Thursday, July 11, 2019

A Moment of Grace


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HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: How many moments have you had in you life where your jaw drops, and you cannot believe what you're seeing?  
Take two minutes or so now, and listen to this wonderful tale from the past of our dear Susan Van Kirk--whose fifth mystery,  A Death At Tippett Pond, is brand new this summer!

Let Me Tell You a Story
Susan Van Kirk
I write mysteries that center around the influence of history in the Midwest where I grew up. Galesburg, Illinois, a town of 38,000 in the early 1950s, was where I discovered reading. Each week I walked to the Galesburg Public Library with my mother, an avid reader herself. It was built in 1901—a Carnegie library—and it had a massive, double-wide marble staircase you faced when you walked in the front door. Part of the floor in the second story was made of glass cubes that intrigued my seven-year-old imagination.
But the best part of “my library” was the children’s room, holding marvelous wonders, including a doll house filled with miniature furniture and people. It drew me like a magnet. The front was made of glass so I could only look. Simply peering in at the various tiny miniatures each week was magical. I was in heaven. My mother had to pry me away every visit.
In those days, my father was managing the Drive-In Theatre several miles west of town. Our family spent blissful evenings there in the summer, but one night I have never forgotten: May 9, 1958. We were near the end of the movie, and people began getting out of their cars and looking back toward the east. Eleven years old, I had no idea what was happening. But then, in the inky darkness, I saw fire lighting up the night sky.
Used with permission of the Galesburg Public Library
Immediately, we drove to town where we watched my beloved library, my cherished and second home, engulfed in flames. Hundreds of people were milling behind barricades watching the firemen struggling valiantly to save the building. The crowd was hushed, staring in disbelief. Hardly anyone spoke, tears streaming down their faces. The roof collapsed onto the second floor, and eventually the astonishing second floor—filled with books and glass squares—fell into the ground floor.
They later discovered an exhaust fan in the attic had caught fire. While 40,000 books were salvaged—many water-damaged—the city lost 200,000 books worth half a million dollars. But the most devastating losses of all were four letters signed by Abraham Lincoln and valuable items from the history of the city and the genealogy data of local families.
Used with permission of the Galesburg Register-Mail
Last week I stopped at the replacement library, a modern structure sitting on the same site as my old Carnegie building. On a whim, I stopped in the children’s room to see what it looked like these days. In the middle of the room sat a dollhouse. It seemed familiar. The librarian told me it was the original dollhouse, one of the few things they had saved from the fire that night sixty-one years ago. I think I may have gasped.
I checked it out, fascinated. I saw the tiny rooms just as I remembered them, with the children’s bedroom upstairs, their faithful rocking horse awaiting them. I gazed in wonder, thinking about how my eyes had peered into these same tiny rooms so long ago, decades before I grew up and had children and grandchildren of my own. I touched the glass, the same invisible wall I had touched when I was five or six, and suddenly I was back there in that library with my mom, and we were looking at the perfect reproduction of a well-loved farm home of the 1950s, and pointing out the marvelous miniatures we liked. I could almost hear my mother’s voice.
It brought back a tumbling jumble of happiness reliving those Saturday mornings when my parents were still alive, and my world was smaller and quieter.
A very special moment of grace, indeed.
And you? Have you experienced a moment of grace recently?

HANK: Such a lovely question--and such a pleasant thing to ponder! Reds and Readers?  (And Susan is giving a copy of her new book to one lucky commenter! Another moment of grace.)

Secrets long buried surround the murder of teenage Melanie Tippitt. The daughter of a wealthy family in a small town, her lifeless body was found floating in Tippitt Pond in the summer of 1971. Six people were there that day, and one was convicted of her murder. Case closed.

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     Now, forty-five years later, Beth Russell, a freelance researcher and genealogist, is brought to the town by a lawyer who believes Russell is the daughter of Melanie Tippitt and long-lost heir to the Tippitt fortune. Soon Beth finds herself surrounded by people who want her gone as soon as possible, people with a great deal to lose. The more they push the more determined Beth is to discover the truth. The ghostly presence of Melanie Tippitt, a stranger watching from the woods, and the discovery of secrets in Tippitt House make for a suspense-filled investigation where what Beth discovers changes everything,





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Susan Van Kirk lives at the center of the universe—the Midwest—and writes during the ridiculously cold, snowy, icy winters. Why leave the house and break something? Her Endurance mysteries are humorous cozies about a retired school teacher in the small town of Endurance who finds herself in the middle of murders. Her new series about Beth Russell combines history and mystery in her debut, A Death at Tippitt Pond. Van Kirk taught for 44 years in high school and college, raised three children, has low blood pressure (a miracle after all that), and is blissfully retired. You can find out about her books at www.susanvankirk.com
The color photo :Used with permission of the Galesburg Register-Mail
The black and white photo: Used with permission of the Galesburg Public Library

67 comments:

  1. Wow! What a story. Thanks for much for sharing. And congrats on the new book and series.

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    2. Thank you, Mark. Sometimes these things happen, and I'm always surprised!

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  2. Congratulations on your new series, Susan . . . your book sounds like quite an intriguing mystery and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    I can’t imagine watching your library burn, but what a blessing to discover the rescued doll house.
    Sometimes I think moments of grace fill our lives, if only we paid attention and recognized them as such. Recently someone gave me an old photograph, a picture of my sister and I with our mother, a reminder of wonderful days when we were young . . . grace indeed.

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    1. What a perfect gift, and I'll bet it brought back a host of memories for you. I think you're right that sometimes we don't recognize these moments. This one with the library was a huge one, so it hit me over the head!

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  3. The story gave me cold chills! What heartbreak to lose the library. Congrats on the new book Susan!

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    1. Thank you, Lucy. It still makes me pause with emotion.

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  4. Congrats, on the new book, Susan! It sounds like a perfect summer mystery! As a librarian, your story breaks my heart but mends it, too!

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    1. Then it will make you feel good to know that the town is raising money to replace the small, modern replacement library. They have outgrown it, and that library is such a center of activity for the town.

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  5. What a gift to encounter that dollhouse again!

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  6. What a devastating loss... and I can just imagine how it was seared ito your memory. Seems like something that could go in a book... just saying.

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    1. Now that's a thought, Hallie! It would certainly be a plot-changer!

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  7. Congrats on your book! I can't recall a moment of grace I experienced recently, but your story is amazing. How awful to lose so many books and those letters, but how wonderful to discover that dollhouse again.

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    1. Perhaps sometimes coincidence works in strange ways in our lives. I'm not sure why, on that particular day, I decided to check out the children's room. I was simply curious. Obviously, my curiosity was rewarded in a huge manner.

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  8. I think the magic doll house is such a good idea for a children’s book… Just saying, Susan, it might be quite lovely. What do you all think?

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    1. Maybe I'll check that out with my grandchildren. I have two sets of twins coming to visit with their parents next week.

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  9. What a story, Susan, and congratulations on your newest book.

    A fire is devastating, whether large, as your library blaze was, or small, even a fishing shack on the lake, still full of meaningful things to the soul who owns it.

    When I was 12 or 13, my school burned, not quite to the ground but enough that we were housed in various churches around town until repairs could be made. Sadly, most all the band instruments were lost, especially the big ones like drums and tubas, ones too big to come home with us every night. Fortunately I'd brought my flute home. I doubt my parents could have afforded a replacement. Not in those days.

    Many years later the school was rebuilt and enlarged, going from 12 years in one building to a high school only. I went back for a reunion. Parts of the interior had been preserved, and the old halls with the terrazzo floors were just the same as were those broad staircases at either end. In my day, mid fifties, crinolines were very popular, even hoop skirts. Girls were forbidden to wear these to school lest the boys gather at the bottoms of the stairs and look up our skirts!

    As if.

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    1. Ah, what wonderful memories. You are so right about the lucky choice of bringing your flute home--my parents would have had trouble replacing a band instrument too. "Not in those days" is so true. Isn't it intriguing to go back to a building where so many memories were stored in your head? They tore down my old primary school a couple of years ago, and we were allowed to go back and walk through it first. I was surprised at how shabby and old it looked--almost still like a place out of the Cold War. Amazing how my memory had cleaned it up!

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  10. Oh Susan, I can hardly imagine the heartbreak of seeing the library burn! My childhood experience of the library in Cambridge, Ohio was almost exactly like yours, and I can't imagine having to see that devastation.

    This is quite a different moment of grace, and long ago, but it is the only thing that comes to mind. About 30 years ago, my oldest brother's 100+ year old farmhouse burned to the ground. It was the coldest day of the winter and because it was so cold, the family decided to vary from their usual routine of "unwind time" when the boys got home from school, and all headed out to do the farm chores right away, because it would only get colder. That decision saved their lives, because the furnace exploded while they were out and that old frame house was completely consumed in flames in no time. As things settled down afterward, one heartache of my sister-in-law was that she had followed her usual routine of leaving her wedding set on the mantle when she went out to do chores, so it had been lost in the fire. After enough time for all the embers to have cooled, her two teenage sons went out, determined about where the fireplace had stood, and sifted through the ashes by hand until they found their mother's wedding set, dirty but unharmed. I have always remembered that as a moment of grace -- both in the love it took for them to make that effort, and for it to have been successful against enormous odds.

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    1. What an amazing story, and how much love those sons showed to look so hard for something that meant so much to their mother! That was definitely a moment of grace, both in their decision to leave the house that day and their decision to return and look for those rings. Wow.

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  11. How perfectly lovely, that the dollhouse was saved and preserved. It would have captured my imagination, as well, Susan.

    A couple years ago I went with my husband to the Renwick Galleries in DC to see the Nutshell dioramas of crimes by the "mother of forensic science", Frances Glessner Lee. Not a moment of grace, but a moment of realization of how many people were captivated and fascinated by her depictions, in dollhouse-like settings, of murders and other crimes. The gallery was so packed we could barely get close to each diorama.

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    1. Karen, Isn't it interesting that we are fascinated by tiny depictions of people in settings we can take in from a higher vantage point? We become omniscient watchers of those crimes, checking them out for above. Curiosity, indeed!

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  12. How wonderful that the dollhouse survived the fire! When I was a child, I spent many hot Jersey days in the air-conditioned cool of the town library.

    A moment of grace: for my daughter's upcoming wedding, the groom's five year old niece admitted she was worried about her role as a flower girl because she'd never attended a wedding. I suggested watching a movie with a wedding scene, and dug up a photo of the bride, at age five, as the flower girl at her uncle's wedding. What goes around comes around.

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    1. That was a great idea, Margaret, to assure her in film and photos.

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  13. Not sure this qualifies as a moment of grace exactly. As a young child I had always been worried and afraid my house would burn down. Later, grown and married in a new house, there was a fire, but it wasn't a total loss and things actually turned out for the better. Then later yet, while living in a different house, there was a very bad fire. Luckily no one was home, but our dog which had crawled under the bed. That fire was in the middle of November. We were again lucky that neighbors up the road wanted someone to rent their mostly furnished house while they were going out of state.
    Then at Christmas I was shocked when I saw what my sister had given me. Secret from me someone had found my sterling silver! She had it cleaned up, polished and put in a new chest. It was almost perfect!

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    1. I think this does qualify in many ways. It is always interesting to me that we humans, with all our concerns and anxieties, often discover that life works out in so many ways. You mention so many ways that is true.

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  14. What a wonderful story, Susan! I'm always amazed at the things that survive fires.

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    1. The Things That Survive Fires. Sorry, I am swiping out right now for a title :-)!

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  15. Me too! This library fire was the only fire I've seen up close, and I'd like to keep it that way. For many years after this fire, I checked out books that smelled of soot and were water-damaged. But they were BOOKS! And somehow they had survived, even made of flimsy paper.

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  16. What an amazing moment that must have been, Susan! Isn't it interesting how some things can transport us back in time?

    Thanks for the chance to win your book but it sounds so interesting I couldn't wait. I just the Kindle version. I'm looking forward to reading it!

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    1. Yes it is, Cathy! My memory is not great, but an emotional experience like this really stayed with me. Thank you so much for reading my new mystery. I learned a lot about genealogy and furniture, believe it or not, while I was researching.

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  17. Your love of reading, and the splendid Carnegie Library makes this story come alive. Congratulations on this wonderful book. Your story was so vivid.

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    1. Thank you so much. Memory is such an intriguing area of life, and this particular night is connected with so many emotions that I find myself reliving it in those words.

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  18. Your experience certainly was amazing. The fire was devastating. Thanks for this fascinating glimpse into your writing.

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    1. Thank you for checking out the JRW blog.

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  19. Congratulations on your new book Susan, JR has become my go to blog for mystery recommendations. Hearing from the author really helps persuade me to a new series. As for receiving grace. Just recently the Episcopal Diocese of Maine welcomed and consecrated our new bishop. There wasn’t enough room in our Cathedral for all to attend so it was streamed live and we had a small viewing party. Going to church via tv was interesting. We sang the hymns where we remembered the words, listened without chat to a striking sermon. Then there was silence, but for the singing of a very ancient hymn. The bishop hidden from us, surrounded by the attending bishops giving him grace, and I could feel that grace present in our living room. I’ve spoken to others since and all agree, we could feel the grace.

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  20. What a wonderful experience for you. Grace is such a difficult experience to describe, but I think you have done it justice! What an interesting concept, to stream the event live.

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  21. Susan, what an amazing story! I'm so glad that doll house was saved! And so sad about the Lincoln letters-irreplaceable. Interestingly, an antique doll house plays a part in the book I'm now writing. I was always fascinated, not with playing house, but with miniatures. Still am.

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  22. Connie Berry! Our lives continue to intersect when it comes to our interests and our writing topics. I will look forward to reading your new mystery. And I agree that miniatures are fascinating, especially for children who live in a world of much larger adults.

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  23. Did any of you have doll houses? I think… I didn’t.

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  24. I did, as do several of my granddaughters.

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  25. Not a precise moment of grace, but precious nonetheless. My childhood was spent moving every year or two around Europe, because my father was a defense analyst. The government wouldn’t move our furniture, but just our clothes and personal effects, which in our case included a personal library of 10,000 books. It would have been cheaper to move our couches and beds. In those days, phone calls or visits back to barely known relatives in the U.S. were rare and expensive. So the only constants in my life were the characters between the pages of those books. They were the friends and relatives of my childhood. Today, when reading to or listening to my grandchildren as they wax enthusiastically about those same literary friends, I feel connections almost deeper than blood.

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    1. What a wonderful remembrance, and how wise of you to think back and consider what those literary friends meant to you. I often meet people who don't read books, and I have a hard time even imagining that. In your case, they were your world!

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  26. In the January 1973 our church caught fire. Choir rehearsal was happening in the choir room, which was located in the far corner of the Parish Hall. A member was in the right angle and happened to look up as a fireman ran last the door, needless to say the choir director lost all control of the rehearsal that night. The church was attached to the rectory back then, sharing a common porch for the sacristy door and the front door of the rectory but priest and his wife didn't know the church was on fire, a neighbor called it in. Once the location of the fire, up in the high peck over the altar, was established firefighters allowed the choir to pull the vestments out of the vesting room into the Parish Hall, while others pulled everything out of the sacristy into the rectory. They covered the altar after removing the brass cross.
    But before that, when firemen got into the church, they saw the fire at the top of the peck and a small flicker about half way down the wall. Aiming the hose at the lower flicker, they were suddenly stopped. They were aiming at the Presence Candle next to the huge stained glass window, not the fire. The fireman shopping them had grown up attending our church and knew what that lower flicker was and what was between the reredos and actual fire. All hoses were trained up and from the sides so the hugh window was not blasted out by the high pressure water from the hoses. Same thing from the outside, only this time it was an extension ladder that was about to be propped against the window. The window and church survived though we were out of it for 8 months for restoration. We were told we were extremely lucky. If it had not been raining so heavily, for such a long time prior before the fire, the church would have had much more damage, possibly a total loss. The church is made completely our of redwood and the shingles covering the building had been soaking up all that rain water.

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  27. Thank goodness for redwood! Isn't it amazing how all the details of your story fit together so beautifully to explain the respect everyone had for your church and its beautiful window. Even the firemen were careful about the sacred items that made up your community. A moment of grace, indeed!

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  28. What a beautiful blog! Thank you for sharing.

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  29. Moments of grace. I'm sure there have been many over the years but I'm scratching my head, trying to remember. How about a moment of delight? When I was a child in the 50s I happened upon the Mushroom Planet books. Adored them. Fast forward 30 years or so. My son brought home a Mushroom Planet book he'd checked out from the school library. Great minds think alike? I look forward to reading your latest, Susan!

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    1. Oh, I used to love those mushroom planet books. I got one from a children's Book of the Month Club, and then I had to read all the rest. So glad your son is enjoying them too!

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  30. What a lovely story! I can relate, too, not because of the fire but because I grew up in another small town with a beautiful library (stained glass dome, and marble lions in front!)...and it had some dollhouses. They are still there. Cherished memories. I don't think i had a real dollhouse as a child, and would have loved one -loved Rumer Godden's doll stories - but my daughters did and now my grandkids play with it. My dad made it to be more or less a replica of our own house. An even more cherished memory, as he is much missed.

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    1. What a lovely treat to pass on to your children and made by your dad. Isn't it amazing that so many people who read/or write books have wonderful memories of their towns' libraries. Libraries are truly the glue that keeps childhood in memory.

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  31. What a moving story Susan! Thank you for sharing it. Do you know if anyone has chronicled the history of Carnegie Libraries across the country, where they were, how many still stand, and the richness of the unique tales they contained? What fabulous reading that would be! Your new mystery sounds quite intriguing, looking forward to reading it.

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    1. It appears that there is such a book. I just saw it on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Carnegie-Libraries-Across-America-Preservation/dp/0471144223/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Carnegie+Libraries&qid=1562880529&s=gateway&sr=8-1

      Sounds like just what you are talking about.

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    2. Well, maybe go to Amazon and type in "Carnegie Libraries." That's an awfully long chain of letters to type in!!

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  32. A very lovely story made even more memorable by the loss of the original building.

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  33. Great post, Susan. I had a similar childhood, right down to growing up around a drive-in theater and enjoying a beautiful library. Our library was patterned after the Jefferson Memorial. Thankfully it still exists. It had a museum that fascinated me. I would spend hours in there looking at the arrowheads and stuffed birds on display. Congratulations on the new book.

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    1. We were so lucky to have such a small-town experience, and certainly it has left great memories. Thanks!

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  34. So true, Carl. We also lost a lovely dark black stone train station that I used to love. In college, we used to walk down there and have blueberry pancakes before finals. But that, too, went into the great void of the Old World, to be followed by a really ugly modern small station with a waiting room. The miraculous thing is that since I write fiction I could recreate it in one of my mysteries.

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  35. What a wonderful discovery for you, Susan, that the dollhouse you loved so much had survived. You almost had me in tears when talking about visiting the children's room and seeing the dollhouse there, while hearing your mother's voice from so long ago.

    And, congratulations on your new book. It sounds chilling and thrilling and a great read.

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  36. Thanks, Kathy! I guess much of my writing does deal with the past, and the older I get the more I think about some of those great lessons and wonderful relationships. And thanks for the congrats!

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  37. What a powerful, affecting story, Susan. I'm fascinated by your book now!

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  38. P.S.I just bought the book on Kindle and they suggested similar authors to follow: John Steinbeck and William Shakespeare. Talk about being in good company!!

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  39. And now I'm laughing, Ellen! Thanks for checking out my book. I hope Amazon means the quality of my writing and not my status as alive/dead.

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