Beth Powning’s A Measure of Light inspires recreation of 17th Century Puritan New England in Sussex, N.B.
For six months members of SLICE (Sussex Literary Initiative and Cultural Events) were dedicated to exceeding the fantastic event they organized to launch Beth Powning’s 2010 best-selling novel, The Sea Captain’s Wife. And on Friday they did just that by converting the Royal Canadian Legion into the mid-17th Century Massachusetts Bay Colony, the setting for Powning’s newest novel, A Measure of Light (Knopf Canada).
Powning describes herself as a ‘secular Quaker’ who left Connecticut in the 1970’s with her husband Peter to settle in rural New Brunswick, but admits she was remarkably ignorant of the historic struggle of Mary Dyer, a Puritan who fled persecution in 17th century England, only to be persecuted again in New England after joining the Quaker movement.
However as she explained during a Q & A following her reading from the novel, “I read one sentence about Mary Dyer and felt this prickle, like my hair was standing up on my scalp and I thought I can’t believe I never knew about this woman and that put me on a course of reading about Mary. It was not an easy book to write as it was a very tough subject and I thought about turning away from it. But every time I got called back, sometimes by incredible coincidences and also by a strong feeling Mary wanted me to write this book. I had a sense of righting an injustice. Mary has come down through history as a benighted character and that’s just wrong. I had to straighten the record.”
Just as A Measure of Light is grounded in meticulous research, so was SLICE’s literary event. In response to publicist Patricia Stout’s invitation, over 500 guests (including a busload chartered by Moncton’s Frye Festival) arrived wearing black clothing as requested, and were given Puritan white collars or caps to don before entering the candle-lit hall where they were surrounded by the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of a 17th-century working village.
Artisans plied their trades, creating products or demonstrating skills essential to the survival of the colony. They ranged from candle makers to spinners and quilters, and from basket weavers to apple tree grafters and scribes. Music was supplied by recording artists La Tour Baroque Duo, with Tim Blackmore playing the recorder and Michel Cardin the theorbo, a type of lute invented around 1600. Following the reading, guests were invited to sample succotash, a pottage of sweet corn and beans which the settlers learned to make from the Eastern Woodlands First Nations people; coarse, dark grained ‘gnarly’ bread and a special brewed A Measure of Light Ale crafted by Picaroons. And at the back of the hall, in keeping with the authenticity of Mary Dyer’s brave determination to give women a voice, there was a collection box for donations to the local women’s shelter.
Scroll down for images from the launch.
Margaret Patricia Eaton is a visual arts columnist for the Moncton Times & Transcript and an award-winning poet. Her most recent collection is Vision & Voice with artist Angelica De Benedetti.
Correction: The last photo caption originally identified the people in the picture as Deborah Freeze, Cathy Hardy*, Jane Achen and Stephanie Coburn. Our apologies to Cathy Healy.