I’m delighted to welcome my longtime writing friend Tempa Pagel to the blog today. Tempa and I met more than twenty years ago in the first fiction writing group I belonged to. She’s written two beautiful and intriguing books set in Newburyport, both with chapters set in present day as well as in the past. You’ll love her new book, They Danced by the Light of the Moon, as well as today’s tale of an amazing librarian.
They Danced by the Light of the Moon is another dual mystery, set in two time periods—1901 and the present. Andy and her mother-in-law Mayta are at the reopening gala of a seaside Victorian grand hotel when a fellow diner is murdered during a tour. A suspicious overheard conversation draws Andy into the mystery of why the woman was killed in the same hotel room another woman disappeared from more than a century before. Edith: Versions of the Wentworth-by-the-Sea Hotel in Newcastle, New Hampshire, and the old State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers are almost characters in this book. Fascinating! And she’s giving away two ARCs of the book to two lucky commenters.
I’ve Always Admired Librarians
Have you had an experience with a librarian that has caused you to look at the profession in a different way? I’ve always loved libraries and while I appreciate librarians, I’ve never really thought much about them past their roles as keepers of books and purveyors of information. An experience a couple of months ago pointed out to me how important these dedicated and unassuming individuals often are.
Against what was probably my better judgment, I accepted an event in a city two hours away from my Massachusetts home. It was early in the promotion phase of my new book, so, flattered that a librarian wanted me to speak at her library, I leapt at the chance. I looked on a map, saw that it was a pretty large city, and that it was accessible by major highways. So that I could devote the day to the event, I set up a time during my spring vacation week.
On the appointed day, my husband and I drove out together. As we entered the city, we noticed a number of rundown and vacant buildings. My first thought was that my talk about how two derelict buildings inspired me to write a mystery might be a frivolous topic for this venue. My second thought was that the few people I saw on the streets did not strike me as those who might be willing or able to shell out $25 for a cozy mystery in hardback. Still, the librarian had encouraged me to bring stock to sell, so I remained optimistic.
Since we were early, we did a little exploring. The architecture of the area, although no longer grand, told a story of early wealth, and while there were a few encouraging signs of a comeback—a new or restored building here and there— it was clear that this once thriving industrial city had been in decline for many years.
Proceeding on to our destination, we came to a neighborhood of abandoned and shabby row houses encircling an expanse of park. Upon a rise, in the middle of this respite of grass and trees, stood the library, a beautiful limestone neoclassical structure with massive columns, that could easily fit in should it be plopped down amidst government buildings in Washington DC. We drove around to the entrance at the back of the hundred-year-old building and found another surprise: a modern multi-story glass addition, which was specially designed to enhance the original architecture. Here, in the heart of a down-on-her-luck city stood a real gem.
Inside, the woman at the desk did not know where the main librarian was, but contacted the children’s librarian, who took us to where I would be speaking and, as the room was not yet ready, helped us set up tables and chairs. He also did not know where the librarian was, but encouraged me to seek him out if I needed anything else. My husband and I sat down and watched through the floor to ceiling windows for people to come to the entrance. Very few did, and none came into the large room where we waited. Time to begin came and went. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed. No librarian, no audience. The room hadn’t been set up for me; did I have the wrong day? But no, I’d touched base with the librarian earlier that week and all was well then. We continued to wait.
Finally, the librarian came bustling in, apologizing for her tardiness, explaining that she had had important reports to get out. She sat down and was immediately attentive to us. She had advertised my event in all the usual places, she said, and was surprised at the lack of attendees. We decided that maybe school vacation week had taken people away. She promised to buy my book for the library, and then began to talk candidly about the history of the city, its economic decline and the change in demographics, which had resulted in a waning interest in and support of the library.
She was optimistic, however, that things were on an up swing. She talked about important investments that were coming to the city. She was proud that recent fund raising had resulted in the restoration of the library and its new addition. When it was clear that nobody would be attending my talk, she took us on a tour, climbing from floor to floor, moving between eras?daylight streaming through new glass highlighting the gleaming oak woodwork and flooring of the original section—truly a beautiful blending of old and new. We admired the teen room, the computer room, the new shelves awaiting books, the cozy reading areas.
She explained that, although they now had a state-of-the-art library, they lacked funding for sufficient staff to run it. I understood then why a room hadn’t been ready for me, and why the woman at the desk wouldn’t know where the librarian was because she could be in any one of a hundred places doing a hundred essential tasks.
But the librarian didn’t complain about being overburdened, she spoke enthusiastically about events that had taken place and plans for more in the future: storytelling and parties for children held on the park lawn; readings by authors; performances by actors and musicians. It would take time, but the people would come back to the library, and the library would once again become a vibrant center in the city. As she talked, it was easy to visualize the empty space around us buzzing with activity.
In the course of our conversation, I learned that this enthusiastic young Hispanic woman lived within walking distance, somewhere in the sea of run-down housing that surrounded us, within the community she said didn’t read and weren’t comfortable with libraries, the community to which she belonged. I realized that she was more than a librarian; she was an ambassador for her city and a one-woman driving force with a vision to bring books and art and learning to her people. She was also a good salesperson. When she mentioned that she would like to have me come back in the summer to attend one of these events, I had to bite my tongue to stop the yes from rolling off it.
By the end of our hour and half together, I no longer cared that, in my usual estimation, the event would be considered a bust. In fact, to focus on whether or not I sold a few books now seemed trivial, even greedy, compared to the mission this librarian had undertaken and had shared with us. As we drove out of the city, I saw things differently: restored houses I had missed before, their vacant and run-down neighbors taking on new promise. It occurred to me that while it was the city leaders who were working to encourage economic investment, nobody might be more influential in advocating for and in creating support for a renaissance in the city than this woman in her humble position of librarian.
Tempa Pagel was born in Pontiac, Michigan. She is a middle school teacher, currently residing with her husband in the historic city of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has two grown children, whose early antics have often found their way onto the pages of her books. They Danced by the Light of the Moon is her second Andy Gammon mystery.
Readers: Questions for Tempa? Other librarian stories? Have you read other mysteries that go back and forth between the present and the past?