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‘Hattie’: Local novelist calls upon nursing past to give voice to grief, loss, search for meaning

  • Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Anna Bowen of South Hadley has written her first novel, "Hattie", published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

Looking back on the years she spent as a nurse and a mental health counselor, Anna Bowen remembers the time less as a career than a calling.

In the same way, Bowen, 59, sees her writing as something she was drawn to do — in particular, to give voice to the narrator that’s at the heart of her recently published novel.

“Hattie,” by Small Batch Books of Amherst, is a poignant, episodic story of one woman’s experience with grief and loss and her search for meaning. It’s also the culmination of a process Bowen, who lives in South Hadley, began more than 20 years ago, when she began writing seriously and created a narrative voice that seemed to synthesize some of her own experiences as well as those of other women she had worked with.

“Bringing Hattie out into the world feels like a calling, like a responsibility,” Bowen said. “I feel like this character connected with me because she knew I would listen to her, knew I would hear her and understand her and tell her story.”

The novel, which has been generating some good buzz online, also marks the transition Bowen has made from nursing to full-time writing. She had written poetry on and off since her 20s, but after taking a short-story course at Holyoke Community College in the late 1980s, she caught the writing bug, she said.

She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English and women’s studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and in 1990 she was one of 10 recipients of the USA Today Distinguished Student Scholar Award. She’s also a member of the International Women’s Writing Guild and a longtime journal writer.

Bowen contributed to “Captive Hearts, Captive Minds,” a book about recovering from the effects of cults and other abusive relationships. In addition to her work as a nurse, Bowen spent years counseling women who had been sexually abused, and at one time she worked on the women’s trauma unit at the former Charles River Hospital in Chicopee. She says she still volunteers as a nurse and caregiver with friends and family, and she’s kept her nursing license up to date.

Parts of “Hattie,” Bowen said, began coming to her in the late 1980s, though it wasn’t until the 1990s that she began linking those parts into a longer narrative and considered trying to publish it as a novel. “This story has been with me a long time,” she said with a laugh.

A small press in Washington state expressed interest in publishing it, she said, but when that company had financial difficulties she took “Hattie” to Small Batch Books on the recommendation of a graphic artist working on the book’s design. When she met with Small Batch owners Trisha Thompson and Fred Levine, Bowen said, “I felt an instant connection ... It was just a good fit.”

Thompson, in an email, said she had been struck by the level of passion and commitment that Bowen brought to her book and by her narrative voice: “I was hooked when I read the opening of the novel. ... Hattie never goes out of character, she teaches you about life, and she stays with you after the book ends.

“Before self-help books, novels changed people’s lives,” Thompson added. “Fictional characters inspired us to rise above adversity, and I think Hattie follows in those literary footsteps.”

“Hattie” reads more like a memoir than a novel. The time line fluctuates and details of Hattie’s life emerge gradually, like layers of an onion being peeled back. Bowen uses short, individually titled vignettes rather than chapters to tell the story, and her unadorned prose is effective in evoking the tragedy that surrounds Hattie.

For starters, her husband, Harry, is a brute who, when not out carousing, is often violent with Hattie and their children. One day, when she rebukes Harry for a rude remark, he instantly retaliates: “I felt his arm — just one mind you — come away from his side and fling me clean across the room. I found myself in the corner with Jeremy. There I sat, looking foolish.”

Hattie is not an educated woman, but she’s thoughtful and reflective, particularly as she ponders the meaning of hardship. She’s destined to lose her children — to illness and birth defects, her husband’s violence, to fate itself — and she struggles with periods of loneliness, alienation, and her own self-recrimination and guilt.

“It is so difficult for me to recall those things that broke my heart,” she says. “That broke me. To have life drain out of your soul, to have everything destroyed. How is a woman supposed to survive? My guilt is that I did not die, that I lived through it all. My guilt is that I did not stop it.”

Bowen deliberately blurs details of the story such as time and place. Readers can glean that it’s set sometime in the latter part of the 19th century or early 20th century, and that it takes place somewhere in the Northeast, as some important scenes occur in Philadelphia. But Bowen said she wanted Hattie’s story to be more universal.

“The time is not specific because I think people can relate to her regardless of the era,” she said.

Spirituality also infuses the novel — the sense that larger, unexplainable forces are at work in the world — and “Hattie” contains passages that tend toward magical realism. Bowen, who has a degree in holistic nursing, said she believes deeply in larger forces and that people can make connections on different levels.

“Energy is all around us, people’s stories are all around us,” she said. Hattie’s voice, Bowen said, was not one she consciously created; instead, it came to her gradually over the years, with a distinctive cadence and sensibility.

“When I connect to a voice of a character like that, I don’t judge, I don’t edit,” she said. “I just listen ... (Hattie) and I would collaborate. I would feel we’d have to be in agreement for this to work.”

Bowen noted that in a more general way, she drew on the stories of women she had worked with who had been abused by men, as well as her own hard times — what she calls her “personal healing journey.” Her novel, she said, is ultimately about the larger issue of the resilience of the human spirit that “comes from finding your own voice.”

And Hattie does, in the end, find her own measure of redemption and love — and of acceptance of her life. As a reviewer wrote for the online newspaper seattlepi.com, “[Hattie] will teach you how to be brave, how to be vulnerable, how to learn to trust again, and how to cope with loss — again and again.”

In between her efforts to market “Hattie,” Bowen said, she’s working on another novel and looking for an illustrator for a children’s book she’s nearly finished.

In the meantime, she says, she’s been happy to hear from readers and friends that her novel is cropping up in other countries: India, England, Canada, Africa. She believes the story of Hattie can resonate with a range of readers.

“The best compliment I’ve gotten is when readers say, ‘She helped me remember my own story’ or ‘She triggered my own stories,’ ” Bowen said. “That means a lot to me.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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