Posted: September 27, 2006
Author Jane Yolen will read from her acclaimed children's book Letting Swift River GoSaturday, September 30, at the Joseph Allen Skinner Museum in South Hadley. The reading is part of a broader community event, "Quabbin Reflections: Stories from the Lost Towns," from 1 to 3 pm on Saturday, at the Skinner Museum in South Hadley.
Letting Swift River Godramatizes the deliberate flooding of four towns in the 1930s to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir. The story is told in poetic but unvarnished flashback by Sally Jane, a woman who was six years old when her family learned they would have to give up their home.
Yolen will also talk about the process of writing the book, which she originally planned as a novel. "I had a picture in my head of a girl in a boat looking over her drowned town," Yolen said. "Eventually, about five years later, that picture in my head became the last scene in the picture book."
Yolen researched the history of the Swift River Valley by reading memoirs and talking to some of the former residents. "I wrote [the story] before there was any Google. I was doing work in real books and old magazines and old newspapers. I was trying to get a sense of the time and place and how a young child would have seen or made sense of what was going on."
That child's perspective proved useful when it came to describing the decision to relocate all the town's dead, except for the Indians. As Sally Jane observes, "No one wanted to bother with them, but I thought it right they remain in sacred ground."
The story concludes with a grown-up Sally Jane sitting in a rowboat on the Quabbin Reservoir with her father, who sadly points out the shadowy remnants of streets and landmarks in the water below. Sally Jane is more philosophical about her memories, recalling her mother's earlier admonition about fireflies in a jar: "You have to let them go."
"The father is stuck on loss," Yolen explained. "What the girl understands is that they're moving on. Having just lost my husband, I'm doing the same thing. I'm always going to remember. It's not the memories you're letting go. It's the sense of loss."
"Quabbin Reflections: Stories from the Lost Towns" will also feature a reading by poet and Mount Holyoke Professor of English Robert Shaw, excerpts from the oral history Here Was Home, and reminiscences by Lois Barnes, Robert Wilder, and Earl Cooley, former residents of the lost towns. The Saturday event, which includes a picnic, is part of a series of Quabbin events happening September 28-30 at Mount Holyoke, organized in conjunction with the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, the Center for the Environment, and the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts. The series also kicks off a special exhibition at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Looking Beneath the Surface: The Quabbin and Hetch Hetchy Canyon, which will be on view through December 17.