Little-Known Granby Author's Books Now Collectors Items

by George Lynch

10 October 2011

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[EDITOR'S NOTE: A condensed version of this article originally appeared in the The Granby Drummer, Granby Connecticut. Permission to reprint this and the author's additional content has been granted by, respectively, the Granby Drummer and George Lynch.]

On a warm spring evening on May 22, 1994 the new owners of a cabin on Lake Basile in Granby, Connecticut were sitting on their porch watching the highlights of the water soften into night. No moon, no lights reflecting off the water, only shadows from which the occasional rustle of night creatures were heard. There was a calm quietness, like nature awaiting a storm, when suddenly, "What in the world was that?" An apparition, an asymmetric white sphere, something resembling a silvered globe, fluttered along the shoreline. "Is someone walking down there?" They watched with surreal astonishment as it appeared and then faded from sight. One said to the other, "I think Clara Dean has died". Indeed, she had. She died that night while her best friends sat watching on the porch of her former home.

Clara Deane Marshall was a Granby author of children's books portraying youngsters, primarily young girls, encountering nature endemic to Connecticut. Her six adventure books titled A House for Elizabeth, The Long White Month, The Silver Robin, The Invisible Island, Dig for a Treasure and Wish on the Moon were published by E.P. Dutton between 1941 and 1951. A later publication titled Granby is a Good Place to Live was written and illustrated by Granby children under her tutelage. Her books received positive reviews from such publications as the New York Times Book Review and the Boston Post among others. Several of her works were selected as the Book of the Month by the Junior Literary Guild.

An excerpt from The Long White Month is a good representation of her genre:

"'Look!' Breathed Susan in the merest whisper. There on snow girl's head perched a tiny bird, his round black head on one side, his bright eye looking curiously at Priscilla.... With another tiny flutter of wings, the little bird swooped down on Priscilla's outstretched arm, pecked at it, cocked his head disgustedly, and darted into the branches of the biggest hemlock tree. He swung his head down from a hemlock cone and sang to her gaily. 'Dee dee dee!' he called. 'Dee dee dee dee.' 'What Kind of bird are you?' Priscilla asked him. 'You have a pretty black cap and a black necktie. Yes, I see them. They are very beautiful, all gray and white. But what is your name?' 'Dee Dee DEE!' said the little bird insistently, and added a little jingle of song that sounded like a baby's silver rattle."

Marshall was not a public figure; in fact, many town folk have never heard of her. Most of those who did know her did not consider her to be special in any way. It could be said that she was known more for her Spartan lifestyle than her books - but all that has changed in recent years. Marshall's books are now collector's items, some fetching hundreds of dollars.

Marshall's cabin on Lake Basile was the model for the cottage in The Long White Month. Three of her books, Invisible Island, Dig for a Treasure and Wish on the Moon were based on an island that remained when Lake Basile was created. Marshall autographed Dig for a Treasure for a friend, writing, "Best wishes with this tale of Ole Granby - for the town called Anchorage is really Granby."

If one were to identify a Marshall role model, it would have to be British author Arthur Ransom. His stories tell of school-holiday adventures of children that were allowed to roam the whole summer generally without parental supervision. They were free to camp and have a wonderful time exploring. Marshall's Invisible Island was based on such a premise of happy castaways from home.

Clara Deane Marshall was born on February 26, 1899 in Louisville, Kentucky. She was one of the first women to graduate from Vanderbilt University, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1922. She continued her studies at the New York School of Social Work, where it is believed she received a Masters Degree. She was employed by the New York Charity Organization Society before moving to Hartford to become a case supervisor for the Hartford Charity Organization Society. She left Hartford to become a librarian in Granby. Since she was employed by the Granby Library Association, not the Town of Granby, there are no town records as to when she started work. She retired from the library in January 1987 when she was 88 years old.

She hated the name "Clara" thinking it to be old fashioned. She settled for "Dean" without the "e." She thought it a bit more modern and maybe a bit more assertive. She seems to have limited the use of her first name to her very personal relationships. For example, she used the name "Clara" on her inscriptions to her parents and close friends until at least 1969. Later she dropped it altogether and became just "Dean."

Marshall walked with a limp from early childhood and always used a cane. She had had an operation on her leg when she was about seven years old resulting in one leg being shorter than the other. It was thought that she had probably contracted polio. She did tell a neighbor that, as a child, she had fallen out of a tree and injured herself, possibly suggesting another cause of her disability. Many years later an acquaintance in Granby complained of a very painful injury to her back. Marshall denigrated her discomfort, responding "You don't know what pain is." Whether she was talking about emotional pain or physical pain could not be inferred. Nevertheless, the recipient of the remark intuited that Marshall was referring to having had experienced intense suffering at some time in her life.

Friends recall Marshall as more of a tomboy than anything else. She was gentle, sometimes bookish and introverted, yet sometimes spirited. A friend commented that it did not matter what she said or did; people liked her. She had no interest in self aggrandizement. Traveling from New York by train one day, she was sitting behind a mother who was reading A House for Elizabeth aloud to her daughters. Marshall never acknowledged her authorship.

In April, 1937, Marshall bought a half acre of land on the banks of the newly dredged Lake Basile in Granby. In September of that year, she had a cabin built using the native hemlock trees in the area. It was really nothing more than a small 20' x 20' open room resting on a stone foundation surrounded by woods. A hand dug basement was about 5' deep. The inside frame was of rough cut wood with half logs nailed to the outside. Walls were basically barn board that you could see through in some places. Occasionally rain would come in and damage some of the hundreds of books that lined the inside walls. The roof rafters were small circumference trees. The roof itself was visible from the inside and also leaked in several places. Priscilla in The Long White Month describes the cottage: "Over her head the ceiling rose in a peak, with heavy wooden beams supporting it.... The rafters are hand-hewn. You can see the marks of the axe.... The walls were made of wood, without plaster or wallpaper."

A section of the interior was partitioned off for a little bathroom; another corner was reserved for a kitchen area. A screen porch of birch logs overlooked the lake. The screens were floor to ceiling for the length of the cabin.

The fireplace and hearth were the central focus of the cabin, built of stone and smaller than you might imagine. During the early years, Marshall reportedly cooked her meals in the fireplace. Pots rested on a trivet, a little three legged iron stand; kettles hung from a long iron bar fastened to the inside of the firebox as in colonial times. Priscilla asks in The Long White Month: "'How can you cook in the fireplace?' 'I'll show you, its rather fun, really, only it gets the pots and pans so black.' She picked up the pan of chicken and carried it to the hearth. Then she knelt and raked out a smooth bed of hot ashes in front of the logs. The ashes glowed and quivered with the most gorgeous color. Over them, Susan set a little three-legged iron thing made of heavy black scrolls. 'This is a trivet,' she explained, balancing the pan on it.' With the poker, she swung out a long iron bar over the fire. It was fastened inside the fireplace and from it hung several strong iron hooks, some long, some short. She hung an iron kettle on a medium-sized hook and pushed back the bar so that the flames behind the trivet licked the bottom of the kettle. Priscilla watched, fascinated. 'Is that the way the pioneers cooked?' 'It certainly is.'"

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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