The ‘laughing goddess’
Shutestbury writer takes readers on a fictional romp with poet Emily Dickinson
A grown woman encourages some neighborhood children, including her niece and nephew, to sneak out of their homes after bedtime, dress as “gypsies” and run with her through woods and across fields into town to catch a glimpse of a circus train arriving at midnight. And the grown-up is ... Emily Dickinson?
Such is the premise of Shutesbury writer Burleigh Mutén’s new book, “Miss Emily,” just out from Candlewick Press. Written in verse, Mutén’s story is a fun fictional romp with some solid roots in history. And Matt Phelan’s pencil illustrations are by turns sensitive, beautiful, mysterious and fun — including one last image that will forever change how you picture Emily Dickinson.
Mutén had lived in Amherst for nearly 20 years before she visited Emily Dickinson’s homestead, now a museum. A kindergarten teacher at The Common School, Mutén felt that her children should learn about “the most famous person from Amherst” as part of their studies of community.
Mutén’s first visit to Dickinson’s home was transformative.
“When I was there something happened to me that I think happens to a lot of people who go there — suddenly I just couldn’t get enough information about her. Everything I found out about her was fascinating.”
In her search for children’s books about Dickinson, Mutén came across “Emily Dickinson: Friend and Neighbor,” a memoir written by MacGregor Jenkins, who lived across the street from Dickinson as a child.
One phrase that Jenkins used to describe Dickinson “jumped off the page,” Muttén said. “He describes her as the ‘children’s laughing goddess of plenty.’”
Mutén has long had an interest in women’s spirituality. Two of her four previous books for children are about goddesses and she has edited an anthology of poetry, “Return of the Great Goddess,” for adults. So, the word “goddess” always catches her eye, she said. Even more compelling was the image of Dickinson smiling and laughing, in contrast to the one, well-known, somewhat dour photograph of her as a young woman.
“I thought, ‘Children need to know what kind of adult she was. And even adults — how many adults know that she was that playful and mischievous?’” Mutén asked.
Mutén cast MacGregor Jenkins as her book’s narrator, Mac. Dickinson’s niece Mattie, nephew Ned, and Mac’s sister Sally fill out the band of “gypsies” that goes adventuring with Miss Emily. The idea for the plot came about when Mutén visited Dickinson’s brother’s home.
“In the children’s wing of the house, there is a long, straight hallway with rooms coming off of it,” Mutén explained. “And a placard that explained that the children would pretend that they were on a circus train.”
Some of the circus characters are based on real people. “I tweaked their names a little to make them more fun,” Mutén said. “It was really fun to write … I think most adults have this image of (Dickinson) as this really strange recluse — and she was that, but she was also more than that in terms of her human relationships. She never stopped relating to the kids.”
Jenkins’ book included the text of several notes that Dickinson had written to the children in the neighborhood, Mutén said, one of which she chose to use verbatim in her story.
The choice to write the book in verse came about organically, as Mutén worked on her early drafts.
“That’s another blessing that I got, personally, from Emily. I didn’t start out writing it in verse but after a while I thought, ‘Why not?’”
There’s a growing body of work for children written in verse, said Mutén, adding that, “There’s an idea that a page with more white space on it is more approachable for some people.”
Some of Mutén’s lines read in the long rhythms of prose sentences and others, most notably when ”Miss Emily” is speaking, begin to include rhyme, Dickinson’s famous dashes and a little interior capitalization, similar to that used by Dickinson.
“I think when you spend so much time with a historical figure, they begin to get under your skin and in your psyche and a lot of things come out that are unconscious.”
Mutén felt blessed to feel from time to time, as she was writing, that Dickinson was, “Sort of there whispering a little bit, ‘Try that. Give this a whirl.’
“I feel like Emily gave me license to have fun writing,” Mutén said.
Book launch March 22
Burleigh Mutén will be holding a book launch at the Jones Library, 43 Amity St., Amherst, on Saturday, March 22, at 2 p.m. The launch will include a slide show about the history of the circus as well as a special guest appearance by “Miss Emily.”
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her column. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.