arches, and the first layer has been applied over the top. This was taken a month later – November 13, 1876.

In this last shot of the Charles River Bridge, workmen are laying the foundation for the conduit itself – the pipeline that would carry the water into Boston.
          The final part of the job, of course, was to burn out the woodwork from beneath the stonework, leaving clear passage for traffic through the arches. This shot was taken from the Newton side, looking west.

The whole project took a number of years, of course, and John Allen Gould went on to design distribution systems for the Brookline Gas Light Company; he also worked for the Boston Gas Light Company, where he became a director.

          He died in Newton Upper Falls on May 18, 1919.

Friday, June 5, 2015


I looked at that Sepia Saturday shot for a long time; I stored it on my desktop and sat down at my desk every now and then just to have a look at it.
          I noticed things: Pin striped suits, chessboards, chess pieces, tablecloths, chairs with scrolled backs, library tables, horrible flowery wallpaper, music stands – even men with receding hairlines – but nothing came to me.
…until today, when I looked at the photo one more time.

And there they were, right before my eyes: double doors!

Double doors – or French doors – are two adjacent doors that share the same larger frame. Here in New England, old public buildings such as churches, meeting houses and businesses often had double doors; the doors had matching hardware, and both knobs were on the inside edges.
          Sometimes, there was a knob only on one side – the other door released from the inside; I’ve seen one set of doors with a knob on one side and a lock on the other.

These white double doors are from the old Union Church in Harpswell Center, built in 1841 by local ship carpenters. It fell into disrepair in the mid-20th century; the Harpswell Garden Club restored the building in 1952 and continues to maintain it by charging reasonable fees for weddings and other events – it’s best to be married in the warmer months, for the old place has absolutely no heating (I can tell you this from experience). It does have the old maghogany pulpit and pine pews and floors; it has a working organ, too.
          But it’s “wicked cold,” as we say in Maine.
It was listed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1989.

The green, single-paned set is from the Merriconeag Grange Hall, just down the road from the Union Church in Harpswell.
The National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry is a fraternal organization formed in the mid-1800s, right after the American Civil War.
It’s got secret rituals, like most fraternal groups; in the early years it was devoted to educational events (latest practices in farming, cooperative seed purchase, etc.) and, perhaps more importantly, social events for farming families – suppers and programs and dances that eased the isolation and tedium of farm life in the 19th century.
          Merriconeag Grange still meets, twice monthly – one of the few Granges still thriving in the area.

Some say that the doors of a building frame the measure of its hospitality; if that’s true – and I tend to believe it is – then these old double doors, with their balance and symmetry, welcome you inside with warmth and a sense of grace.