The Hatbox Letters by Beth PowningThe Hatbox Letters by Beth Powning

The Hatbox Letters

byBeth Powning

Paperback | June 14, 2005

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Beth Powning offers readers an unforgettable story of love, grief and renewal — both past and present — as well as her extraordinary perceptions of the natural world.

At the age of fifty-two, Kate Harding has hit a crossroads: the pain that overwhelmed her when her husband died suddenly from a heart attack the previous year hasn’t diminished, and she is at a loss as to how to go on with her life. Living alone in her large Victorian house, its emptiness magnified by memories of better days, Kate can only dream of a time when her grief will abate, at least enough to allow her to hope for change.

When Kate’s sister drops off nine antique hatboxes of papers recovered from Shepton, their grandparents’ eighteenth-century home in Connecticut, Kate isn’t sure she is ready to face the remnants of her family’s past. She’s having enough trouble going through Tom’s things. Soon, though, the smell of the hatboxes — of her grandparents’ musty attic, of old quilts and satin ribbons — begins to permeate the air in her home and “awakens a feeling in Kate that she remembers from childhood, composed of odd emotional strands: love, sorrow, pain, contentment.” As she slowly sorts through the letters, diaries and photographs, Kate begins to find some solace in the past, in her childhood memories of Shepton when every home was a comfort, every relationship untinged by pain. But the further she delves into her grandparents’ history, the more Kate realizes that her perfect world had its own dark side — an undercurrent of tragedy, personal loss and eternal grief.

Then an old acquaintance moves back to New Brunswick, and Kate begins to edge out of her solitude, surprising herself by accepting his invitation to dinner. Gregory and his wife were friends with Tom and Kate when the kids were young, a time of camping trips and days at the beach. But Gregory, now divorced, is also carrying the weight of grief, from the suicide of his son many years earlier. At first, Gregory represents a chance for Kate to capture some of the simple joy of her past, but when she realizes that Gregory is still living in it, his memories and pain warped into self-destructive anger, she knows she has to back away. And when Gregory’s determination to return to the way things were proves unshakeable, a new tragedy forces Kate to begin picking up the pieces of her shattered life.
In one interview, Beth Powning commented that in order to write fiction, “You have to be living in it; it’s almost happening to you as much as you’re making it.” In this sense, writing is inseparable from personal experience for the author, and it’s no surprise that many of the themes that run through Powning’s own life — the importanc...
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Title:The Hatbox LettersFormat:PaperbackDimensions:368 pages, 7.99 × 5.18 × 0.95 inPublished:June 14, 2005Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0676976409

ISBN - 13:9780676976403

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Reviews

Rated 2 out of 5 by from Appropriate title for sure. I absolutely loved the Sea Captain's Wife by this author and was excited to try another of her works. However, this is a very different sort of story....more like the reader is watching over the shoulder of a grieving person as she comes to grips with her loss. I did enjoy the fact that it dealt with ancestry and was in Canada, but found the descriptive passages and her thought processes a little too repetitive and monotonous.
Date published: 2017-07-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Reconnects one to family memories loved that it was set in Canada I really enjoyed this book. I loved that it made me think about family and genealogy ! The art form of writing letters is a real part of history that is a lost art. How much we learn from letters from the past. This is one book that has really stuck with me. I have read many books, given them away but this is one that will stay in my collection. I spent some time in the Maritimes and I loved that this novel was set there.
Date published: 2015-09-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful book This book is a feast for the senses...especially if you're at all interested in discovering your ancestors' lives. If you also love the Maritimes, you'll relish the setting. Set in New Brunswick it tells the tale of one woman coming into her self-hood following her husband's death, and in discovering more about her grandparents through found letters. The book is very well written. Regardless of some of the reviews above, as an avid reader I highly recommend it.
Date published: 2011-02-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Makes you appreciate the people you love. This book was full of lush imagery that touches all five senses. While there wasn't really much of a plot, Kate's journey through grief was moving, raw, sensitive and, in the end, hopeful. I almost felt voyeuristic as I watched her struggle to redefine herself after her husband's death. I enjoyed this book a great deal.
Date published: 2009-08-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from She comes...she goes...she sits....she thinks... Too repetitive, too descriptive, too many uninteresting words. I read first 100 pages and decided to go no further.
Date published: 2008-02-27
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Yawn!!! I was bored to tears! I couldn't finish it! The author used too, too, too much description of everything. (Do I really care to read 3 paragraphs on the description of flowers??) There was not a lot of dialogue with any other characters, either. I'm moving on to a better book...
Date published: 2006-09-16

Read from the Book

1. KateKate leans in the doorway of the living room, arms crossed, the sleeves of a cotton sweater shoved to her elbows. Her forearms are sinewy–brown, dry-skinned, thorn-scratched. She wears two silver bracelets and a thick gold wedding band. Some women, she realizes, remove their rings.In the corner is a stack of nine antique hatboxes. She has not touched them since they were set down a week ago, delivered by her sister, who drove them up from Hartford. They are oval or round, some tied with string, some decorated with maroon-and-silver stripes, others printed with gothic landscapes – willows, mountains, ruined castles. Their smell has begun to permeate the room even though the windows are open. It is the smell of her grandparents’ attic, a smell she has not forgotten but thought had vanished, like the past itself. That it has not and is still here, this aroma of horsehair and leather, of apples and musty quilts, of old dresses and satin ribbons – that this smell still exists here in this Canadian river valley, six hundred miles north of her grandparents’ house, is disquieting. It awakens a feeling in Kate that she remembers from childhood, composed of odd emotional strands: love, sorrow, pain, contentment.The arrival of the hatboxes is untimely, since dispossession, like grief, is an act of which Kate has had her fill since Tom’s death a year and three months ago, from a heart attack at age fifty-two. She’s hauled garbage bags of clothes, like lumpy corpses, down to the washing machine, unable to give away anything that might bear his painty, sawdusty smell. Sorting through the clothes, she was relieved whenever she came across T-shirts like Swiss cheese or underpants held by threads to waistbands no longer elastic. Choices made easy: Okay, throw this away. No one in her family has wanted to face making such decisions about the papers in these hatboxes. They have been lugged from place to place, from barn to basement to closet, ever since the big house in whose attic they’d accumulated for five generations was sold.She goes into the living room and squats by the boxes. Their papered cardboard is dry as old plaster. How strange, she thinks, that they are here, now. And she finds herself wishing they could have remained forever under the attic’s cobwebbed window, their contents spilled, letters stuffed by children’s hands back into envelopes embroidered by the teeth of mice. Like leaves in a mulch pile. Forgotten, skeletal, slowly reverting to dirt. So it might have been if the house had not been sold, if time had not stalked on relentless legs, like a heron, and bent its long neck.She slides her fingers over a lid, remembering the excitement she and her cousins had felt about these boxes and the disappointment of finding only papers whose half-read sentences were like windborne music or distant surf, faint hints of a larger sound. The box is so desiccated that its lid is loose and lifts easily, releasing the concentrated mustiness within, so familiar that tears spring to Kate’s eyes. It takes her to the closets, bedrooms, pantries and cupboards of her grandparents’ enormous, white-clapboarded house on the tree-lined street of the village where Kate grew up. She and her sister could leave their own home, walk past the tiny general store, with its wooden porch and post office, past the library and the church, and be on Shepton’s lawn in ten minutes. Shepton House had been named by her great-grandmother for the English town where some branch of the family originated. Shepton, they called the place after awhile, dropping the pretentious “House.” The word, spoken and accompanied by memory, is what a spell might be to a shaman: an evocation, a tumult of associations. She stirs the papers. Like the snow-flattened leaves of early spring, they are brown and soft, overlapping, their corners fanned. Some are in bundles, tied with faded cotton string. Most lie in a dismaying confusion. Kate pauses, looks out the window. River light quivers in trees at the bottom of her lawn. She is still squatting, irresolute. Why did I agree to take on this responsibility? Now – of all times.She slips into a sitting position, crosses her legs. The house is so quiet. No one will be coming to visit until Thanksgiving. Her daughter, Christy, is in Halifax, her son, Liam, in Ireland. She listens to the sound of an empty house, thinking, Am I still a wife? She sees her future not the way it is now but the way it was supposed to be; this, unlike the bald fact of Tom’s death, is a loss she can’t share, a grief she can’t reveal. She is allowed to mourn the past, Tom as he was, the sound of his voice, the body that once cradled hers; but the future that was theirs – its loss has become like a new death, the death of someone no one else knows. A hidden corpse. It ebbs away, her memory of how it felt to slide her hand into the back pocket of Tom’s shorts, to relate a rambling dream and not care whether he listened, to casually wipe mustard from his chin. This loss of intimacy is the hardest, for with it goes her sense of self. She cannot bear to be with long-married couples: she’s watched a husband lift a strand of windblown hair from his wife’s mouth, has seen a wife peel a hard-boiled egg and hand it to her husband. It is dangerous, as well, to be in places – dinner parties, picnics – where conversational lures may attract memories, or feelings. She feels stripped of some sleek texture, as if she has lost her favourite silk scarf, orange-pink and luminous as sun-filled tulips, that carried in its folds the wife she once was, the wife she would still be.She leans forward and rummages in the hatbox, knowing that she is being hooked by its sweet smell. She tips reading glasses from her head, settles them on her nose, unfolds a paper and presses it to her face. She breathes deeply. What is it? Lately she finds herself in a peculiar state, slowed, as if floating without impulsion, in which she examines her own feelings. There’s a familiar, disturbing stab in her heart that she remembers from when, as a child, she laid her head on Shepton’s prickly pillows, or lifted the lids of stoneware crocks or opened the games cupboard under the stairs. It’s a small ache, a presage of grief, evoked by the distilled smell of age. It’s a reminder, she thinks, of joy’s sorrow-edge. Of how every moment tilts on the brink of its own decline. There’s something else, though. Responsibility to the past. And flight from its demands. The feelings she’s come to recognize, holding in her hand, say, a small pin that Tom was once given at a ceremony in Ottawa “for service to the arts.” How, she chastises herself, during her process of dispossession, could she think of parting with this piece of silver? Doesn’t she have the responsibility of memorializing Tom?From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. When she rummages through the first hatbox, Kate mulls over how torn she feels dealing with what Tom and her ancestors left behind: “Responsibility to the past. And flight from its demands. The feelings she’s come to recognize…” (p. 4). How are these conflicting impulses exhibited throughout the novel, both in terms of “things” — hatboxes, houses, paintings, gardens — and emotions?2. For Kate, Shepton is “the one place in her life that remains perfect” (p. 12), because of her childhood memories. But as Kate reads the hatbox letters, she becomes aware of its darker side. How do memories of specific homes or other places define eras and stay with us throughout our lives? How does Kate’s view of Shepton change over the course of the novel?3. Compare Kate and Gregory’s grieving processes. Does Gregory’s return help Kate come to terms with Tom’s death, or make it harder?4. In her acknowledgments, Beth Powning thanks her husband, Peter, “whose imagined absence as I lived in Kate’s mind made me treasure our companionship more deeply.” While reading The Hatbox Letters, did you imagine what it would be like to lose any of your loved ones? Compare Kate’s experiences to losses of your own or in your family history.5. At first, the garden is too overwhelming for Kate, who is paralyzed by her cherished memories of gardening with Tom. But as the seasons pass, she feels guilty about its poor condition and starts to tend it. What is the significance of Kate’s “heritage garden”? Why does Kate think so often about the gardens and rose trellis at Shepton? How does the garden imagery in the novel enrich the rest of the story as you read?6. As Kate reads through the diaries and letters she’s found, she reconstructs the narrative of her family’s history and brings her ancestors to life for us. Similarly, Beth Powning did extensive research into her own family’s history while researching this novel, delving into family letters and papers. Compare the creative processes of the author and her main character, and discuss how the story behind Giles and Hetty’s marriage enriches the novel as a whole.7. How is it that the diary excerpts and letters re-created in the novel can say so little, yet so much? How does their inclusion evoke the past for you?8. Grief, Kate realizes, is “the reverse of what one would expect.” Instead of hitting you hard and lessening over time, grief is “like some bizarre plant that doesn’t seem to be growing until it unexpectedly sends forth a flower” (p. 144). Compare the ways in which Powning’s various characters experience grief. Are there similarities among those who ultimately give in to their suffering, or those who are able to reimagine their lives in its wake?9. Why does Kate smash the framed picture of her husband after the chimney fire? In what ways does this night focus Kate’s anger and grief?10. May, who lost her husband twenty years earlier, tells Kate, “One day, Katie, you’ll forgive him for leaving” (p. 242). By the end of the novel, has Kate managed to do so?11. How do the seasons — the solitary cold of winter, the renewed growth of spring — mirror changes in Kate’s emotional state?12. How does Kate feel about the phone calls she makes to her parents and to her daughter, when she’s in her most solitary phase? Or the uneasy conversations she has with local friends who may or may not be sure how to act around her?13. After Jonnie’s death, Dr. Baker says to Giles, “Return love when it comes to you, and your heart will be eased” (p. 250). Discuss Giles’s relationship with Jonnie and her family, and his eventual marriage to Hetty. How does Giles and Hetty’s life together help Kate comes to terms with her own loss?14. “A layer of perfect black ice smoothes the river’s corrugated surface, where winter’s history lies in striations of frozen snow, rutted tire tracks, broken branches, fissures, windblown soil” (p. 256). Discuss the significance of the chapter “Black Ice,” in which Kate joins the skating party on the river. How does the image of the black ice relate to the story as a whole? In what ways does Kate seem to be a new person during the outing?

Editorial Reviews

“The imagery is evocative and clear, and the feelings of love and loss are transmitted effectively and elegantly. The Hatbox Letters conveys a sense of wonder and wisdom.”—The Vancouver Sun“[A] novel of stunning beauty ... The Hatbox Letters is a moving elegy to things lost and found.”—New Brunswick Reader“Powning’s descriptions of gardens and birds rival any Audubon painting. The Hatbox Letters is not only an absorbing literary experience, but an exquisite visual experience as well.”—The Gazette (Montreal)“The writing is highly sensual, painterly even, vividly portraying the natural world and its changing seasons.… [T]he depth of detail feels appropriate, mirroring the deliberate pace of Kate’s recovery and regeneration. Powning’s subject here is no less than the relationship of life and death, and she engages it with rigour and grace.”—Quill & Quire“Beth Powning reminds us of the essential links and threads that bind family and loved ones, past generations to future. In gentle prose, she illuminates passages through grief, yet the novel is studded with vitality. A story of unexpected endings and new beginnings — of life surging forward.”—Frances Itani“Like Annie Dillard, Beth Powning is a keen observer of the natural world. In language both erotic and exact, she explores the conflicting emotions of love and loss in a novel redolent with memory and the truth of experience, hard won.”—Joan Clark“Beth Powning’s language is lush with stunning images that linger long after the reading experience — and with soothing insights, especially of the healing potency available in family histories and connections with friends. She takes us by the hand and leads us through the landmines of grief. We can trust her: she knows the way back to the safety of emerging hope and belief in renewal.”—Marjorie Anderson, co-editor, Dropped ThreadsPraise for Shadow Child and Seeds of Another Summer“Tenacious, unsparing, in anguish sometimes, but mostly with moving lyricism, Beth Powning pursues and completes what she calls her ‘apprenticeship in love and loss’, a long and not easy journey that we all, women and men, in our way, try to carry through.”—Ernest Hillen, author of Small Mercies: A Boy After War“Beth Powning’s. . .pure, powerful prose lure us into [its] embrace, laying bare our desire for a union with the natural world. This is the work of a gifted artist.”—Courtney Milne, author of Prairie Skies“One of the most appealing novels to be published in Canada in the last decade. . . . Beautifully written and emotionally wise, this is a debut novel with a difference. Its melding of past and present in the life of its protagonist is so well woven it will prove a boon to readers with a taste for fiction and non-fiction alike. . . . Rich, elegiac and full of resonance, her novel is more than impressive. It is a winner.” —The London Free Press“Beth Powning’s extraordinary new novel, The Hatbox Letters, is both an ode to joy and a lamentation.” —The Chronicle Herald“Powning’s exquisite novel sings. . . . [She] has created a novel as brilliant as the light towards which it reaches.” —The Chronicle Herald“There is an elegiac quality to Beth Powning’s writing, derived from her immersion in the rhythms of the natural world. . . . Few writers so stress the ties that bind a life lived to the place where it’s lived; Powning’s central artistic concern, both as photographer and writer, has always been to locate herself–and her characters–along the great chain of being.” —Maclean’s “The Hatbox Letters will appeal to anyone who enjoyed the charming correspondence in Richard B. Wright’s recent literary bestseller Clara Callan. But Powning’s novel features a sincerity that Wright’s narrative never quite musters. The Hatbox Letters is sure to win accolades in CanLit circles and [with] regular readers alike.”—Winnipeg Free Press“The narrative of The Hatbox Letters is as warm and vivid as actually sitting next to the wood stove of Kate’s Maritime kitchen. Powning also has a knack for imagery that drops the reader firmly into the musty comfort of a Connecticut summer home in the early part of the 20th century. Other authors bring us close to historical periods; Powning puts us there.” —Winnipeg Free Press“Powning writes about grief with uncanny precision; she gets all its ambushes and piercing aches exactly right. She shows how grief can become more acute with the passing of time, rather than less painful as one might expect, and how its constricting grip can slowly paralyze the person left behind.” —Lisa Moore, National Post“While delineating the sere interior landscape of mourning, Powning has crafted a deeply beautiful book, one planted in the natural world, abundant in imagery that firmly roots Kate and the reader in the fecund cycle of life. A novel about death that makes you glad that you are alive, The Hatbox Letters is both elegy and song of joy.” —The Globe and Mail“Powning is a superior writer, with startling powers of description.” —The Gazette (Montreal)