Julia Alvarez Wins Newport Library’s Sarah Josepha Hale Award

  • Julia Alvarez

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/11/2017 12:05:05 AM
Modified: 8/11/2017 12:05:15 AM

Until she learned that she’d won the Richards Free Library’s Sarah Josepha Hale Award for 2017, Julia Alvarez knew little about the honor and even less about Hale, the Newport-born poet, novelist, editor and abolitionist.

During the countdown to the award ceremony in Newport on Aug. 19, the author of the historical novel In the Time of the Butterflies  is hitting the books and the internet — and reflecting on her own literary legacy.

“(Hale’s) life was very complicated — to a novelist, very interesting and alluring,” Alvarez said on Wednesday, during a telephone conversation from her home in Weybridge, Vt. “And … when I looked up (the award), I was very impressed by the previous winners.”

Impressed and, at first, puzzled: After all, the award traditionally goes to writers with deep connections to New England, in addition to a lifetime of achievement in letters. Alvarez, who was born in New York City and spent most of her childhood in the Dominican Republic before her family returned to New York in the 1960s, finds herself following in the footsteps of the likes of inaugural recipient Robert Frost (1956). The list of subsequent literary luminaries includes several with Upper Valley connections and national followings, among them poets Richard Eberhart, Donald Hall and Grace Paley, novelists Michael Dorris and Ernest Hebert, children’s-book author-illustrator Tomie diPaola, playwright Arthur Miller and documentarian Ken Burns. Other award winners range from novelists John Hersey and Geraldine Brooks to historian David McCullough and pioneering bird-book author Roger Tory Peterson.

“It so affirming at this stage of life to be part of the big table of literature, in my adopted country,” Alvarez said. “The fact that this award focuses on New England writers shows how far we’ve come, that a Latina from the Dominican Republic is part of New England now.

“It makes me feel good that there’s this kind of inclusivity.”

Alvarez traces her regional bona fides to a summer she spent at a youth camp on Lake Champlain in the early 1960s, and to a 1969 stint at Middlebury College’s Breadloaf writers’ conference in the Green Mountains — just up the road from where Frost lived and wrote for several years. Those Vermont experiences inspired Alvarez to transfer from Connecticut College to Middlebury to complete her undergraduate studies, and in 1988, she accepted the post of writer-in-residence at Middlebury. She’s been teaching ever since, while writing much of her most acclaimed work, most recently 2017’s Where Do They Go?  a children’s book, about dealing with the loss of loved ones, that East Barnard printmaker Sabra Field illustrated.

“I’ve now lived here longer than I did in the Dominican Republic,” Alvarez said. “And as I keep looking over the list of winners, I see that there are a lot of us who are transplants, even Robert Frost, who was born in California.”

Alvarez added that she particularly appreciates the Hale award because of the institution that’s awarding it.

“Libraries made me what I am,” she said. “When we came to this country, it was from a country that didn’t have the tradition of free public libraries, the idea that they would let you take the books home. I used to think of them as cathedreals to books. You could just get lost there.

“Whenever I get something like this from librarians, it’s really special.”

Julia Alvarez will receive the Sarah Josepha Hale Award at Newport’s Richards Free Library on Aug. 19 at 8 p.m. Three days before the ceremony, the library’s Wednesday Night Book Group will discuss Alvarez’s acclaimed novel In the Time of the Butterflies, about the effect on a family of the 1960s military coup in the Dominican Republic; the session starts at 7.

Author-Reading Rainbow

Heading into the homestretch of the Town House Forum readings in Strafford this month, novelist and documentary screenwriter Melanie Finn and short-story writer and folk musician Robin MacArthur will share their work and outlooks at the Town House on Thursday night at 7.

Finn’s most recent novel is the acclaimed The Gloaming, which jolts an American-born woman from her comfort zone in Switzerland to a new, complicated life in Africa. Her film work includes the screenplays for the documentaries Turtle: The Incredible Journey and The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingoes. MacArthur will read from her collection of Vermont-based stories, Half Wild.

The forum series concludes on an autobiographical note, in verse, on Aug. 24. Norwich poet Pamela Harrison will read from, and talk about the long gestation of, her most recent collection, Glory Bush & Green Banana, while Sharon-based poet and writing teacher Ina Anderson will share vignettes from her childhood in England, out of her collection Journey into Space.

While admission is free to the readings, donations are welcome to the new-books fund of Strafford’s Morrill Memorial and Harris Library. The Norwich Bookstore will sell copies of the authors’ books for signing.

Weather or Not

On Thursday morning at 9, in Dartmouth College’s Spaulding Auditorium, earth scientist Kerry Emanuel, director of a climate think tank at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will read from his book What We Know About Climate Change. To reserve a ticket ($25) to the lecture, which is part of the Osher at Dartmouth series “Global Challenges Confronting the United States,” visit osher.dartmouth.edu/summer_series.


The Seven Stars Arts Center in Sharon invites poets at all levels of experience to a monthly series of workshops with award-winning poet and Sharon resident Ina Anderson.

The sessions, each of which cost $10, are scheduled for Wednesday night at 7 and at the same time on the nights of Sept. 20, Oct. 18 and Nov. 15. To learn more, visit sevenstarsarts.org or the arts center’s Facebook page.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.

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