We were so struck by the library setting in Sue Halpern’s new novel, Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, which received a starred review in Booklist’s November 15, 2017 issue, we decided to contact her at her home in Vermont and find out more about what inspired her to write about a small, struggling New England public library. Halpern responded with illuminating enthusiasm.
SEAMAN: The Robbers Library in the title of your new novel, readers are told, was built in 1912 in Riverton, New Hampshire, as one of 1,687 Carnegie libraries in the U.S., established by the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. At the time, the town was “prosperous,” but all its mills closed down and by the when the new reference librarian, Kit, arrives in a new century, Riverton is a “dingy” place, with many boarded-up storefronts. Rusty, a mysterious daily patron at the library, is a casualty of another catastrophic financial reversal. Parallels are often drawn between the robber-baron era, or the Gilded Age, and today. Was this historical echo part of your idea for the novel?
HALPERN: Yes—and no. I wrote the novel after the financial crash, but before the last presidential election, and even before the 2008 crash, the U.S. was in a period of serious downsizing, off-shoring, and the loss of manufacturing jobs. I wasn’t comparing the concentration of wealth during the Gilded Age to the concentration of wealth now, so much as revisiting a place that had been hit, over and over, as jobs and whole industries packed up and left.
SEAMAN: Did a particular library inspire you to create the Robbers Library?
HALPERN: Two libraries, actually. The first was the library I cofounded in the Adirondack town where I lived for many years. The town, which was at the intersection of the three poorest counties in New York State, had never had a library. When we moved there, around 1990, it was served by a monthly bookmobile, but then the funding for that was cut. Along with two other people, I was asked to create a library.
Our total annual budget was $15,000, and it had to pay for a librarian, books, furniture, and whatever else we hoped to have there. Miraculously, we pulled it off and it was so popular that within a few months the town doubled the amount of money it allocated, and then all sorts of wonders occurred. (I wrote about it in a piece for Mother Jones titled “Speaking Volumes.”) There are 1,800 people in the township, and we ordered 500 library cards; three weeks after we opened, we had to order more, and by year’s end we had signed up 1,500 people. And it changed the entire town. Not only because, suddenly, there were books circulating, but also because there were people circulating. Everyone came to the library: little kids, old folks, people studying for their GED, people looking for knitting patterns, people looking for jobs. And they started talking to each other. A book club was formed. A theater group. On and on and on. It woke the town up.
The other library was the original Carnegie library. I was doing a story for the New York Times Magazine in the town of Braddock, outside of Pittsburgh, and I was able to spend time in the Braddock Free Library which, much like our library in the Adirondacks, served as a community hub. That was Carnegie’s vision. There were even tunnels from the steel mills directly into the library, and showers, and a basketball court and a theater. And everyone was welcome, which is the essence of a public library.
SEAMAN: Before we delve more deeply into the novel, how does your writing of nonfiction, including A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home (2013), influence your fiction, and vice versa?
HALPERN: Some stories are meant to be told as nonfiction because their power comes from being real, while others need to be told as fiction because fiction––the imagination––is the best conduit to the their truth.
SEAMAN: Your characters are charming and compelling. Let’s start with 15-year-old Solstice, who goes by Sunny, and her unusual, off-the-grid upbringing, including her “no-schooling.” What was your inspiration for her parents and their unconventional lives?
HALPERN: I’ve always been interested in education and ideas about the best way to teach children. I started and ran a little school when we lived in the Adirondacks, and some of the kids who went there had back-to-the-land parents who pretty much believed that their children were better off only following their own passions and interests. It’s one reason the school, ultimately, failed. But all of those kids turned out fine, and continue to pursue their passions to this day, so maybe their parents were on to something.
SEAMAN: When Sunny is caught trying to shoplift a dictionary, the judge, in a smart and compassionate variation on “the punishment should fit the crime,” sentences her to 40 hours a week of community service all summer long at the Riverton Public Library. This not only changes her life, but also that of Kit, the librarian who works with her. Tell us about Kit, who is deeply solitary and secretive.
HALPERN: I totally identify with Kit. Though I’m moderately more social than she is, I completely understand the impulse to want to be left alone. My first book, after all, was Migrations to Solitude (1992). In one of the essays in that book, I wrote (I think; I’m paraphrasing myself here): “If the forest were a room, I’d be inside, reading.” So there’s that. And I also understand the impulse to draw into oneself when that sense of solitariness and privacy is threatened, as Kit does. Like many of us, she finds solace in books.
SEAMAN: Both you and Bill McKibben, the renowned environmentalist and your husband, have written novels––Radio Free Vermont (2017) is Bill’s fiction debut––about small, tightly knit, New England communities. Why does this setting and subject appeal to you?
HALPERN: We live in a small, tightly knit New England community in Vermont, and before that we lived in an extremely rural community in Upstate New York. In both places one can literally live or die by the grace of one’s neighbors. That may sound dramatic, but we are far from any hospital, so having EMTs nearby is crucial; the fire department is voluntary; the power goes out regularly, often when it is extremely cold or there’s been a big snowstorm, making sure everyone has their wood in is also crucial. In the midst of Hurricane Irene, I heard a chainsaw, and when I went outside to investigate, I saw that two guys were cutting down a large tree that had fallen across our driveway. They were out doing that for everyone. Neighborliness is what makes this community a community, and both Bill and I appreciate that and want to offer it as a real, lived, alternative to the atomized ways of being chronicled by sociologists like Robert D. Putnam in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000).
SEAMAN: This is a many-faceted novel of suspenseful and converging second-chance story lines that raise a lot of questions about self, love, trust, work, and ethical dilemmas. Did any of the developments in character or any of their predicaments take you by surprise, or did you have it well-mapped out from the start?
HALPERN: I knew certain things: I knew where I wanted Sunny, Kit, and Rusty to end up. I knew how their individual stories began. I knew their stories would converge in the library. But it was a lot of fun letting them lead me from start to finish.
SEAMAN: The Robbers Library is a sanctuary for your characters as well as a place of discovery. What role have libraries played in your life? What roles do you see public libraries playing in our communities? In our democracy?
HALPERN: If there is such a thing as a “library rat,” that was me as a kid; I was in the public library every week, and sometimes more than every week. I had library cards to three different public libraries, including one that I convinced my parents to pay for since we didn’t live in that town. We didn’t have a lot of books in our house, but it didn’t matter because there were thousands available, and I’d haul out bags of them and then stay up all night reading. After I read Catcher in the Rye, I looked every week to see if Salinger had written a new book. (I did this for years.)
Having started a public library, I understand in my bones what a library can do, and what it means for a community. When our town first hoped to start a library, they asked residents if they’d vote for a slight tax increase to fund it. A lot of people balked and said that giving money for something they believed they’d never use was wrong, so the town had to figure out some other way to fund it. But once the Town of Johnsburg Library was up and running, many who opposed the library became its patrons, or their children did, or their grandchildren, and it convinced them that this public enterprise was worthy of their support.
Libraries are great levelers. They are places where people find common ground with each other, and where conversations between strangers occur and then those folks are no longer strangers. I was in the Town of Johnsburg Library this summer and someone I barely knew told me to read Homegoing (2016) by Yaa Gyasi, so I did, and the next time I was in the library we had a long talk about racial injustice. That conversation would never have happened without the mediation of the library. So yes, I think libraries are key to our democracy. Alexis De Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, says that what distinguishes our democracy and makes it work is that we have what he called “cross-cutting affiliations” that connect us, even in our differences. (For example, you may be Protestant, a knitter, and love cats, and I may be Muslim and a knitter and also love cats, so we bond over knitting and cats.) And libraries are often where the newest Americans learn the language and learn to be Americans. One of the most fun scenes to write in the novel was the one in which Kit gets to explain to a group of immigrants that they can take out the books for free, and they are incredulous. And they should be: it’s an incredible gift.
SEAMAN: In your novel, the Riverton Library is struggling financially. Do you feel that real-life public libraries are adequately appreciated? Did you intend at all for Summer Hours at the Robbers Library to reenergize our recognition and appreciation of all that public libraries contribute and enable?
HALPERN: Libraries can be a hard sell in places that are financially strapped, and yet I’d bet that for every dollar spent, at least twice that comes right back into the community in terms of literacy, employment, entertainment, and social cohesion. In many towns, like Riverton, the library is the town commons. I am hoping my book reminds people of that, and if it does, I will be thrilled.
Donna Seaman is Adult Books Editor for Booklist, a recipient of the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award, a member of the Content Leadership Team for the American Writers Museum, and a frequent presenter at literary events and programs. Seaman’s new book is Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists.