Book Bag

Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2014


By Gail Husch

Barley Mill Press

In November 1897, a Mount Holyoke College student named Bertha Lane Mellish, the daughter of a Connecticut minister, vanished from the school without a trace. Her disappearance sparked considerable press attention, with stories in The New York Times and many other newspapers, including some that speculated darkly about what might have happened — that she might have thrown herself into the Connecticut River, for instance, or been murdered, and her body mutilated, by a secret older lover.

From this unsolved mystery, Gail Husch, an art historian who earned her master’s degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has fashioned an intriguing historical novel, using what little is known of Bertha and her family to imagine what she might have been like — and what might have led to her disappearance.

Husch, who teaches art at Goucher College in Maryland, brings a sense of foreboding to the story early on, casting Bertha as a quiet, somewhat haughty young woman who has grown up in a strange household. Her father and mother were both about 50 when she was born; her only sibling was her older sister, Florence, who was 20 years her senior and raised her much like a second mother.

Bertha’s relationship with her parents is seemingly distant and strained, at the very least lacking in physical affection. When, just before she’s to leave for college, her father implores her to keep “the fear of God” in her heart, lest she be tempted while away from her family “by those follies that bring shame and ruin.” Bertha can only say that “I will always try.”

At Mount Holyoke, Bertha earns a reputation as a studious, somewhat distant person who often takes long walks in the woods by herself and sometimes is absent from the dining hall for days on end. She does develop a friendship with another student, Eva, who challenges her to buck the conventions women of that era faced. “And what about you,” Eva asks her. “Do you do what you think you should or what you feel like doing?”

When Eva dies of pneumonia, Bertha is devastated, and whatever belief she may have had in God seems to vanish. She finds herself even more isolated at the college; she often wards off visitors to her room by taping a sign to her door that says “Engaged.”

Husch quotes some lines from a short story that the real Bertha wrote shortly before she disappeared, in which a young woman throws herself to her death into a river; the last few chapters of the book detail various fruitless efforts to find the missing student.

In the words of novelist Madison Smartt Bell, a colleague of Gusch’s at Goucher College, “The Button Field” is “more than a vivid and accurate representation of another time and place. Bertha’s vanished world reflects our own; she reappears to tell us something about the way our lives are lived, by comparison to hers. In the end, the author’s inquiring eye is twinned with the eye of the reader.”


By Howard Reiss

Krance Publishing

Novelist Howard Reiss, who lives slightly north of New York City along the Hudson River, stopped for a bite in Northampton a few years ago and watched with interest as an elderly man, carrying his own wine, sat down for dinner and was quickly joined at the table by the restaurant’s owner and chef, a much younger woman. He couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but that scene became the seed for his new book, “The Year of Soup.”

The novel, set in Northampton, is narrated by 30-year-old Tess, who has drifted between three jobs over the past nine years; she’s also been through three significant relationships, with two men and one woman. Unsure of her sexuality, and longing to bring some new definition to her life, Tess takes a vow of celibacy and opens a restaurant, built around homemade soups and basic meals, in Northampton on her 30th birthday.

“I decided to open a restaurant to break that numerical jinx [of threes] because I read that it takes a restaurant at least three years to start making money,” Tess says, “and with a ten year bank loan I had no choice but to stick with it. Besides, cooking and eating have always been the easiest way for me to forget and move on.”

Just a week after she opens her eatery, Circa, Tess meets Roger Beanstock, an elderly English professor who comes in at closing time. Beany, as Tess comes to know the professor, is haunted by his past and has lived a celibate life devoted to his work. He spends every Thursday night for the next year sharing soup and wine with Tess — then suddenly takes his life.

Tess later meets another diner, a furniture maker named Jim, who largely keeps to himself. However, when Tess finds a collection of letters Beany has left for her, she discovers her former friend’s real story, which in turn helps her come to terms with her own sexuality and discover Jim’s secret, a revelation that will change both their lives.

Reiss, a graduate of Dartmouth College and Columbia Law School, is the author of a previous novel, “A Family Institution.” His new book won a Silver Medal for Best Fiction in the Northeast region at the Independent Publisher Book Awards for 2013.


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