The Hatbox Letters

Publisher: Vintage Canada
Beth Powning offers readers an unforgettable story of love, grief and renewal — both past and present — as well as her extraordinary perceptions of the natural world.

At the age of fifty-two, Kate Harding has hit a crossroads: the pain that overwhelmed her when her husband died suddenly from a heart attack the previous year hasn’t diminished, and she is at a loss as to how to go on with her life. Living alone in her large Victorian house, its emptiness magnified by memories of better days, Kate can only dream of a time when her grief will abate, at least enough to allow her to hope for change.

When Kate’s sister drops off nine antique hatboxes of papers recovered from Shepton, their grandparents’ eighteenth-century home in Connecticut, Kate isn’t sure she is ready to face the remnants of her family’s past. She’s having enough trouble going through Tom’s things. Soon, though, the smell of the hatboxes — of her grandparents’ musty attic, of old quilts and satin ribbons — begins to permeate the air in her home and “awakens a feeling in Kate that she remembers from childhood, composed of odd emotional strands: love, sorrow, pain, contentment.” As she slowly sorts through the letters, diaries and photographs, Kate begins to find some solace in the past, in her childhood memories of Shepton when every home was a comfort, every relationship untinged by pain. But the further she delves into her grandparents’ history, the more Kate realizes that her perfect world had its own dark side — an undercurrent of tragedy, personal loss and eternal grief.

Then an old acquaintance moves back to New Brunswick, and Kate begins to edge out of her solitude, surprising herself by accepting his invitation to dinner. Gregory and his wife were friends with Tom and Kate when the kids were young, a time of camping trips and days at the beach. But Gregory, now divorced, is also carrying the weight of grief, from the suicide of his son many years earlier. At first, Gregory represents a chance for Kate to capture some of the simple joy of her past, but when she realizes that Gregory is still living in it, his memories and pain warped into self-destructive anger, she knows she has to back away. And when Gregory’s determination to return to the way things were proves unshakeable, a new tragedy forces Kate to begin picking up the pieces of her shattered life.


1. Kate

Kate leans in the doorway of the living room, arms crossed, the sleeves of a cotton sweater shoved to her elbows. Her forearms are sinewy–brown, dry-skinned, thorn-scratched. She wears two silver bracelets and a thick gold wedding band. Some women, she realizes, remove their rings.

In the...
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1. When she rummages through the first hatbox, Kate mulls over how torn she feels dealing with what Tom and her ancestors left behind: “Responsibility to the past. And flight from its demands. The feelings she’s come to recognize…” (p. 4). How are these conflicting impulses exhibited throughout...

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“The imagery is evocative and clear, and the feelings of love and loss are transmitted effectively and elegantly. The Hatbox Letters conveys a sense of wonder and wisdom.”
The Vancouver Sun

“[A] novel of stunning beauty ... The Hatbox Letters is a moving elegy to things lost and found.”
—New Brunswick Reader

“Powning’s descriptions of gardens and birds rival any Audubon painting. The Hatbox Letters is not only an absorbing literary experience, but an exquisite visual experience as well.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“The writing is highly sensual, painterly even, vividly portraying the natural world and its changing seasons.… [T]he depth of detail feels appropriate, mirroring the deliberate pace of Kate’s recovery and regeneration. Powning’s subject here is no less than the relationship of life and death, and she engages it with rigour and grace.”
Quill & Quire

“Beth Powning reminds us of the essential links and threads that bind family and loved ones, past generations to future. In gentle prose, she illuminates passages through grief, yet the novel is studded with vitality. A story of unexpected endings and new beginnings — of life surging forward.”
—Frances Itani

“Like Annie Dillard, Beth Powning is a keen observer of the natural world. In language both erotic and exact, she explores the conflicting emotions of love and loss in a novel redolent with memory and the truth of experience, hard won.”
—Joan Clark

“Beth Powning’s language is lush with stunning images that linger long after the reading experience — and with soothing insights, especially of the healing potency available in family histories and connections with friends. She takes us by the hand and leads us through the landmines of grief. We can trust her: she knows the way back to the safety of emerging hope and belief in renewal.”
—Marjorie Anderson, co-editor, Dropped Threads

Praise for Shadow Child and Seeds of Another Summer
“Tenacious, unsparing, in anguish sometimes, but mostly with moving lyricism, Beth Powning pursues and completes what she calls her ‘apprenticeship in love and loss’, a long and not easy journey that we all, women and men, in our way, try to carry through.”
—Ernest Hillen, author of Small Mercies: A Boy After War

“Beth Powning’s. . .pure, powerful prose lure us into [its] embrace, laying bare our desire for a union with the natural world. This is the work of a gifted artist.”
—Courtney Milne, author of Prairie Skies

“One of the most appealing novels to be published in Canada in the last decade. . . . Beautifully written and emotionally wise, this is a debut novel with a difference. Its melding of past and present in the life of its protagonist is so well woven it will prove a boon to readers with a taste for fiction and non-fiction alike. . . . Rich, elegiac and full of resonance, her novel is more than impressive. It is a winner.”
The London Free Press

“Beth Powning’s extraordinary new novel, The Hatbox Letters, is both an ode to joy and a lamentation.”
The Chronicle Herald

“Powning’s exquisite novel sings. . . . [She] has created a novel as brilliant as the light towards which it reaches.” —The Chronicle Herald

“There is an elegiac quality to Beth Powning’s writing, derived from her immersion in the rhythms of the natural world. . . . Few writers so stress the ties that bind a life lived to the place where it’s lived; Powning’s central artistic concern, both as photographer and writer, has always been to locate herself–and her characters–along the great chain of being.”

The Hatbox Letters will appeal to anyone who enjoyed the charming correspondence in Richard B. Wright’s recent literary bestseller Clara Callan. But Powning’s novel features a sincerity that Wright’s narrative never quite musters. The Hatbox Letters is sure to win accolades in CanLit circles and [with] regular readers alike.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“The narrative of The Hatbox Letters is as warm and vivid as actually sitting next to the wood stove of Kate’s Maritime kitchen. Powning also has a knack for imagery that drops the reader firmly into the musty comfort of a Connecticut summer home in the early part of the 20th century. Other authors bring us close to historical periods; Powning puts us there.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“Powning writes about grief with uncanny precision; she gets all its ambushes and piercing aches exactly right. She shows how grief can become more acute with the passing of time, rather than less painful as one might expect, and how its constricting grip can slowly paralyze the person left behind.”
—Lisa Moore, National Post

“While delineating the sere interior landscape of mourning, Powning has crafted a deeply beautiful book, one planted in the natural world, abundant in imagery that firmly roots Kate and the reader in the fecund cycle of life. A novel about death that makes you glad that you are alive, The Hatbox Letters is both elegy and song of joy.”
The Globe and Mail

“Powning is a superior writer, with startling powers of description.”
The Gazette (Montreal)