In 1994 I was living in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in a house overlooking the ocean. From the sliding glass doors in my bedroom I could see the North Shore coast, Baker's Island, and Dogbar Breakwater. Three different lighthouses were visible and it was there that I decided to write The Old Mermaid's Tale. I had just come back from visiting my grandmother in Erie, Pennsylvania, where I lived while in college and I had an idea for the story I wanted to tell.
|Two pictures of Peter Anson and the cover of my book |
in front of the Phare de La Vielle--The Old Lady--Lighthouse,
beloved of the Mariners of Brittany.
I knew I wanted the story to be based in the folklore and legends of the Great Lakes that my uncle had loved so much and always told stories about. And I knew that I wanted the main character to be named Baptiste because I had briefly been in love with a man with that name from Quebec.
Among my acquaintances at that time was an old Breton fisherman named Jean whom I met from time to time at Castle Rock in Marblehead. He liked to sit there, stare out to sea, and smoke his pipe. When he found out I liked to hear stories from the old days, he told me a lot of them. He was wonderful to listen to.
As I got more and more serious about writing this book I started going to the library and checking out books about maritime folklore, legends, and sea stories. As I was doing this I came across a book that sounded interesting but the only copy available was in Swampscott, the next town over. So, one Saturday morning I drove over and went looking for the book. When I showed the librarian what I wanted, she directed me to a “dead” books room in the basement where the lighting was poor and the shelves were pretty messy. I found the shelf I wanted but my book wasn't there. The librarian had said the books there weren't carefully attended. I was disappointed but I found a couple other books of some interest. And then I found the most amazing treasure, an old cloth-bound book with lettering so faded I could barely read it. It was called The Mariners of Brittany, Written and Illustrated by Peter F. Anson. It was published in 1931 and, according to the card in the pocket in the back, it had not been checked out since February 1961. Prior to that was October 11, 1945.
I checked out my books and took them home and I fell in love with that book. The drawings were wonderful. The end papers at both the front and back were hand-drawn maps of the Breton Coast and there were lovely drawings throughout. Reading it was an incredible pleasure. The author, who was a well-known art instructor, had spent years along the Breton coast collecting stories, traditions, religious rituals, etc. He included a chapter titled Superstition and Folk-Lore that was just packed with all the sort of stuff I wanted to weave into my story.
Once I began writing, I kept the book by my word processor (yes, my first book was written on a word processor) and referred to it so often that I had to renew it from the library several times. The last time I took it in to renew the librarian said, “Why don't you just keep that?” I was so delighted.
The more I found things in that book to use as I created the character of Baptiste, the more I realized that legends and folklore were an irresistible resource for me. I've written a lot of books since then and almost all of them have drawn on tall tales, legends, and the kinds of stories people told on front porches, around kitchen tables, or sitting on a bench overlooking the sea.
|Maps on the end papers (above and below)|
And so, here is a sample from The Old Mermaid's Tale, a few paragraphs that I could not have written were it not for a mysterious little treasure from the Swampscott Library:
I thought about the time he told me how happy he had always been that he was born on the feast day of Jean-Baptiste, the patron saint of the sailors of the Côtes du Norde.
“It was a great feast day, cher,” he said. “The women would rise early in the morning to bake loaves of sweet bread filled with raisins and cherries and apple brandy. They would use the salt that was blessed on Easter Sunday and they would shape them into three long rolls to represent the Holy Trinity and then they braided them together.
“The young girls would gather flowers from the fields and weave them into necklaces. All the seamen—the fishermen, the young mousse, the captains and mates of ships, even those old corsairs who had not been to sea in many years, would dress in their best clothing but would wear no shoes. Jean-Baptiste was a humble man and so we would wear no shoes.
“We carried his statue covered with garlands of flowers on our shoulders as we walked in procession along the quay. And some men, to show their gratitude, would throw themselves into the sea and then walk dripping wet to the church for Mass. The girls would put flowers around our necks as we walked and there would be a great feast.
“Oh, cher,” he said. “I wish you could have seen how beautiful it was!”