Three different libraries figured in the process of writing Death at Greenway, a novel but one based on a real historical moment of World War II, when ten children evacuated out of the Blitz were sent to Agatha Christie’s holiday home, Greenway House, in South Devon, England.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have written the story at all without the library at Greenway House. I visited in 2016, a tourist nosing around to see if the story I’d heard could even be written, and by the likes of me. Greenway’s library has a crown, a frieze painted in military-grade blues and grays with scenes from the life of the U.S. Coast Guard Flotilla stationed in the house after it was requisitioned for the war. But that was history from after the children I wanted to write about had been sent somewhere else. In this room, however, I first laid eyes on a photo of Doreen, one of the Greenway ’vacs. As an adult she’d written a letter and come to visit, said the docent, who showed me the cabinet upstairs away from public view with the names of the evacuee girls still marked on the cubbies for their clothes. Once I had seen those cubbies, I had to pursue the story.
The other libraries that played a role in Death at Greenway are at two ends of the same road on opposite ends of Paignton, near Greenway. In the Paignton Library and Information Centre, Doreen’s name led me to the letter she’d written, her memories of Greenway and the war, possibly the only first-person record of Agatha Christie’s war nursery. The door to the story opened wide, at last. Three years later, having stayed as a guest at Greenway, I sat on the floor of Churston Library, a tiny branch library near the house, and paged through the local history section. A pocketful of ten-pence coins went into the copier, and then I made change again and again, not knowing how much of what I found would make it into the book but not wanting to leave a single scrap of it behind—local history, accent, or lore. I took it all home and began to write.
Of course none of this writing would have happened if I hadn’t been supported early on by the libraries in my life: the Lebanon Indiana Public Library and the Thorntown Indiana Public Library. I also haunted the Bracken Library at Ball State University and the Muncie Indiana Public Library (downtown branch!) while I lived in Muncie, used the Murray-Green Library at Roosevelt University while a student there (that view!!), and use the Chicago Public Library system now, especially the Jefferson Park and Edgebrook branches. Libraries made me the reader and writer I am today, and have you tried the online systems for ebooks? Libraries saved us during the pandemic, just as they always have…