A heroine’s dilemma and an author’s persistence

  • Greenfield author Wendy Sibbison. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

For the Recorder
Published: 1/14/2022 5:15:31 PM
Modified: 1/14/2022 5:14:38 PM

GREENFIELD — Wendy Sibbison is not your typical writer. The Greenfield resident spent 35 years as a lawyer, mostly in appellate work. She loved writing even as a young woman. She recently told me, “I thought I could support myself as a poet being a poor people’s lawyer.”

Her legal work took up more and more time, and her writing work receded. Nevertheless, she wrote when she could, joining a writer’s group in 2004 and spending vacations holed up on Cape Cod penning her heart out.

In 2021, she finally published her first novel. “Helen in Trouble” (Booksmyth Press, 242 pages, $18) is a terrific read. It deftly combines historical research, imagination, and some of Sibbison’s own experience.

The book is set in 1963. Its protagonist, 16-year-old Helen Bird, wakes up one morning after a hazy night with her boyfriend and realizes that she may be pregnant. As the weeks go by, the pregnancy is confirmed.

She doesn’t feel that she can tell her parents about her dilemma, and abortion is illegal. Nevertheless, she sets out to find an abortion.

Helen has to navigate a lot of problems at once: normal teenage/school angst, the character (or lack thereof) of her college-aged boyfriend, her relationship with her parents, and of course the pregnancy.

Sibbison makes Helen very real and evokes sympathy for both the heroine of the novel and her parents. Like Helen, her father and mother are constrained by the gender norms of the day and also by their own family backgrounds.

They sense that something is wrong with their daughter but don’t believe they should make waves by confronting her.

In the end, the pair come through for Helen and for each other, and all three begin to communicate better.

Writing process

I asked Sibbison about the writing process, which sounded lengthy but worthwhile. She laughed a little. “I didn’t know how to write a novel, and I didn’t want anyone to tell me,” she admitted.

She drew on her knowledge of literature; she had studied English in college and graduate school. And she worked hard, writing and rewriting and then rewriting some more.

“I got there through staggering,” she sighed.

The most difficult part of the book was the ending, she noted.

“It wasn’t difficult to write,” she stated. “It was difficult to discover.”

She actually set the book aside for a few years waiting for that discovery. When the ending came to her in 2018, she felt that she could move ahead.

She has done a lot of paring down, encouraged by her editor, Maureen Moore of Booksmyth Press in Shelburne Falls. Sibbison is justly proud of the final product.

I asked her whether she thought she might write a second book. “I’m 75, and I was thinking about that today,” she told me, indicating that she found the prospect of going through the labor of another novel unlikely.

“If I had been house building, if somebody said, ‘Would you like to build another house with your bare hands?’” She shook her head. “This was a story I wanted to tell. I had an image of a high-school girl waking up after a night of drunken sex. It just rolled from there.”

‘Mother-daughter dance’

She explained that, although the book is based on her own experiences and on people she knew in the 1960s, a lot of research was involved.

She explored music of the period to enrich her descriptions of Helen’s life. She looked into the tradition of celebrating Easter weekend at the University of Virginia, which inspired Helen’s visit to her boyfriend and their night of unprotected sex. And she researched the Civil Rights movement.

“After I finished it, I realized that when the book takes place, the country is on the verge of real change … shifting out of the more constrained culture of the ’50s into a more expansive, inclusive view of the world. You can hear the Civil Rights movement coming,” said Sibbison.

“All this change is going on. Helen is in the midst of a very physical change. Her body is changing every day. In a way, her ability to solve her problem grows out of that more expansive movement. The book covers that sense of what’s changing.”

She has received excellent reviews from the book, most prominently from “Kirkus Reviews,” and the reaction from young and old has been favorable, she told me.

She remarked that readers seemed to be enjoying what she termed “the mother-daughter dance” between Helen and her mother.

“It’s very, very complicated, and I feel pretty satisfied that I managed to convey a lot of the layers of an adolescent daughter and her mother,” she said.

Obviously, the issue of abortion is very much in the news, and one can tell from reading the book that the author strongly supports a woman’s right to choose. Nevertheless, her novel’s purpose was not to argue for any particular political position.

“I didn’t write this book to be a polemic or to make a statement. My main goal in writing this was to write a yarn,” said Sibbison. “The story is front and center, which is what I’m happy about.”

“Helen in Trouble” may be ordered online or from any local bookstore. For more information, visit https://www.helenintrouble.com/.

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.


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