Monday, October 3, 2011

A Grandmother Speaks Again To Her Grandchildren and the World

The Old Ashburn Place by Margaret Flint won the Dodd Mead Pictorial Review Best First Novel of 1935 prize, and the author went on to write numerous other books. Several of the authors' grandchildren -- Leslie S. Lebl, Sara M. Barnacle and Istoria President Matthew T. Sternberg -- worked to bring The Old Ashburn Place to 21st century readers after Ms. Flint's novels went out of print. It is now available as an ebook through Istoria Books. Below is a roundtable discussion among the three grandchildren about their grandmother and this project. Matthew and Leslie are siblings; Sara is their cousin. 

Did you read The Old Ashburn Place or any of your grandmother's novels in print?

MTS: I must admit that until we started this project, the only of Grandma's books I had read was Dress Right, Dress, which I picked up shortly after my mother's death in 2002. I was interested in it because Mom was the model for one of the characters. The Flint books were always on the shelf and I always knew what they were, but they somehow seemed remote -- of another time -- and it didn't occur to me that perhaps they held meaning for me. 
LSL:  I read most of them when I was a teenager -- and didn't care for them very much.  In retrospect, that's hardly surprising, as Grandma's focus was on adult dilemmas.  I thought  then that she was too pessimistic; now I find her depictions spot-on.  
SMB: I read two or three when I was still living in my parents' home, but it wasn't until I inherited my mother's complete collection at her passing in 1999 that I read through them all. My mother read the whole cycle every year. She had been her mother's secretary and research assistant, yes, and household help, up until she went into the WAC. For her, the novels were a very real connection to her own early life and especially to her mother. After reading the novels for myself, I became interested in seeing if any regional publishers would like to republish them. Not. My mother made a scrapbook of her mother's newspapers articles, and I enjoyed reading them -- short vignettes about life in Maine.

When do you remember learning your grandmother was a prize-winning novelist? Did your mother tell you?

MTS: Mom told me about the prize early on. I don't specifically  remember when. She said that style of novel caught on in the '30s but eventually went out of style. That was the reason she gave for all the books being tightly bunched chronologically with nothing before or after. She also said the publisher had gone bankrupt, although I don't if that's fully accurate, as Dodd Mead didn't go out of business for many more years.
LSL:  Mother told us about Grandma's prize, but also that her life was difficult, despite that success, especially after Grandpa died.
SMB: As far back as my mother could remember, she recalled the clack of her mother's typewriter at night. Margaret Flint got fired up to be a writer in college. She later took a short story writing course but experienced straight rejections for years and years. Her first attempt at a novel was the big success. I suppose my mother or one of the aunts must have told me about it, but the knowledge of the prize has always just been part of my family consciousness.

Did you ever see your grandmother at work writing? Did she ever talk about her life as an author/novelist with any of you or in your presence?

MTS: I was only five when Grandma died. I remember her as a remote and severe elder, although that was probably just the perspective of a shy child responding to a much older authority figure. The only thing I remember her talking to me about was telling me to behave myself.
LSL:  My memories are similar to Matthew's.  Although I was a few years older, I was completely intimidated by Grandma. 
SMB:  My grandmother's typewriter sat on a big office desk in the corner of her living room. Although she would put away her work when we appeared, we were well aware of her work. Perhaps because we lived nearby and could drop in for many short visits instead of one long vacation each year, my recollection of Margaret Flint is very different from Matthew's and Leslie's. For my brother and sister and me, she was the "Ga-dee" of hugs and cookies. She took real interest in our doings and sayings. She read stories to us at the fireside. She definitely had high standards, in housekeeping, morals, and kid behavior, but Ralph and Beth and I knew how to fly beneath her radar. I don't mean we did sneaky things (okay, except learning how to silently lift the lid on the fudge jar). We felt it was such a privilege to be at her house that we just chose to be good. It boils down to basics, too. At that time, my parents' house did not yet have indoor bathroom plumbing, but Gad-dee had not only a bathroom with a deep, clawfoot tub and aromatic soap, but she had a lavatory just off the kitchen hallway. It was Ralph and Sara in Wonderland when we visited her. I think our relationship was also colored by the fact that there were conflicts between our grandmother and the ambitious and passionate aunts, but my easy-going mother and her ambitious, passionate mother were pals. What I knew about Margaret Flint's ongoing writing I picked up from being a little pitcher with big ears.         
Did you hear her voice when you read The Old Ashburn Place?

MTS: I don't hear her voice because I don't remember her voice. What I hear is my mother and her two sisters. We often visited Grandma in Maine in the summers. I was always attracted by the northern New England accents. Add to that the Yankee mindset, and the book brings back all sorts of memories.
LSL:  The oddest thing is not that I hear her voice, but that in her descriptions of nature, I hear my own.  I feel as if she's seeing the landscape with my eyes -- something I've never felt before.  So I wonder if I wouldn't have enjoyed knowing her as an adult.
SMB:  Like Leslie, I can barely distinguish her love for that part of Maine from my own. Being a little older than Leslie and Matthew and having grown up in the hood, I knew or knew about a number of the people, places, and situations which show up in the books. I have a feeling that as I turn the pages, my grandmother will appear as a character, as I knew her.

As you worked on the novel, can you describe what it meant to you to be involved in this project?

MTS: It meant many things on both the emotional and intellectual levels. We are preserving a literary snapshot of a time and place that meant much to the formulation of my family and which would otherwise be lost as the technology of reading evolves. We are preserving the memory of a family matriarch. As we charge into the 21st century, I didn't want the world to lose sight of that piece of the 20th century. Perhaps as I get older myself, I'm more aware of what it will mean to eventually be forgotten.  I'm not claiming that our project is a profound cultural event, just that an important era in our family life should not be forgotten. Only one of my mother's five siblings is still alive. 
LSL:  I agree with Matthew's observations, but for me, it was  just fun to discover how well-written and compelling the story was, and how fresh it felt.  I think digital publishing is going to make available all kinds of literary treasures that up to now have been confined to the far reaches of a few libraries. 
SMB: Many family members over the years have wished for this moment, when Margaret's influence as a writer would be extended.  I am thrilled that Matthew and Libby (Sternberg, Istoria's editor-in-chief) finally found the right way to do it, and did it, and included Leslie and me.
The Old Ashburn Place was published in 1936 -- the same year Gone With the Wind, Absalom, Absalom, We, the Living and other well-known novels were released. What do you think its place is in the history of literature?

MTS: That remains to be seen. Mother always said Grandma's problem was that the market changed and her style of fiction went out of style. I'm sure that's so. As was pointed out in one of the literary analyses of the book, the Depression spawned a movement to return to the simplicity of rural life. Grandma caught that wave and rode it for a while. Then America entered the post-war era and the 1950s, and society was off in another direction.  However, reading the book after all these years, I can't help but wonder if maybe we've come full circle. Maybe this view of a man (Charlie Ashburn) trying to live his life according to clean ideals while stumbling over all the barriers imposed by human nature will speak to an audience seeking to redefine values in the very confusing world of today.
LSL:  No idea!
SMB:  I second both responses. As long as humans are interested in the doings of their fellow humans, there should be readers for Flint novels.
Did the novel tell you something you didn't know about your grandmother?

MTS:  Working on the book also gave me a much-belated insight into who my grandmother really was. Because I remembered her as judgemental (again, perhaps the false memory of a small child), I always assumed her worldview was insular. It wasn't. She saw people as they were -- warts and all -- and captured them in her writing. She wrote about real people in a real world. I now see her in an entirely different light.
LSL:  I think Grandma would fit right in with the 21st century view that no subjects should be off limits.
SMB:  For me, knowing my grandmother influenced my reading of her novels. As her six children left home, she kept all their letters home. Although that collection was broken up at her passing, when her house changed hands within the family, I have had opportunity to read many of them and learn something of the adult joys and clashes that may not have penetrated a child's field of vision.

Why should contemporary audiences read The Old Ashburn Place?

MTS: As mentioned above, although the story is set a century ago, the struggle to live a clean life in the face of human frailty is eternal. Books may be changing from paper to electrons but love stays the same. Our world has gotten more "modern" and "advanced," but we would be fools to think that human nature has changed one iota. I think people are sensing that. My hope is that they will see in Charlie Ashburn glimpses of the spiritual  struggle we all still go through generations later.
LSL:  I think today's readers should read it for pure enjoyment.  It's a good story, as relevant today as it was when it first appeared.  The insight into a specific region at a specific point in time is just an added benefit.
SMB: Because they are good reads. They tackle serious issues in a forthright but compassionate way.


The Old Ashburn Place by Margaret Flint is available now for Kindle and Nook. Read more about the author and this book at the Istoria Books website and contact us at or sign up for our mailing list here (the subscription box is in the margin!).

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