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New in historical fiction

Mother-daughter book pays tribute to Marblehead fisherman

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December 24th, 2013
mother and daughter holding a book
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As a new resident of Marblehead, Mass., in 1959, Priscilla Moulton was curious about the quaint coastal town she would be calling home. She toured the historic Lee Mansion, unknowingly embarking on a journey that has led to the recent publishing of Molly Waldo!, the book she and her daughter co-wrote. 

“One of those small, low-ceilinged bedrooms [in Lee Mansion] absolutely stunned me because the walls were literally covered by paintings with stormy skies, swirling waters, and little people going up and down streets. It was really overwhelming,” Priscilla says.

The paintings—colorful depictions of fishing and town scenes—were the work of J.O.J. Frost, a Marblehead native born in 1852. Frost had gone to sea on two voyages but settled into varied jobs before taking up painting at the age of 70. In the last six years of his life, he created more than 200 paintings documenting Marblehead history.     

Compelled to learn more about the paintings and the man behind them, Priscilla returned to the Lee Mansion the following summer. She put up a card table and her typewriter, and sat down to sift through and copy the archives related to Frost. 

“Here it has kept hold of me all my life, so it has power,” Priscilla says of Frost’s work, which she first viewed in 1959. 

A librarian and loving advocate for children’s books, Priscilla thought the story told by Frost’s paintings might be appropriate in the hands of children. “Ultimately, my thought was to take all these voices from the past and somehow put them into the story of one young man having the experience of going to sea for the first time,” she says. 

She drafted a book based on the archival documents. “I want to get out the story Mr. Frost was trying to tell about the valor and the perils of the fishing occupation,” Priscilla says. 

But Priscilla’s busy professional life forced her to file away her book and research. It sat in a box, for a future time.  

Rewriting history

Priscilla became a librarian in 1955, at a time when children’s books were primarily found in the library and scarcely available for sale. As a leader in the American Library Association, Priscilla advocated for the dissemination of children books, and her efforts contributed to their later availability in stores and at book fairs. 

“She really was a pioneer in championing fine children’s books,” says Bethe Lee Moulton, Priscilla’s daughter.

It wasn’t until Priscilla was preparing to make her move to Brooksby, an Erickson Living community in Peabody, in 2007, that her box of Lee Mansion research was unearthed. “It was about to go to the dump,” Priscilla says. Bethe insisted on salvaging it. 

The box reemerged last April, when Bethe came to visit her mother at Brooksby. A publisher and author with a background in business consulting, Bethe read her mother’s drafts and saw their potential to be a published book for young adults and adults. 

Building upon her mother’s story, Bethe crafted a narrative that she and her mother reviewed and edited. Priscilla’s son Bruce, a literary and maritime expert in his own right, also read and advised on the book, and the authors enlisted the help of local curators and museums to guide their historical references.  

Molly Waldo! is the powerful story of 16-year-old Jon Bowen, a brave and heroic would-be fisherman whose story is derived from Frost’s. For Bowen, seasickness, cramped sleeping quarters, frostbite, and terrifying storms are among the hardships endured, while personal growth, friendships, and skies of shooting stars reveal the beauty of the journey. The Moultons’ meticulously researched historical information is masterfully woven through the story.   

Because the Moultons published the book with Bethe’s own The Glide Press, they enjoyed control and speed in producing the book they wanted, complete with Frost’s paintings beginning each chapter. They also produced an e-book. 

Big bash

In April, when Bethe went to see Pam Peterson, director of the Marblehead Museum and Historical Society (MMHS), regarding use of the archival material, she learned the museum would be opening a fishing and shoemaking exhibit in the fall. Peterson suggested the book be published in time to be featured alongside the exhibit. 

Knowing her mother would also turn 90 in October, Bethe saw the book’s publication and launch as an unarguable excuse for the celebration Priscilla had insisted against.

The book was published in time for the mother-daughter team to present it at Brooksby’s November artisan fair and at the MMHS. 

Of the book launch, more than five decades after it began, Priscilla says, “It’s become the biggest bash of life.”

While preparing for the book launch, Bethe and Priscilla were shown a letter from Frost’s son, expressing his desire to donate his father’s paintings to the historical society as a memorial to the Marblehead fisherman. They cried reading it. That same letter brought audience members to tears at the MMHS event.

Every book sale benefits the MMHS and those sold at Brooksby in part benefit Brooksby’s student scholarship fund. The Moultons appeared on Brooksby’s television program The Write Stuff and are exploring other opportunities to share their findings with the community.

Priscilla’s research isn’t finished. “I feel so gratified and fired up to go on,” she says.

Frost’s late arrival to painting echoes the passion Priscilla has seen in her neighbors at Brooksby. “I think there are people here who are similarly driven. I think I am. I want to work on this man’s life and artwork,” she says. 

For more information about Molly Waldo!, visit mollywaldo.com.

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