Novelist profiles a Dartmouth pioneer

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    Caroline Cook's novel "Tell Them to Be Quiet and Wait" (Courtesy photograph)

  • Caroline Cook (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 11/6/2022 10:27:28 PM
Modified: 11/6/2022 10:26:59 PM

Back in 2018, Dartmouth College student Caroline Cook needed a research topic. As the first fellow in Dartmouth’s Historical Accountability Student Research Program, Cook was given free rein to explore the college’s diverse and underrepresented past.

Jay Satterfield, head of special collections at Rauner Library, suggested Cook look into biologist Hannah Croasdale, who in 1964 became Dartmouth’s first tenured female professor. Cook remembers feeling struck that she’d never considered who that pioneering person might have been, and as she started to learn more about Croasdale, Cook could tell her story was “really special.”

“The way that I usually describe it to folks is that she’s not who you think she’s going to be when we start looking into her life,” Cook said.

Cook, who graduated from Dartmouth last year, drew upon her research to write a fictionalized version of Croasdale’s life. The resulting novel, Tell Them to Be Quiet and Wait, came out Nov. 1, just before Dartmouth plans to celebrate its 50th anniversary of coeducation on Nov. 11 and 12.

Cook will be returning to the Upper Valley to speak about her research and debut novel, first on Nov. 10 at Dartmouth’s Baker-Berry Library, then as part of a panel on Nov. 13 at Still North Books in Hanover.

A big challenge for Cook was how to write about Croasdale’s struggles as she rose through the ranks at Dartmouth before earning tenure. She came to work at the college in 1938 as a technical assistant in what was then called the Department of Zoology. As Cook explained, she didn’t always react to the discrimination she faced in a way modern readers might expect.

“Obviously, she was frustrated,” Cook said. While she asked for pay raises and promotions, like her male counterparts were getting, Croasdale didn’t complain about working at a place that wasn’t particularly welcoming to her — at least not in the records Cook found. Pioneers like Croasdale sometimes have to be tolerant, Cook learned, and put up with a lot to get what they want.

“She knew what she was going to face at Dartmouth, and she chose to do it anyway, not because she wanted to be the first woman, but because she wanted to be the best scientist that she could be,” Cook said.

Cook chose to tell Croasdale’s story through fiction for a couple of reasons. One was that fiction would allow her to put the reader in Croasdale’s shoes, really engaging emotionally with the biologist’s challenges and successes, more so than if she wrote a nonfiction biography.

“The other piece was that there are a lot of gaps in the archives, and those gaps are definitely the most interesting parts of the story,” Cook said.

For example, Cook assumed that Croasdale encountered sexual harassment — a term that wasn’t in general use at the time — though there were no records to support it.

“I wanted to be able to explore some of those things that I can’t prove ever happened, but I would personally be surprised if they didn’t,” Cook said.

Though Cook isn’t a scientist herself, she recalls a middle school teacher who encouraged her interest in science with engaging classroom experiments. And an early obsession with the book “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott, sparked her love of history and storytelling.

Cook wrote most of her novel during her senior year, drawing upon the Upper Valley’s seasons, smells and strong sense of place to situate her fictional New Hampshire college and characters. She got a lot of good feedback from professors and student workshops. One benefit of writing her novel as part of her schoolwork? She couldn’t put off writing, Cook explained, “because it was constantly due.”

Cook hasn’t started on another book yet, in part because she wants to stay focused on Croasdale. Cook feels the heavy responsibility of telling another person’s story. But she’s hopeful this won’t be her last literary effort.

“I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer pretty much as young as I started reading books,” Cook said. “That was like a dream of mine.”

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