Today, on my birthday, I would like to acknowledge and honor a tree that stands tall at the edge of a field in the village. This is not any 'old' tree; it is magic. This tree connects me to Samuel Hodgdon II, the narrator of my book, Down from the Tree. Those of you who read it will understand. In honor of this rich experience, I share the preface of the book mentioned above. PREFACE ***
What does it mean to come down from the tree? The answers lie in the heart of it. For a child, a safe and secret world is essential. Life-giving power and healthy growth and development dwell in the roots—the bones of the land. Self-trust and the freedom to explore, even in the harshest of conditions, may provide much-needed stability and relief.
Perhaps a child accompanied by the lowest members of society, afflicted by dire poverty—devastation, death, physical, mental, and emotional impairment, war, sin, and more—would not want to come down at all.
Poverty is not limited to one’s socioeconomic status; it is often a predicament of the soul as well. A child inmate at the County Farm would have done well to have such a tree. It is a way up, an attempt to restore what was lost, possibly the making or unmaking of a boy. It is imperative to pause and assess whether the needs of today’s children are being met or, depending on the current political climate, remaining an endless burden.
One of the most frequently asked questions by my readers is about the fate of this little boy: “What becomes of Samuel?” It is time for Samuel to share his youthful journey. We learn of the unfortunate circumstances leading to his birth, and we meet him briefly at the end of both Etched in Granite, Book One, and The Angels’ Lament, Book Two. He shows up at the train station, where, for the first time, he meets his Aunt Sarah, who had been away working in a textile mill. We encounter him as a child at the stone garden, and we endure the loss of his beloved mother.
In this part of the story, Samuel’s father, Silas, has an opportunity to claim his son, to right the grievous wrongs that plagued them all for so long. Will he succeed?
For many, this will be a reunion as we revisit Abigail, Silas, Nellie, Moses, and the others that we came to know so well in the first book.
Samuel, the sole narrator in Down from the Tree, fills in the missing years and provides a fresh outlook on life on the County Farm. His bold innocence reminds us of that which is basic. Since Samuel never went beyond the fence, his comprehension of what most might find harrowing is often enlightening. He evokes what many elders in our society may consider long-forgotten, fundamental values. For instance, while gruel and bone pickin’s may repulse one, it could well be another’s feast.
His vision—oftentimes expressed from the heart of the tree—is startling, offering an alternative perspective of that which has been hard-wired into the human psyche. From childhood to adulthood, we create and incorporate a vast array of filters, born of multiple experiences, altering the perception of nearly everything in our path. By nature, our personal history is viewed through these complex lenses as they continue to evolve and change.
When I set out to write this novel, I had a goal. It was to answer the pressing question about the fate of young Samuel. I needed to dig deeper into the County Farm and face the very same issues that we confront today regarding the destiny of our children. There is a fine line between the old and the new as we fail to eradicate overwhelming poverty—homelessness, hunger, lack of medical care, and equal access to quality public education.
During the crafting of the Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series, I became accustomed to unearthing omitted history. This discovery process has proven to be life-altering as I continue opening doors that lead to stories untold. A crucial element of this unfolding is trust, not knowing what awaits, and having the courage to stay or walk away.
Over and above the research, I had not experienced or fully anticipated the emotional depth of losing one’s mother. Whether living in an upscale home, a crowded tenement, or a dismal almshouse in rural New Hampshire, this loss is momentous.
As I was preparing to write this novel, my own mother fell ill. It was not a lengthy illness, but it brought her to the grave. To write about a child enduring the loss of his mother at that time was inconceivable. At a loss for words, I stared at the blank page. In time, I accepted my state of ungrieving. I had an idea of what I wished to convey in Samuel’s story, so I wrote. It was dispassionate at best. I had stepped outside of myself when I penned over twenty chapters. Both inside and out, it was a long winter.
I needed to leave the Farm—Samuel, Abigail, and the others—behind. Day after day, I sat in the darkness of being “undaughtered.” I longed to experience my version of healthy grief. The deaths of our mothers had become messy, and I intended to keep them separate.
Leaving an opening for his return, I awaited his protests or for my walls to crumble. I resumed my creative, transformative work, often related to my ancestral roots. I have traced back centuries, swirling within the intricate bonds that transcend several generations.
The stories of my grandmother, my mother, and her twin sisters beckoned Sarah and Bess to the page. Along with a woman buried at the pauper cemetery, my great-grandmother inspired Nellie’s narrative. Acknowledgment invites healing, and it waits patiently in the wings.
I was ready. I scrapped the original chapters and started over, this time, hand in hand with Samuel. Together we witnessed maternal death. We made sure to view the world without her in it—to recover the senses—feel the wings of the crow, smell the fresh dirt, see that which was previously unseen, and hear the sounds silenced in our unknowing absence.
Like Samuel, I too climbed trees. My tree, also at the edge of a field, still stands today. The difference is, when I was eight years old, I fell from my tree. It was before I knew about magic as I do now. The skies were bright, and the summer winds high. I had nearly reached the crown.
It seemed as if hours had passed as I lay broken at the base of the tree. Finally, I was gathered up and carried away on a potato sack, loaded into a neighbor’s station wagon, and taken to the hospital, where I spent the summer in traction.
Until meeting Samuel, I was unaware that I had left a vital part of my soul in the heart of that tree. So, we climbed higher than I had ever climbed before. He brought me up to where the outstretched limbs touch the stars, where I retrieved the part of me that I had left behind. He then carefully guided me down to the thick, meandering roots—back home to a place of nourishment and self-care, where once again, I became whole. Mj Pettengill