Summer Readings: Author Revisits Novel’s Upper Valley Roots

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    Elizabeth Wellington spent the final summer of her youth, in 1971, with a traveling circus, an experience that later formed the basis for her novel "Circus Girl." She will read from the book at Alumni Hall in Haverhill on Thursday, July 6, 2017. Courtesy photograph

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    Elizabeth Wellington spent the final summer of her youth, in 1971, with a traveling circus, an experience that later formed the basis for her novel "Circus Girl." She will read from the book at Alumni Hall in Haverhill on Thursday, July 6, 2017. Michael Benabib photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/30/2017 12:25:48 AM
Modified: 6/30/2017 12:25:51 AM

The great summer migration of writers to the Upper Valley hits full stride next week, with dozens scheduled to roam through the region for readings from their newest works over the next two months.

In the vanguard is Elizabeth Carter Wellington, who will read from her novel Circus Girl at Alumni Hall in Haverhill on Thursday. Unlike many of the writers making their way to the area, Wellington’s sojourn is a homecoming of sorts. She spent her childhood summers in the village of Pike, and her semi-autobiographical novel about a teenager from the Boston suburbs who runs away with a ragtag traveling troupe of acrobats, clowns, performing elephants and roustabouts in the early 1970s also has local roots.

“It’s the best place to have an event,” Wellington said of Alumni Hall during a telephone interview this week from her home in Wellesley, Mass. “To have something in a place that is so close to the book is special.”

The Upper Valley, where her mother, Ruth, grew up (and still lives, at 94), enters the picture early in Circus Girl, Wellington’s first novel. Like Wellington in 1971, the 17-year-old protagonist Sarah Cunningham spends part of the last summer of her youth at her mother’s parents’ farm in a northern Grafton County village — Pike in real life, Rock Mountain, a rough translation from the French of Piermont, in the book. There, Sarah resolves to rejoin the performers and support crew of the circus she had photographed as part of a summer enrichment class, and to enter a subculture as far as the moon from her upbringing in suburban Boston.

“They were just so open and forthright and right there,” Wellington recalled. “There was no glaze of superficial anything about them. They were so upfront with me. … I talked my parents into bringing me to Hanover to see them again, and that’s when they said, ‘Join us.’ ”

Over the ensuing 4½ months, Wellington worked behind the scenes for the circus as it swung through Pennsylvania and the Deep South before setting up in Florida for the winter. In the book, one of the most memorable people with whom she worked appears as Red Maynard.

“Red raised his eyebrows and patted the cab door,” Sarah observes early in the book. ” ‘I always keep a gun on the floor of my truck. Got to have an emergency kit,’ he said. When he looked up to give me his wry smile there was no twinkle in his eye.”

Wellington had kept a diary documenting just about everything she observed, including the conversations with Red. And she hung onto memorabilia — posters, route cards to the circus’ next destinations, photos she’d taken — for decades after leaving the troupe and going on to a career teaching Spanish language and literature at, among other schools, Wellesley, Babson, Simmons and Boston University.

Yet all of the memories stayed in a trunk and in her head, until several years ago. While talking with her high school-age son about the art of developing characters in fiction, she shared for the first time with a relative her coming-of-age experience.

“He was stopped cold, and said, ‘You were in the circus? Why didn’t you tell me?’ ” Wellington said. “He started really teasing it out of me.”

The timing was right, it soon became clear, to spin out the story on the page.

“I did make several attempts to put it in some kind of format,” Wellington said. “It wasn’t until I became an adult that I was able to stretch and include all the adult characters.”

In the summer of 2011, as she worked her way through the memorabilia, Wellington began musing at the parallels between the early 1970s and the present day.

“There was a nostalgia for things that were shifting and changing,” she said. “There was this feeling of disconnectedness that we’re experiencing now. … The book became more about revealing a past that’s now lost. It’s gone. It’s kind of a love letter to those characters than all about me-me-me. … Red especially took over the narrative. He’s the person with all the circus lore, tells all the stories. At the time I wrote down everything he said. And when I started writing, it became more of a question of delivering on, honoring somebody’s history.”

Her family’s history with the Haverhill area runs deep. Her mother comes from the Jefferses of Jeffers Hill Road in Pike, and her parents, after retiring to Pike, helped support renovations to Alumni Hall and to the historic Bedell Covered Bridge.

Now she’s completing a circle.

“When you wake up and realize you’re writing historical fiction and it’s part of your life, it’s a shock,” Wellington said. “People ask, ‘Who are you in this novel?’ It tell them, ‘I’m everyone. I’m channeling everyone. Male, female, any age. You have to get in each one’s head, each one’s mindset.”

Elizabeth Carter Wellington reads from Circus Girl: A Novel at Alumni Hall in Haverhill on Thursday afternoon at 4. While admission is free, donations to the Haverhill Library Association are welcome. Copies of the book are available for borrowing from the library.

Elsewhere in the Upper Valley in July and August, readers can choose among the following author appearances:

Canaan Meetinghouse

Poet Cynthia Huntington and novelist Rick Moody open the series next Thursday night at 7:30. Huntington, who teaches writing at Dartmouth College, reads from her collection Terra Nova, while Moody shares excerpts from his Hotels of North America. Readings over the rest of July follow:

July 13 — Former Dartmouth College President James Wright discusses Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War, and mystery writer Megan Abbott reads from her novel You Will Know Me.

July 20 — April Ossmann shares poems from her collection Event Boundaries, while Victoria Redel reads from her novel Before Everything.

July 27 — The final session of the 2017 series features poet Major Jackson reading from his collection Roll Deep, and novelist Alexander Chee sharing Queen of the Night.

All the Meetinghouse readings begin at 7:30 p.m., with Phil Pochoda of Lyme as moderator. The Canaan Public Library hosts the series, and serves refreshments between readings. The Norwich Bookstore sells each author’s new and recent books ahead of the signings.

Bookstock Literary Festival

As it has for the last eight years, Bookstock will keep you racking up steps on your FitBit while you hustle among venues. Headlining the festival, on July 29 at 10 a.m. in Woodstock’s Town Hall Theatre, novelist Julia Alvarez and East Barnard printmaker Sabra Field will share the development and execution of Where Do They Go?, the children’s book about dealing with the deaths of loved ones that Alvarez wrote and Field illustrated.

A few other highlights, by day, follow:

Friday, July 28 — Southeastern Vermont novelist Castle Freeman reads from his The Devil in the Valley at 11 a.m. at the Thompson Senior Center, and April Ossman and Benjamin Aleshire lead a showcase of Vermont poets at the North Universalist Chapel at 1.

Saturday, July 29 — Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham shares selections from Fast and from earlier collections, at the North Universalist Chapel at 2 p.m., and Hanover native Virginia Heffernan reads from her nonfiction book Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, in the Wilder Room at the Woodstock Inn.

Sunday, July 30 — Jarvis Antonio Green will speak at 12:30 p.m., at the Norman Williams Public Library, on the topic of “Exploring Race and Heritage,” including his production company’s 10-year plan to stage in the Upper Valley all 10 of August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” of plays about working-class black families.

The festival concludes at the Town Hall Theatre at 2 p.m., with filmmaker Jay Craven leading a tribute to novelist Howard Frank Mosher, who died earlier this year. Craven adapted several of Mosher’s books into movies.

Bookstock takes over the village green in Woodstock and features readings at several surrounding venues July 28 to 30. To learn more, visit

Strafford Town House Forum

Sharon’s Jim Rooney and fellow Americana musician Pat Alger open the forum on Aug. 3, with a discussion of the intersection between poetry and song. Following them to the Town House over the subsequent three Thursday nights, all at 7, will be:

Aug. 10 — Essayist and educator Michael Caduto and naturalist Ted Levin discuss “The World Around Us.”

Aug. 17 — Short-story writer Robin MacArthur and novelist Melanie Finn talk about the art and science of fiction.

Aug. 24 — Poets Pamela Harrison and Ina Anderson.

While admission to the Town House Forum talks is free, donations are welcome, to bolster the new-books fund at Strafford’s Morrill Memorial and Harris Library.

Joan Hutton Landis Series BigTown Gallery, Rochester, Vt.

July 9 — Poet and storyteller Russell C. Leong reads from Mothsutra, his meditation on the men who deliver Asian fast food in New York City, and from poems on love, Buddhism and the diaspora of Chinese immigrants. The Mothsutra reading will be accompanied by slides of imagery in the book, and with musical accompaniment. Admission is free.

July 23 — Poets Major Jackson and Didi Jackson read from a variety of their collections. Admission is free.

Aug. 13 Cooking with Fire author and food historian Paula Marcoux practices what she preaches over an open fire, then serves the results. Admission is $25 at the door.

Sept. 3 — Northeast Kingdom author Mark Bowen talks about his three books on science, including The Telescope in the Ice, about astronomy at the South Pole, due out in November.

Each of the Landis Series readings begins at 5:30 p.m., with doors opening at 5. To learn more, visit

Other Coming Attractions

Philadelphia writer Janet Benton reads from her debut novel, Lilli de Jong at 4 p.m. on July 20 at Woodstock’s Norman Williams Public Library. The book follows the life’s path of an unwed, 19th-century Quaker woman who keeps her baby.

Cry Freedom

If you missed the Norwich Public Library’s participatory reading earlier this week of abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech about the irony of expecting former slaves to celebrate Independence Day, the Vermont Humanities Council is hosting four more recitations in the Upper Valley over the next two weeks, starting Saturday morning with a reading on the Quechee Green on Saturday morning at 11.

Subsequent recitations are scheduled at the Tunbridge Public Library on Monday night at 7; at Randolph’s Kimball Public Library at noon on Tuesday, Independence Day; and at the Hartland Public Library on July 13 at 7 p.m.

For more information about these and other readings around Vermont, visit

David Corriveau can be reached at and at 603-727-3304.

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