Book Bag: ‘Apples of New England: A User’s Guide’ by Russell Steven Powell; ‘The Taking: Before They Flooded the Quabbin’ by Helen R. Haddad

Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2014


By Russell Steven Powell

The Countryman Press

Fall in New England has a number of traditional symbols: pumpkins and gourds, colorful foliage, dried cornstalks. But Russell Steven Powell would argue for another one: apples.

Powell, of Hatfield, knows apples. He’s the former executive director of the New England Apple Association and now the organization’s senior writer. He’s also the author of the 2012 book “America’s Apple,” a broad look at the apple industry in the United States, from horticulture to apple varieties and products.

In his new book, “Apples of New England,” Powell zeroes in on some 200 varieties of apples grown in New England, including numerous rare ones, to provide a useful guide on their history, flavor, parentage and most common usage, such as for eating, baking or making cider. Accompanying each description is a full-color picture of an apple that may well have you reaching for one yourself, or planning a trip to the supermarket or an orchard to get some.

Powell offers an engaging history of apple growing in New England — from what may be America’s first named variety, the Roxbury Russet of 1635, to the changing look of modern orchards, which emphasize new varieties and smaller, more tightly spaced trees. He explores the links between Henry David Thoreau and John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed), who were born within 25 miles of each other in Massachusetts and preached the virtues of nature.

Within that history, Powell has found a number of interesting subchapters, such as the widespread use of apples in the 1700s and early 1800s for making hard cider, which in many places “was safer to drink than water. Everyone drank hard cider, even children and the elderly.” As one example, he writes, Middlesex County in 1764 produced over 33,400 barrels of the brew, “well over a barrel for every man, woman and child.”

Hard cider production and consumption dropped off dramatically after 1850, a victim of temperance movements, but apple production in New England soared during the same period, as more people began eating them fresh and farmers found rich export markets such as Great Britain.

Powell once published and edited “New England Watershed Magazine,” a short-lived but well-received journal of nature writing, and “Apples of New England” reflects a similarly contemplative and literary approach to landscape, agriculture and the apple’s role both as fruit and symbol.

“The apple derives much of its cultural meaning from its rich history and because it is good to eat,” Powell writes. “But its physical beauty adds greatly to its symbolic power; Eve bites into the apple only after she has been seduced by its outer beauty, after all. ... The apple is so irresistible it becomes the perfect bait for the Witch to poison Snow White. A golden apple symbolizes the passion that led to the Trojan War.”

Powell will sign copies of “Apples of New England” and talk about heirloom varieties at 2 p.m. on Oct. 11 in the Visitor Center, Hall Tavern, 80 Main Street in Old Deerfield Village. He’ll also speak at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 14 at the Williamsburg Historical Society, and at 7 p.m. on Oct. 22 at the Goodwin Memorial Library in Hadley.


By Helen R. Haddad

Levellers Press

It’s a well-known local story: how much of the Swift River Valley was flooded in the 1930s to create the Quabbin Reservoir, Boston’s main water supply, leaving four towns submerged and their residents scattered to other places.

In “The Taking,” published by Levellers Press of Amherst, Northampton writer Helen R. Haddad revisits the time before the flooding in a young adult novel that depicts a year in the life of a Swift River farming community. “The Taking” tells the story of Josiah, a 12-year-old boy in Boston who, as the novel opens in February 1926, suddenly finds himself an orphan when his parents die of influenza.

Josiah’s Aunt Ethel and Uncle Perry, who he’s never met, take him to live with them on their farm outside the town of Enfield. It’s a rude awakening to Josiah, who’s barely ever been out of Boston and now must learn myriad new skills to help out on the farm — from milking cows to gathering eggs to working the water pump. The switch from electric lights and indoor plumbing to lanterns and candles and an outhouse is also hard to take.

Even the landscape throws him for a loop. “Life was so different here, bigger and smaller all at once — it stretched across fields, up hills and down rutted roads, full of chores and new ways to do things, and yet it was also stuck in a simple sameness, all hemmed in.”

At the one-room schoolhouse he now attends, Josiah must deal as well with Alvin, the school bully, who takes an immediate dislike to him, calling him “Boston boy” and accusing him of wanting to steal the valley’s water. Josiah tries to get his taciturn aunt and uncle to explain this mysterious threat by Boston to flood the valley, but both refuse to talk about it.

It hangs over everyone’s head, though, even as Josiah slowly warms to the rhythms of farming life, from tapping trees to make maple sugar to cutting and raking hay.

“It’s like this,” his uncle finally says, in explaining the concept of eminent domain. “The reservoir they want to build would be for the public good of Boston. It’s not for our good. They would take our homes and give us a few dollars in exchange. We don’t have the votes here to make the politicians in Boston pay any attention to our good.”

Haddad, who at one time edited and designed the Smith College Alumnae magazine, has written and illustrated books on printmaking and cooking, and she’s had a number of exhibits of her printmaking. The cover of “The Taking” is also taken from one of her watercolors. Her father grew up in the Swift River Valley before it was flooded, and she’s managed an 80-acre tree farm in Wendell, on the border of the Quabbin reservoir, for some 30 years.

Haddad will read from her novel at 7 p.m. on Oct. 16 at the Wendell Free Library.


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