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Fiction Epistolary

The Hatbox Letters

by (author) Beth Powning

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Jun 2005
Epistolary, Death, Grief, Bereavement, Small Town & Rural
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2005
    List Price

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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 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 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. 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. But when a new tragedy comes, it forces Kate to begin picking up the pieces of her shattered life.

About the author

Beth Powning grew up in a small New England town, where her family has lived since the 1790s. In 1972, she and her husband Peter Powning moved to Canada and bought an 1870s farm in New Brunswick, where they established a pottery business.

In 1995, Beth Powning published a book of photography, Roses For Canadian Gardens (written by childhood friend Bob Osborne). She later found her voice in Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life. Over the next fifteen yaers, five books followed: another book of photographs, Northern Trees and Shrubs; two works of non-fiction, Shadow Child and Edge Seasons; and two bestselling novels, The Hatbox Letters and The Sea Captain's Wife.

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Excerpt: The Hatbox Letters (by (author) Beth Powning)

1. Kate

Kate leans in the doorway of the living room, arms crossed, the sleeves of a cotton sweater shoved to her elbows. Her forearms are sinewy–brown, dry-skinned, thorn-scratched. She wears two silver bracelets and a thick gold wedding band. Some women, she realizes, remove their rings.

In the corner is a stack of nine antique hatboxes. She has not touched them since they were set down a week ago, delivered by her sister, who drove them up from Hartford. They are oval or round, some tied with string, some decorated with maroon-and-silver stripes, others printed with gothic landscapes – willows, mountains, ruined castles. Their smell has begun to permeate the room even though the windows are open. It is the smell of her grandparents’ attic, a smell she has not forgotten but thought had vanished, like the past itself. That it has not and is still here, this aroma of horsehair and leather, of apples and musty quilts, of old dresses and satin ribbons – that this smell still exists here in this Canadian river valley, six hundred miles north of her grandparents’ house, is disquieting. It awakens a feeling in Kate that she remembers from childhood, composed of odd emotional strands: love, sorrow, pain, contentment.

The arrival of the hatboxes is untimely, since dispossession, like grief, is an act of which Kate has had her fill since Tom’s death a year and three months ago, from a heart attack at age fifty-two. She’s hauled garbage bags of clothes, like lumpy corpses, down to the washing machine, unable to give away anything that might bear his painty, sawdusty smell. Sorting through the clothes, she was relieved whenever she came across T-shirts like Swiss cheese or underpants held by threads to waistbands no longer elastic. Choices made easy: Okay, throw this away. No one in her family has wanted to face making such decisions about the papers in these hatboxes. They have been lugged from place to place, from barn to basement to closet, ever since the big house in whose attic they’d accumulated for five generations was sold.

She goes into the living room and squats by the boxes. Their papered cardboard is dry as old plaster. How strange, she thinks, that they are here, now. And she finds herself wishing they could have remained forever under the attic’s cobwebbed window, their contents spilled, letters stuffed by children’s hands back into envelopes embroidered by the teeth of mice. Like leaves in a mulch pile. Forgotten, skeletal, slowly reverting to dirt. So it might have been if the house had not been sold, if time had not stalked on relentless legs, like a heron, and bent its long neck.

She slides her fingers over a lid, remembering the excitement she and her cousins had felt about these boxes and the disappointment of finding only papers whose half-read sentences were like windborne music or distant surf, faint hints of a larger sound. The box is so desiccated that its lid is loose and lifts easily, releasing the concentrated mustiness within, so familiar that tears spring to Kate’s eyes. It takes her to the closets, bedrooms, pantries and cupboards of her grandparents’ enormous, white-clapboarded house on the tree-lined street of the village where Kate grew up. She and her sister could leave their own home, walk past the tiny general store, with its wooden porch and post office, past the library and the church, and be on Shepton’s lawn in ten minutes. Shepton House had been named by her great-grandmother for the English town where some branch of the family originated. Shepton, they called the place after awhile, dropping the pretentious “House.” The word, spoken and accompanied by memory, is what a spell might be to a shaman: an evocation, a tumult of associations. She stirs the papers. Like the snow-flattened leaves of early spring, they are brown and soft, overlapping, their corners fanned. Some are in bundles, tied with faded cotton string. Most lie in a dismaying confusion. Kate pauses, looks out the window. River light quivers in trees at the bottom of her lawn. She is still squatting, irresolute. Why did I agree to take on this responsibility? Now – of all times.

She slips into a sitting position, crosses her legs. The house is so quiet. No one will be coming to visit until Thanksgiving. Her daughter, Christy, is in Halifax, her son, Liam, in Ireland. She listens to the sound of an empty house, thinking, Am I still a wife? She sees her future not the way it is now but the way it was supposed to be; this, unlike the bald fact of Tom’s death, is a loss she can’t share, a grief she can’t reveal. She is allowed to mourn the past, Tom as he was, the sound of his voice, the body that once cradled hers; but the future that was theirs – its loss has become like a new death, the death of someone no one else knows. A hidden corpse. It ebbs away, her memory of how it felt to slide her hand into the back pocket of Tom’s shorts, to relate a rambling dream and not care whether he listened, to casually wipe mustard from his chin. This loss of intimacy is the hardest, for with it goes her sense of self. She cannot bear to be with long-married couples: she’s watched a husband lift a strand of windblown hair from his wife’s mouth, has seen a wife peel a hard-boiled egg and hand it to her husband. It is dangerous, as well, to be in places – dinner parties, picnics – where conversational lures may attract memories, or feelings. She feels stripped of some sleek texture, as if she has lost her favourite silk scarf, orange-pink and luminous as sun-filled tulips, that carried in its folds the wife she once was, the wife she would still be.

She leans forward and rummages in the hatbox, knowing that she is being hooked by its sweet smell. She tips reading glasses from her head, settles them on her nose, unfolds a paper and presses it to her face. She breathes deeply. What is it? Lately she finds herself in a peculiar state, slowed, as if floating without impulsion, in which she examines her own feelings. There’s a familiar, disturbing stab in her heart that she remembers from when, as a child, she laid her head on Shepton’s prickly pillows, or lifted the lids of stoneware crocks or opened the games cupboard under the stairs. It’s a small ache, a presage of grief, evoked by the distilled smell of age. It’s a reminder, she thinks, of joy’s sorrow-edge. Of how every moment tilts on the brink of its own decline. There’s something else, though. Responsibility to the past. And flight from its demands. The feelings she’s come to recognize, holding in her hand, say, a small pin that Tom was once given at a ceremony in Ottawa “for service to the arts.” How, she chastises herself, during her process of dispossession, could she think of parting with this piece of silver? Doesn’t she have the responsibility of memorializing Tom?

Editorial Reviews

“The imagery is evocative and clear, and the feelings of love and loss are transmitted effectively and elegantly. The Hatbox Letters conveys a sense of wonder and wisdom.” —The Vancouver Sun

“[A] novel of stunning beauty ... The Hatbox Letters is a moving elegy to things lost and found.” —New Brunswick Reader

“Powning’s descriptions of gardens and birds rival any Audubon painting. The Hatbox Letters is not only an absorbing literary experience, but an exquisite visual experience as well.” —The Gazette (Montreal)

“The writing is highly sensual, painterly even, vividly portraying the natural world and its changing seasons.… [T]he depth of detail feels appropriate, mirroring the deliberate pace of Kate’s recovery and regeneration. Powning’s subject here is no less than the relationship of life and death, and she engages it with rigour and grace.” —Quill & Quire
“Beth Powning reminds us of the essential links and threads that bind family and loved ones, past generations to future. In gentle prose, she illuminates passages through grief, yet the novel is studded with vitality. A story of unexpected endings and new beginnings — of life surging forward.” —Frances Itani

“Like Annie Dillard, Beth Powning is a keen observer of the natural world. In language both erotic and exact, she explores the conflicting emotions of love and loss in a novel redolent with memory and the truth of experience, hard won.” —Joan Clark

“Beth Powning’s language is lush with stunning images that linger long after the reading experience — and with soothing insights, especially of the healing potency available in family histories and connections with friends. She takes us by the hand and leads us through the landmines of grief. We can trust her: she knows the way back to the safety of emerging hope and belief in renewal.” —Marjorie Anderson, co-editor, Dropped Threads

“One of the most appealing novels to be published in Canada in the last decade. . . . Beautifully written and emotionally wise, this is a debut novel with a difference. Its melding of past and present in the life of its protagonist is so well woven it will prove a boon to readers with a taste for fiction and non-fiction alike. . . . Rich, elegiac and full of resonance, her novel is more than impressive. It is a winner.”  —The London Free Press

“Beth Powning’s extraordinary new novel, The Hatbox Letters, is both an ode to joy and a lamentation.”
The Chronicle Herald

“Powning’ s exquisite novel sings. . . . [She] has created a novel as brilliant as the light towards which it reaches.” —The Chronicle Herald

“There is an elegiac quality to Beth Powning’s writing, derived from her immersion in the rhythms of the natural world. . . . Few 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.”

The Hatbox Letters will appeal to anyone who enjoyed the charming correspondence in Richard B. Wright’s recent literary bestseller Clara Callan. But Powning’s novel features a sincerity that Wright’s narrative never quite musters. The Hatbox Letters is sure to win accolades in CanLit circles and [with] regular readers alike.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“The narrative of The Hatbox Letters is as warm and vivid as actually sitting next to the wood stove of Kate’s Maritime kitchen. Powning also has a knack for imagery that drops the reader firmly into the musty comfort of a Connecticut summer home in the early part of the 20th century. Other authors bring us close to historical periods; Powning puts us there.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“Powning writes about grief with uncanny precision; she gets all its ambushes and piercing aches exactly right. She shows how grief can become more acute with the passing of time, rather than less painful as one might expect, and how its constricting grip can slowly paralyze the person left behind.”
—Lisa Moore, National Post
“While delineating the sere interior landscape of mourning, Powning has crafted a deeply beautiful book, one planted in the natural world, abundant in imagery that firmly roots Kate and the reader in the fecund cycle of life. A novel about death that makes you glad that you are alive, The Hatbox Letters is both elegy and song of joy.”
The Globe and Mail

“Powning is a superior writer, with startling powers of description.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

Other titles by Beth Powning