Excerpt: Chapter 2, Her Dear and Loving Husband

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Thursday night Sarah was slow with her steps, savoring the town. She turned from Washington Street and wandered between Front and Derby, past the old-fashioned Salem Marketplace where people window shopped through the narrow lanes, gazing at the painters and sculptors in Artists Row, imagining what it must have been like living there centuries ago. She continued to the watery expanse of the bay where the breeze blew lazy laps in the water, postcard perfect along the natural coastline beauty. Rising above the water, towering above the sailboats, was the 171-foot-long, three-masted ship the Friendship, an emblem of Salem. She saw the white lighthouse, waiting patiently, beckoning sailors home. She stepped onto Pickering Wharf, a harborside village of gray-blue buildings with white trim, the hubbub of local seafaring activities, and she paused to admire the slick boats parked in neat little rows. She breathed in the wholesome air, exhaled, and relaxed. She felt comfortable, as if she had found a childhood friend after many years. More than anything, she loved the peace she felt. Her thoughts had been congested so long, the ten years she spent in Los Angeles, to be exact, and with every step she took she felt her muddled worries clearing away, lifted from her shoulders by the sauntering wind.

The Witches Lair, Jennifer’s mother’s shop, was located on Pickering Wharf, tucked in alongside the clothing, gift, and antique boutiques. Sarah arrived before everyone else since she was still on an L.A. schedule where you had to leave an hour early to get through the traffic to get anywhere on time. A tinkling bell rang as she pulled open the door, and when she walked into the shop she said hello to the woman behind the counter and glanced around. The Witches Lair was a perfect name for the store since it was stocked with any accoutrement a witch or wizard might need: altar supplies and incense, aromatherapy oils and diffusers, cauldrons and tarot cards, crystals and gems, and books about subjects ranging from the kama sutra to kabbalah and from magick and spells to dream interpretation. It was dark inside, with dim overhead lights and flameless candles in the sconces on the walls, the shadows adding to the mystical ambiance.

Sarah paused by the bookcase, searching the titles. She was intrigued by one, about dream interpretation, and as she scanned the back cover she wondered if the information inside could help her unravel the dreams that plagued her. There were nights when the images were so intense that when she woke up it took some time to distinguish between the scenes in her head and the reality in the world outside. With the book forgotten in her hands, she remembered her latest nightmare, the one that staggered her awake the night before. She was so lost in thought she didn’t notice the older woman beside her.

“Would you like a psychic reading, dear? I can read your palm, or perhaps you’d prefer a tarot card reading?”

“Oh no.” Sarah returned the book to the shelf. “I’m waiting for Jennifer Mandel. We work together at the library and she invited me here tonight.”

The woman clasped her hands together, and she smiled in warm greeting. “You must be Sarah. I’m Olivia Phillips, Jennifer’s mother. Welcome to the Witches Lair.”

Olivia looked like a fortune-telling gypsy with her hoop earrings and peasant-style skirt. Her steel-gray eyes and the wisps of silver in her close-cropped red hair were striking. Sarah and Olivia shook hands, and Sarah gestured at the store around her.

“Your shop is fascinating. I’ve never seen one like it.”

“Shops like these are a dime a dozen around here. Everyone in Salem thinks they’re a psychic or a mystic or touched by the supernatural somehow.” Olivia waved her hand in a firm dismissal of those who would think that way. “Jennifer tells me you’re new to Salem.”

“That’s right.” Sarah began to explain about her divorce, but Olivia held up her hand.

“You don’t need to explain, dear. I have four ex-husbands myself. But why Salem?”

“I’ve always felt drawn here. When I was growing up in Boston I asked my mother to bring me to the Halloween festival, and we lived so close, but somehow we never made it. My mother always had one excuse or other to skip the trip. Just the thought of this place made her shiver.”

“Has your mother ever been here? There’s nothing to be afraid of, at least not for over three hundred years. These days it’s more of a tourist town than anything.”

“I’ve told her that, but she still won’t come. I thought she’d want to know more about our ancestor, but she’s not interested.”

“Your ancestor?”

“When I was a girl my great-aunt told us that someone in our family died as a victim of the witch hunts, but my aunt didn’t know anything else about the woman, not even her name. I started working on my family tree when I was in L.A., and I thought if I were here I could do more research at the Danvers Archival Center. At least I’d like to know her name.”

“A mystery to solve. I love it.” Olivia looked at the book Sarah had slipped back onto the shelf. She watched Sarah, her face fixed, like a detective gathering clues where no one else thought to look. “Jennifer tells me you have dreams.” She took Sarah’s hand and patted it in a motherly way. “Would you like to tell me about them?”

Sarah shook her head. She had never told anyone. Nick, her ex-husband, knew, but only by default. He would yell and bitch and moan whenever she woke screaming in the night, clenching her jaw tight until the bones popped in her ears, her muscles like sailors’ knots. He told her she was weak for giving into the internal heckling, but they were her dreams. She couldn’t control them. They would have their way with her, picking and pulling at her, though she didn’t want them to. Because of Nick’s impatience, and her own disappointment with how easily she was jolted awake by the clear-as-day images, she kept her dreams a secret from everyone else. Instinctively, she felt she could trust Olivia, that Olivia might be someone she could confide in about the teasing games her subconscious liked to play when she was sleeping and defenseless, waking her with nervous, earthquake-like tremors. She had the clothbound notebook where she recorded her dreams there with her in the Witches Lair, in the canvas bag hanging from her shoulder. She could have pulled it out to show Olivia. But she didn’t. She shook her head again.

“Whatever you wish, Sarah. Just remember, I’m here should you change your mind. And my friend Martha, you’ll meet her tonight, is excellent at dream interpretation. She’s an expert at past-life regression as well.”

“You’re very kind, but you don’t need to trouble yourself over it.”

“But dreams are our subconscious whispering truths in our ears, Sarah. You should pay attention. You’d be amazed at what you could learn.”

Olivia gripped Sarah’s hand tighter and led her past the bookcases and displays to four cubby-sized rooms separated from the rest of the store by black velvet curtains.

“Come. I’ll give you a reading for free. Any friend of Jennifer’s is a friend of mine.” Sarah tried to protest, but Olivia wouldn’t be swayed. “Really, dear, everything will be fine. Perhaps I can help you understand your dreams.”

Sarah relented, telling herself she didn’t believe in psychics, extrasensory perception, mysticism, or anything like that, so the reading didn’t matter. And she did like Olivia. There was such unconditional warmth in the older woman’s manner. Besides, in a tarot reading didn’t they just pull three cards from the deck and make guesses about your life based on the pictures? She would humor Olivia, pretend to be startled by the revelations, then join Jennifer and the others.

Olivia pulled aside the curtain to the cubby on the end, fringed with more black velvet. Inside there was only enough space for a small round table covered with white linen and two folding chairs while a candle and spiced incense burned on a shelf. Olivia sat in the chair behind the table and gestured for Sarah to sit across from her. She took Sarah’s hand and looked at her palm.

“Have you had a psychic reading before?”

“Once, when I was in college. I was taking a religious studies class and one of our assignments was to have a psychic reading and write about our experience.”

“And what was your experience?”

“She seemed very young, the psychic, just college age herself, and I wasn’t impressed with her predictions since everything she said was generic and could have applied to anyone.”

Olivia dropped Sarah’s hand to study her. Again, that detective seeking clues look. “What did she say?”

“I was getting ready to move to Los Angeles where my fiancé had a job in the film industry. She told me moving away would be a mistake because L.A. was not my home. She said my husband was not my husband and I was not who I thought I was.”

“Who do you think you are?”

“I’m Sarah Alexander.”

Olivia was in deep thought as she considered.

“Yes, well, let’s see what else we can learn.”

 

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Summer Reads—2017 Edition

It’s always a shock to my system when summer vacation ends and it’s time to head back to school. As a student and a teacher, I know how lucky I am to have summers off, so I’m always grateful for the time. Like so many of you, I read a lot during the summer, and this summer I read a variety of books, both fiction and nonfiction.

I realized in May that I was feeling stifled creatively. I wrote in this post about how I had been feeling disconnected from my writing self. I couldn’t settle my mind to any writing project. I was having trouble separating what I wanted to write from what I thought I should be writing, which led to a lot of creative dissatisfaction. I was drawn to rereading Natalie Goldberg, who always helps me find my writing center when I lose it, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I also reread The Artist’s Way, but instead of reading it cover to cover as I did the first time I’m going through the 12 weeks of lessons. Here are the books I read that helped me to get excited about writing again:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another nonfiction book I read was The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible. I had seen the author, Charles Eisenstein, on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, and I had a feeling I would enjoy the book. If you’re having trouble accepting the state of the world today, then you might get a lot out of this book, as I did. I love Anne Lamott’s books (see Bird by Bird above)—I love her humor, her insights, and her observations—and Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy was also an important book for me.

 

 

 

 

I read a lot of nonfiction, but the historical fiction I read was outstanding. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is simply great literary historical fiction. It’s a retelling of the story of Achilles from The Iliad, but it adds a twist, and Miller’s prose is simply gorgeous.

Finally, finally I read Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I wrote about my experience reading that book here. Now I could kick myself for waiting so long to read it. I had said that since I don’t get Starz I wouldn’t be able to watch, but then a few days later I discovered that Starz was having a free preview week so I got to watch Seasons 1 and 2, which were fantastic. I know Season 3 is coming up soon, but I’ll have to wait for the next free preview week to see that one. It’s okay. It will give me time to read more of the books. So far I’ve read Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber. I love what I’ve read in the Outlander books so far. Gabaldon is a great writer, which adds so much depth to the stories.

 

 

 

 

I’ve also been reading about the Salem Witch Trials as I’ve been writing Down Salem Way. The Marilynne K. Roach books are rereads for me since I used them as sources for Her Dear & Loving Husband, but The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion L. Starkey is a new find for me. I’m reading it now and I’m enjoying the way Starkey weaves together the events of the witch hunts into a narrative, so much so that it reads like a novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that’s how I kept busy this summer. Not one stinker in the bunch, which is a pretty neat trick when you’ve read a lot of books.

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Historical Fiction Review: The Song of Achilles

Are you looking for a great literary historical read this summer? Here’s my review of The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller for The Copperfield Review

By the way, we’re looking for readers who love to review historical fiction (you know who you are). If you’re a fan of historical fiction, check out Copperfield’s Submission Guidelines for how to submit your historical novel reviews. We’ll even pay you a bit (yes, it’s a little bit but it’s still a bit) for your trouble.

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Written by Madeline Miller

Published by HarperCollins Publishers

Review by Meredith Allard

 

This is simply an outstanding piece of literature. Miller’s simple yet lyrical style pulls you effortlessly into the poetry of the Iliad. Here we focus on Achilles through the eyes of Patroclus, the young prince who is banished from his land for accidentally killing another boy and he is taken as a companion for Achilles. Patroclus and Achilles become partners in every way, and The Song of Achilles is really a love song between the two men. This isn’t simply an attraction between Patroclus and Achilles. This is a deep, abiding love that transcends death.

If you’re familiar with The Iliad (which you do not need to be to enjoy this book), then there are few surprises here except perhaps for the scope of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. There is no twist-filled ending: the fate of the two men has been sung about throughout the centuries. Still, Miller ends this tale in a way that is perfectly heartbreaking, bittersweet, and right. Despite war, broken promises, and the loss of all one holds most dear, there can still be peace in the end.

This is not a retelling of the entire story of The Iliad. This is one version of one story as told through the eyes of the man who knew Achilles best. I’m looking forward to reading more from Madeline Miller.

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