Skip to main content


May 5, 2016

Martha Hall Kelly on a True Friend and a Good Writer

Posted by emily

Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel, LILAC GIRLS --- the remarkable story of unsung women and their quest for love, freedom and second chances ---was inspired by a real-life World War II heroine. Turns out, it’s not only her writing that was inspired by a strong woman; her reading was, as well. Here, Martha talks about her late mother, who prioritized reading in her own life, and passed on to her children and grandchildren a great love for all books --- although none so much as E. B. White’s classic CHARLOTTE’S WEB.

The day my mother died, she wanted to talk about books. That was 16 years ago, and my nine-months-pregnant sister, Polly, was driving from Connecticut in a snowstorm. She was on her way to us on the island of Martha’s Vineyard to have the baby, hoping Mother could hold him at least once before she died. We switched back and forth between The Weather Channel and “Jeopardy!” craving distraction.

“Kiddie Lit for $500, Alex,”one contestant said.

The rhythmic sucking of Mother’s oxygen machine lulled us both.

“And the answer is: Wendy Darling’s flighty brothers,” Alex Trebek said.

Mother dismissed the screen with a wave. “What is John and Michael, of course. These questions are getting too easy.”

“PETER PAN has it all,” I said.

She reached for my hand, something she did often toward the end.

“Oh please. It’s no CHARLOTTE’S WEB.”

There was no arguing there. We didn’t have a lot of money when we were young, but E. B. White and books in general were the priority. Joan Finnegan Hall, raised on Martha’s Vineyard during the Depression (who often reminded us she had read GONE WITH THE WIND at 10 years old), rescued most of her books from the town dump, from those the summer people left behind in stacks. A great fan of Russian novels and mysteries, she often had to settle for Hemingway, Pearl. S. Buck and John Steinbeck until she could buy books for herself.

Mother adored E. B. White, and read CHARLOTTE’S WEB aloud to my three siblings and me as we sat in the dining room after dinner, to the point that I knew it by heart. That book has it all. Tension. Heartbreak. A fabulous, teary ending. It led to my own life-long love affair with E. B. White’s work, and I often pulled out my own copy to read to my children. So many times when writing my own novels, I’ve found myself referencing it: The rising tension of Wilbur’s fate. The mystery of the messages in the web. Templeton the rat, the complex villain. And is there a better, more tense opening than when Fern’s father gets his ax?

And my mother’s favorite line: “Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” 

My mother passed on her love of books to her grandchildren and often walked them down the street to The Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven, her holy place. Knowing she didn’t have long to live, she would coax them up on her lap any chance she got to read to them, as if topping off their tanks before she had to go.

I thought of her last summer when my daughter Katherine, after we both read ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE at the same time, sat on our porch on Martha’s Vineyard. Katherine had finished well before I did and sat waiting for me as I finished the final page, and we both cried together over the profoundly moving ending. Mother would love this, I thought.

In the end, my mother didn’t get to meet her new grandchild. She died late that stormy night 16 years ago, missing the birth of my sister’s baby the next morning by a few hours. We like to think that she and my nephew, Finnegan, somehow passed as she was leaving and he was arriving.

Last summer when I came upon Finn reading on the porch, a novel for school, I thought Mother would’ve been pleased as punch.

“What are you reading?” I asked.


“What do you think?”

“Love Kurt Vonnegut,” he said.

“What’s your favorite book of all time?”

“Hmmm, I would have to say A SEPARATE PEACE.”

“Loved that, too.” I started toward the door to the house.

“But actually,” Finn called after me, “gotta put CHARLOTTE’S WEB at number one. I know that one by heart.”