The Secret Room

Shirley Blodgett Langmaid, left, shares writings of Tennie Touissant from the North Danville cookbook. On the right is Elizabeth Symanick, the Brainerd Memorial librarian, who served as a model for Mrs. Touissant in the book.

A new Northeast Kingdom adventure book

By Sharon Lakey

“Shawna and Thea are working together on a math project for their eighth-grade class. But the numbers don’t add up, and they make a startling discovery—the secret room in the basement of Thea’s house, an old Vermont inn.

The code on the walls makes the girls—and everyone in town—wonder why there was a secret room. Was it part of the Underground Railroad, or perhaps something less, well, heroic? Discovering the truth is harder than they would have thought, especially when the truth is not what you want to hear.”

On September 10, 2011, Northeast Kingdom author, Beth Kanell, will officially have her second novel released by her new publisher, St. Johnsbury-based Brigantine Media. When she told me about the release date, she looked at me mischievously and said, “9 10 11. Wouldn’t Shawna and Thea love that?”

Ahh, that’s right. Shawna and Thea, the two main characters in the story, do love numbers.

After reading a preliminary copy of the book, Beth and I arranged for an interview to begin in North Danville, the town that served as a muse for The Secret Room, which she sets in fictional North Upton. Beth shared that it was a request by her friend, Mary Prior, to set a novel there. Mary, who had grown up in the center of the village, recommended its strong spirit of place as a perfect setting to help work the magic of story.

We began the interview in the Brainerd Memorial Library at the former North Danville School that is now used as a community center. Beth was seated comfortably in the sunny room, holding a large brown paper poster, between two white-haired women. The woman on the left was reading aloud to the group from a book in her hand. I knew the woman on the right as Elizabeth Szymanik, the librarian, but teased her by addressing her as “Mrs. Touissant,” like her character’s name from the book. The woman on my left, whom I had never met, was introduced to me as Shirley Langmaid, who happened to be reading aloud one of the real Tennie Toussaint’s stories from the North Danville cookbook.

As we talked about the new book, Beth held up her poster that was covered with pieces of the research she had done to plan the plot of the story: a newspaper clipping about a tunnel in Newfane that may have been used as an Underground Railroad room, a stagecoach stop schedule from the 1800’s that included a stop in North Danville, a poem, photos of North Danville buildings, columns of numbers written in pencil, etc. Later, Beth would share that one of her favorite young adult authors, Barre’s Katherine Patterson, once recommended in a workshop—you do lots and lots of research, then put it away. It’s time to let the story take over.

We excused ourselves and began the tour of North Danville and the places that served to anchor her story in setting. As I had just finished reading the book, it was more fun than ever to walk around the small village and have Beth point out the places she used for settings. The center of North Danville is very orderly and close—school, Baptist church, the in-town barn, the house next to the barn, the old inn, and water flowing right through the village, a detail Kanell uses for a story event when townspeople must go on a search to find one of Thea’s brothers. The compactness of the setting gave me an understanding of how children growing up in that village must have felt protected; I can also understand how a new student from a city setting would have felt an outsider. It was a brilliant place to set the story.

The book is written in first-person narrative and readers join with Shawna as the main character. She is a straight-A eighth grader, living and working on her family’s dairy farm in North Upton. When a family from down country buys the old inn across the road, a new girl named Thea joins her class. Shawna finds another straight-A math student to partner with her for her project in Thea.

Gradually the girls’ friendship grows, and Shawna and Thea cross the road and enter each other’s worlds, broadening both of their perspectives. The book’s plot includes a number of subplot themes, including hunting, farming, flatlanders, religion, and diet. These are all treated by Kanell in an authentic flow of events that would naturally arise when two girls, coming from different backgrounds, would have to sort out their feeling for if their friendship is to endure.

Beth labels the book as young adult fiction, a Northeast Kingdom adventure book. “I don’t like the term, coming of age,” she said. I can understand her not wanting to be pigeonholed with a “coming of age” description, but she does a good job of doing both. The book is a good adventure story, but it is also a great character study of a young girl learning about herself and how she fits into the world.

The Secret Room book launch will be held at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, Friday, September 9, 2011 at 4:00 pm. She will discuss the book and do a reading from it. A fun activity based on one of the “secrets” in the book will be available for those who would like to give it a try!

The public is welcome to attend. The book is geared for readers age 10 and up, so the young adult audience, as well as older adults, will enjoy the book. Books will be available for purchase and Beth will be on hand to sign copies. Book proceeds for the event will benefit the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum.

To see a photo album related to this article, click here.





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