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Hartland author bases her latest novel on the scene of her ‘strongest emotions’

  • Young adult author Jo Knowles, of Hartland, Vt., is photographed at Damon Hall in Hartland on April 9, 2019. Knowles' new book is "Where the Heart Is." (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Correspondent
Thursday, April 18, 2019

At the start of Jo Knowles’ eighth book, the recently released Where the Heart Is (Candlewick Press), Rachel Gartner is celebrating two glorious occasions: her 13th birthday and the end of the school year.

Rachel lives in an old farmhouse in a small New England town, has an irrepressible 8-year-old sister, Ivy, two doting parents and a best friend, Micah. All the ingredients are in place for what has been a staple of children’s  and young adult literature, the summer vacation adventure.

Knowles, who lives in Hartland with her husband (her son is in college in Washington, D.C.), turns these standard elements into something else, a poignant, subtle and true-to-life story of adolescent confusion and dislocation.

In an interview at the Hartland Diner last week, Knowles said that Where the Heart Is draws on her own experiences when she was 13 and 14, growing up in Meredith, N.H., on Lake Winnipesaukee.

“At that age it was such a hard time,” she said. “My strongest emotions are still back there.”

Rachel goes through a sea change that summer. Micah thinks he wants to be her boyfriend, but Rachel’s not interested. She wonders instead whether she is more attracted to girls after she becomes friendly with Cybil Jackson, a classmate she doesn’t know well. Cybil makes her feel tingly and excited, while Micah doesn’t.

Most unsettling is the pall that hangs over Rachel’s parents with each new bill that comes due. Under a great deal of financial and personal stress, they fight more, they’re moodier and they’ve withdrawn from their children.

Add to that the arrival of new neighbors, the wealthy Townsends, who ask Rachel to take care of their menagerie of farm animals, including a belligerent pig named Lucy, and the stage is set for a tumultuous summer.

Much of this comes from Knowles’ own life. A few years ago, she had a conversation with a colleague at Southern New Hampshire University, where she teaches in the MFA program. She was telling him stories about her life and he urged her to write a memoir. Knowles knew she didn’t want to do that, but what he said planted a seed.

Her first book, Lessons from a Dead Girl, which delved into sexual abuse, was published in 2009 and earned the PEN New England Children’s Book Discovery Award, among other prizes.

Her subsequent books have explored with a delicate empathy such issues as teen pregnancy, eating disorders, bullying, dysfunctional families and coping with death at a young age. Although she’d used some aspects of her own life in her novels, she hadn’t really looked at it as a whole.

She thought back to a crisis point. While an undergraduate at Simmons College in Boston, she learned that her parents could no longer afford to keep the house she’d grown up in. They couldn’t make the mortgage payments and the bank foreclosed and seized the house. They had to leave the house and move into an apartment in town.

“How did that happen? And, how did I survive it?” said Knowles, who is in her late 40s. “I think what happened is that losing our house has been following me my whole life.”

That became the core of Where the Heart Is. As she learned when she began writing, her older sister and brother didn’t have quite the same memories or feelings that she did. They had gone away to college before she did. The loss of the house affected them, but it did not have as profound an impact as it did on Knowles.

“That’s my home, that’s safety. That’s where I go,” Knowles recalled thinking at the time.

Knowles remembered coming back from an evening out to catch her parents, in one of the family’s last nights in the house, slow dancing together in the living room, unaware they were being observed. “It was a really powerful moment,” she said.

In a nonfiction writing class in college, Knowles wrote an essay, Living Room Music, about that scene between her mother and father, who could still draw on each other for strength and love in the midst of turmoil. It won a prize from the college literary magazine. At a ceremony for the winners, Knowles had to read it aloud, something she wasn’t looking forward to doing. But, as she read, she could hear that some people in the audience were moved to tears.

“I realized my words had power,” she said.

It wasn’t until her family read Where the Heart Is that they realized how difficult it had been for her decades ago. Knowles had some trepidation about writing it, afraid she would hurt her parents, who live in Sandwich, N.H. Her worries proved unfounded. Her father called her to tell her he loved the book.

The house went on the market recently and Knowles went online and looked at it. “It was weird. Some things had changed, some things were exactly the same. I don’t feel attached to that place anymore. I want to remember it as it was.”

Despite the blow of losing the family home, and the uncertainty that came with it, Knowles said that, “There was always love. We would always be together. It would be different and it would be harder, but we would still be together.”

On a recent book tour around New England, Knowles was struck by how the novel resonated with the teens she met. After a reading to an eighth-grade class in Connecticut, one girl told her “I’m going through a lot of tough times,” just like Rachel, while another teen said, “You wrote a kid who’s just like me.”

“Those are the connections that you make as an author. That’s what it’s all about,” Knowles said.

With that intimate relationship between author and readers in mind, Knowles honored her memories, and life’s realities, by writing a conclusion to Where the Heart Is that is not conventionally happy. She wanted to stress that individual resilience and grit are more powerful than a deus ex machina coming in to miraculously save the day. Younger readers experiencing their own crises and confusion are better served by honesty than fairy tales.

“Hope and happy endings are different things,” she said.

As part of Indie Bookstore Day, Jo Knowles will read fromWhere the Heart Isat 2 p.m. on April 27 at the Norwich Bookstore, together with Norwich native and Vermont resident Lindsey Stoddard, who will read from her young adult novelRight as Rain. Admission is free but reservations are suggested. Call 802-649-1114.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.