Heather Barbieri’s new novel, “The Cottage at Glass Beach” (HarperCollins), available May 15, is a gem of a summer read. Ms. Barbieri shares here some thoughts about her ancestral heritage and where her novels are set.
Tell me a story, I’d say to my grandmother, as I sat in the red velvet stool at her feet. I was four years old and it is one of my earliest memories, being in that house on Galena Street in Butte, Montana, listening to her voice, which still carried a hint of the Irish lilt, far from her ancestral home of Donegal. Her family had left Ireland, having survived the Famine, and crossed the Atlantic, eventually settling in Eastern Pennsylvania. There, they worked in the coalmines, and there she was born. Their stories sustained them through those difficult times, through relatives who lost their lives to underground explosions, cave-ins, black lung, or alcoholism. As the years passed, the myths of the old country gradually gave way to narratives involving the colorful characters around them in sessions that could last long into the night. They brought the tradition with them when they traveled across the country to Butte, where they’d heard an Irishman had opened a copper mine. They liked the idea of working for one of their own, thought perhaps conditions would be better. They were wrong, but they made the best of it. Thousands of Irish joined them and within a few years, Butte became home to the largest Gaelic-speaking population outside of Ireland.
From the front window, the giant “M” on the hill glowed to life as the sun set on the dusty town that looked like something out of a Capra film. The hills in several Western Montana towns are lettered in this way with white stones or lights. In the summer months, the “M” would light around 10 p.m., the time for me to go to bed, though I could often persuade my grandmother to let me stay up later, begging for another story, and she obliged. She liked an audience. She’d been a teacher and an amateur theater actress, a tiny woman, 4’11” and 90 pounds, superstitious (don’t walk under ladders, don’t let a black cat cross your path, make the sign of the cross whenever you need extra courage) and stylish in her fur coats and high heels. She would relate outrageous anecdotes with a straight face; she would have been a skilled poker player, if she’d been so inclined. My father inherited that gift, no hint of the ruse until a glint in his eye led to a chuckle, after his gullible victim had been thoroughly fooled.
The landscape was completely different from Ireland in that part of Montana, the mountains sable colored, the skies wide and blue, the nights wild with booming thunder and fingers of lightning bright as a flashbulb. God’s taking pictures, my grandmother said during a particularly violent storm. Or the angels are bowling. Butte, the setting of my first novel, Snow in July, was fascinatingly different from the Pacific Northwest town where I was raised, a place that approached the rainy green of Ireland itself. I found hints of the old myths in the harbor seal that frequented the bay near my maternal grandfather’s property. It would venture close to us when we swam in the chill Puget Sound waters, heedless of the chill, diving, surfacing, watching us with its large, dark eyes. When I told my grandmother about the seal—its eyes looked like a person’s, I said. Well, maybe it is, she said with a knowing smile. You never can tell.
Later, I visited the New England coast, and Ireland too, (the settings for The Cottage at Glass Beach and The Lace Makers of Glenmara), retracing the route my ancestors took as they came west. I could hear their voices along that journey, my grandmother’s too. Maybe it’s time to tell your own stories, she said.
She didn’t live long enough to see me become a published author, but I think she’d be happy that those early days spent in her cozy living room with its lush velvets and gleaming cranberry glass had a lasting effect on me. Her stories became, to a certain extent, my own, the best gift she could have given me.
Check back here on the 15th for a giveaway of The Cottage at Glass Beach!