Thetford Author Bases Her Novels on Her Experiences and ‘Everyday People’

  • Cindy Howland, of Thetford, Vt., walks through her front yard on July 12, 2018. Howland is the author of the novels "Legacy of a Wallflower" and "My Mother Grows Wallflowers." (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News correspondent
Thursday, September 06, 2018

In 2008, the writer C.L. Howland lost both her mother and a brother within a seven-month period; her father had already died in 1990.

Although she was married with a family of her own, and the death of one’s parents is inevitable, it was still a blow.

“You feel like an orphan. Those last links are gone,” she said.

It did give Howland license to write her first two novels My Mother Grows Wallflowers and Legacy of a Wallflower (Random Tangent Press), which borrow elements from her own life growing up in Thetford.

Howland, who goes by Cindy in her non-literary life, could not have written the novels while her parents were still alive, she said in an interview this summer at the Aloha Foundation in Fairlee, where she has worked for 17 years as an accountant.

Her intention in writing, she said, was not to dishonor her mother and father but to transform the raw material of her childhood and adolescence into an empathetic narrative that tells readers that regardless of their background and circumstances, they can persevere and take pride in doing so.

“There’s been some adversity in my life. The characters in my books deal with adversity, too, because that’s what real life is about, but they, like I, never lose hope,” Howland wrote in a later email.

The two novels follow Mina, an adolescent girl growing up in straitened circumstances in the fictional town of Northam, Vt. Not only does Mina have to contend with the usual perils of adolescence — self-image, her place in the caste structure of high school, her paralyzing shyness, what her future might hold — but she also struggles with the fact that her family is poor in a town that is quite affluent.

In the first novel, My Mother Grows Wallflowers, Mina meets a young man, Sam Miller, who is a Lakota Sioux and has moved to the area with his family. They slowly fall in love. Both societal opposition and objections from Mina’s mother, as well as Mina’s own lack of self-confidence, separate the couple. Sam joins the military and Mina pines away. The Legacy of a Wallflower describes the roads Sam and Mina take back to each other, with plenty of twists along the way. The barriers to their union may seem innumerable but they are not insuperable.

Howland, 61, has long curly graying hair and a deliberate way of speaking. She still lives in Thetford with her husband of 35 years. Their two grown children live nearby.

One of seven children, Howland had been writing for years, but she’d never shown her stories to anyone. “I didn’t go to college, I never took a writing course. I taught myself writing by reading books.”

Her mother and father, Lillian and Clifford Goodrich, were, respectively, 40 and 47 when Howland was born. They’d had a tough road in childhood, and they had a tough road as adults. Her paternal grandfather basically sold off her father and his brother to local farms for their room and board, she said. She found her father in a Census, aged 13.

“Under ‘relationship to the head of household,’ the word ‘servant’ had been written. It made me very sad,” she wrote in an email.

Her father went on to work in the Elizabeth Copper Mine in Strafford and then for Vermont’s transportation department, jobs that didn’t pay much; her mother had more than enough work with seven children to raise, although she also took in laundry and ironing.

Howland’s mother had learned to harvest and prepare wild foods, including boiled milkweed leaves and fiddle heads. She made jams and jellies from crab apples, choke cherries and even apple peels, and put up pickles and vegetables in the fall.

Life with her mother could be difficult, Howland said, choosing her words carefully. “I don’t think she had much of a childhood. I don’t think that my mom was taught that she was good enough.”

As a result, her expectations for her children’s future (or at least for Howland) seemed circumscribed by the kind of poverty in which she’d grown up.

When Howland got into college and applied for financial aid, her parents refused to sign the forms because they were terrified of accumulating debt.

This was a crushing disappointment to Howland, but she understands now why they were so afraid. They’d operated all their lives under the assumption that the life they lived was the only way it would ever be. To take a chance on something different seemed like tempting fate.

“The world was passing them by,” Howland said.

But, she added, “I’m here on the other side. I made it. And it was very important to me that my children not feel stifled.”

Howland went on to work in computer engineering, education and banking before landing at the Aloha Foundation.

Howland has three other books in the works, including a historical novel set in the 1890s in Vermont that revolves around the old copper mines; a novel set during Pearl Harbor and its aftermath, which will be released this fall; and a novel about contemporary Chicago. She makes up the stories based on what she observes around her.

“I’m the transcriber, I just write what I hear,” she said. She doesn’t belabor description, preferring that readers fill in with their own imaginations. She likens the job of writing the action to a projector clicking on, with scenes and images passing before her.

Her aim in the first two books was to write about the kind of people she grew up with, and still knows, she said.

The term “ordinary” or “everyday” people is often used as a vaguely patronizing shorthand for those who haven’t passed through the portals of the Ivy League Industrial Complex or ascended to the upper echelons of finance, entertainment or the literary world. But, Howland said, “I think everyday people have the best stories.”

Still, their worlds of economic hardship and struggle aren’t, to Howland’s mind, particularly well represented in American fiction.

“No one’s ever said, ‘Honey, let’s pay the light bill.’ in a Danielle Steel book,” she said.

More reason for her to continue, she said. “I won’t live long enough to write all the stories I want to write.”

For more information go to clhowland.com.

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