The Hatbox Letters

Front Cover
Knopf Canada, 2005 - Connecticut - 368 pages
Beth Powning offers readers an unforgettable story of love, grief and renewal — both past and present — as well as her extraordinary perceptions of the natural world.

At the age of fifty-two, Kate Harding has hit a crossroads: the pain that overwhelmed her when her husband died suddenly from a heart attack the previous year hasn’t diminished, and she is at a loss as to how to go on with her life. Living alone in her large Victorian house, its emptiness magnified by memories of better days, Kate can only dream of a time when her grief will abate, at least enough to allow her to hope for change.

When Kate’s sister drops off nine antique hatboxes of papers recovered from Shepton, their grandparents’ eighteenth-century home in Connecticut, Kate isn’t sure she is ready to face the remnants of her family’s past. She’s having enough trouble going through Tom’s things. Soon, though, the smell of the hatboxes — of her grandparents’ musty attic, of old quilts and satin ribbons — begins to permeate the air in her home and “awakens a feeling in Kate that she remembers from childhood, composed of odd emotional strands: love, sorrow, pain, contentment.” As she slowly sorts through the letters, diaries and photographs, Kate begins to find some solace in the past, in her childhood memories of Shepton when every home was a comfort, every relationship untinged by pain. But the further she delves into her grandparents’ history, the more Kate realizes that her perfect world had its own dark side — an undercurrent of tragedy, personal loss and eternal grief.

Then an old acquaintance moves back to New Brunswick, and Kate begins to edge out of her solitude, surprising herself by accepting his invitation to dinner. Gregory and his wife were friends with Tom and Kate when the kids were young, a time of camping trips and days at the beach. But Gregory, now divorced, is also carrying the weight of grief, from the suicide of his son many years earlier. At first, Gregory represents a chance for Kate to capture some of the simple joy of her past, but when she realizes that Gregory is still living in it, his memories and pain warped into self-destructive anger, she knows she has to back away. And when Gregory’s determination to return to the way things were proves unshakeable, a new tragedy forces Kate to begin picking up the pieces of her shattered life.

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - oldblack - LibraryThing

Brilliant book. Best book I've read all year and one of the handful of all-time top books. Beth Powning is very insightful about relationships and I found myself saying "yes, yes" all the time. The ... Read full review

THE HATBOX LETTERS

User Review  - Kirkus

First-novelist Powning, with the deliberative touch of a nature writer, offers a slowly unraveling tale about a widow's way of rejoining the world.Husband Tom died of a heart attack at 52, and Kate is ... Read full review

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About the author (2005)

In one interview, Beth Powning commented that in order to write fiction, “You have to be living in it; it’s almost happening to you as much as you’re making it.” In this sense, writing is inseparable from personal experience for the author, and it’s no surprise that many of the themes that run through Powning’s own life — the importance of home and family, love for the natural world, learning to live and create in spite of loss — become central themes in her writing. In the case of The Hatbox Letters, the parallels between Powning and her protagonist are many. Powning researched her own family history for this novel, reading letters and papers found in her family’s historical home in Connecticut, and even discovered an old box of her parents’ papers that included everything from piano lesson receipts to the death certificate for her grandfather’s sister, who died of measles at the age of eight. Such details provided the historical base for the story of Giles and Hetty at the heart of this novel. Just as Kate’s journey through the hatbox letters leads her to imagine the lives of her grandparents, Powning’s discoveries inspired her to honour her family’s history and the riches of her own life in fiction.

When The Hatbox Letters came out, Maclean’s reviewer Brian Bethune wrote, “Few Canadian writers so stress the ties that bind a life lived to the place where it's lived; Powning’s central artistic concern, both as photographer and writer, has always been to locate herself — and her characters — along the great chain of being.” Powning approaches her fiction the same way that she approaches her nature writing and nature photography, with the knowledge that our lives and our emotions are not separate from the world around us, whether the continuum of our family trees or how our gardens change from spring to fall. As Powning has described her writing process, “The way I write is I close my eyes and I sit and wait until I see the scene and know all the details. Which direction is the wind coming from? How cold is it? Is it snowing? Is the ground frozen, and if it is frozen, how far down? . . . I need to know these things.”

The Hatbox Letters is Beth Powning’s first novel, though she has been a writer for many years. Her previous books include Seeds of Another Summer: Finding the Spirit of Home in Nature (published as Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life in the United States), a collection of lyrical prose and photographs that celebrates the power and natural beauty of her New Brunswick home, and Shadow Child: An Apprenticeship in Love and Loss, a memoir in which the author attempts to come to terms with the stillbirth of her first son. Powning has also been published extensively in periodicals such as Prism, Quarry and Fiddlehead, and is well known for her nature photography. The Hatbox Letters was a national bestseller in Canada and has also been published in the United States.

Beth Powning lives in an 1870 farmhouse with extensive gardens in Sussex, New Brunswick, with her husband, artist Peter Powning. Her next book, Edge Seasons, is a personal memoir about transformation — about seasonal change within the natural world around her and in her own life. It will be published in the fall of 2005.

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