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December 24, 2016

Martha Hall Kelly: Of Mothers and Daughters, and Books Lost and Found

Posted by emily

Martha Hall Kelly’s LILAC GIRLS --- the remarkable story of unsung women and their quest for love, freedom and second chances during World War II --- debuted last spring to rave reviews (and was a Bets On pick). As a woman who likes to write about women, it’s no surprise that one of Martha’s earliest literary obsessions was JANE EYRE --- more specifically, her mother’s precious woodcut version of the Charlotte Brontë classic. In our final Holiday Author Blog, Martha tells her own story of second chances, a book lost and found, and how her late mother’s legacy lives on through the books she loved.

My mother never quite forgave me for leaving Jane Eyre in my middle school locker over the summer.

It all started when she urged me to read the Brontë sisters. “I know you’ll like them,” she said, nudging the book my way. “JANE EYRE was one of my favorites.”

She loved her precious two-volume set of the Brontë sisters’ JANE EYRE and WUTHERING HEIGHTS, published by Random House in 1943. A true work of art, the two books slid with a satisfying tightness into a forest green sleeve, each volume filled with woodcuts by Fritz Eichenberg.

I ended up enjoying both books, but my heart belonged to Jane, and Fritz Eichenberg’s woodcuts helped foster that love. His cover art of Jane Eyre and her schoolmates walking two abreast, only Jane raising her eyes to look at us. The silhouette of Jane and Mr. Rochester astride his rearing horse. Each haunting one brought Charlotte Brontë’s story alive.

A new JANE EYRE acolyte, I carried the set with me everywhere, hoping to look cool.

“Can I take it to school?” I asked one day.

My mother smiled and seemed pleased I had finally read it. “Of course.”

I loved bringing the books to class, a badge of literary honor, but at the end of the year forgot them in my locker. By the time the new school year rolled around, the books were gone, and I was devastated.

“Did the book turn up?” Mother asked one hot September afternoon, the first day of a new school year.

“Janitor Bob says they cleaned out the lockers over the summer. But I’ll find it.”

My mother, raised year round on Martha’s Vineyard, rescued most of her books from the town dump when the summer people left for the year. Her books were sacred and precious, and all that and more showed on her face that day. The disappointed silence made my stomach hurt.

I looked everywhere at Indian Head Middle School for my mother’s book, but it had disappeared without a trace. I pictured Janitor Bob’s wife reading it, turning the overleaf and seeing my mother’s name written there. Had one of the lunch ladies scurried off with it?

Time passed and my mother stopped asking about the book, her love for me stronger than her love of her books, though perhaps just barely. She was wise enough to know a lost cause when she saw it.

Years passed and I married, had three children and my mother got sick with emphysema. Around that time I discovered eBay and experienced the same feeling Dr. Livingstone must have felt upon seeing Africa. It seemed too good to be true that in minutes you could browse what took weeks to find at flea markets. I found a replacement set of family heirloom china angels that had tragically cracked. A copy of GOOD TIMES, BAD TIMES by James Kirkwood, my favorite high school novel, long out of print. And then one day I searched for JANE EYRE and there it was, the same two-volume set my mother had.

On Christmas morning, Mother sat near the tree dressed in her scarlet velvet robe that zipped up the front. She did her usual shake of the package and quizzical look. Clearly it was a book, so she was already happy. She tore off the wrapping and clutched the books to her chest. “You found them,” she said.

My mother was not a big crier, but she did shed a few tears that morning. Though not the original with her signature in it, she seemed to love her new prodigal son of a book almost as much.

A few years later, in 2000, my mother died, at home, surrounded by her beloved books. For a while we couldn’t bear to move any of her things, hoping she would somehow return, but eventually I moved the set to my own shelf.        

As time went on, I raved so much about JANE EYRE to my own daughters that their eyes glazed over, but every now and then they’d take my mother’s books down, slide them out and look at the haunting woodcut illustrations.

Finally Mary decided to read it.

“Can I take it to school?” she asked one September. “I need to do a book report.”

I smiled, and a shiver went through me. She finally wanted to read it.

“Of course,” I said with a grin. “Just don’t leave it in your locker.”