The Hatbox Letters
Beth Powning offers readers an unforgettable story of love, grief and renewal — both past and present — as well as her extraordinary perceptions of the natural world.
At the age of fifty-two, Kate Harding has hit a crossroads: the pain that overwhelmed her when her husband died suddenly from a heart attack the previous year hasn’t diminished, and she is at a loss as to how to go on with her life. Living alone in her large Victorian house, its emptiness magnified by memories of better days, Kate can only dream of a time when her grief will abate, at least enough to allow her to hope for change.
When Kate’s sister drops off nine antique hatboxes of papers recovered from Shepton, their grandparents’ eighteenth-century home in Connecticut, Kate isn’t sure she is ready to face the remnants of her family’s past. She’s having enough trouble going through Tom’s things. Soon, though, the smell of the hatboxes — of her grandparents’ musty attic, of old quilts and satin ribbons — begins to permeate the air in her home and “awakens a feeling in Kate that she remembers from childhood, composed of odd emotional strands: love, sorrow, pain, contentment.” As she slowly sorts through the letters, diaries and photographs, Kate begins to find some solace in the past, in her childhood memories of Shepton when every home was a comfort, every relationship untinged by pain. But the further she delves into her grandparents’ history, the more Kate realizes that her perfect world had its own dark side — an undercurrent of tragedy, personal loss and eternal grief.
Then an old acquaintance moves back to New Brunswick, and Kate begins to edge out of her solitude, surprising herself by accepting his invitation to dinner. Gregory and his wife were friends with Tom and Kate when the kids were young, a time of camping trips and days at the beach. But Gregory, now divorced, is also carrying the weight of grief, from the suicide of his son many years earlier. At first, Gregory represents a chance for Kate to capture some of the simple joy of her past, but when she realizes that Gregory is still living in it, his memories and pain warped into self-destructive anger, she knows she has to back away. And when Gregory’s determination to return to the way things were proves unshakeable, a new tragedy forces Kate to begin picking up the pieces of her shattered life.