June 14, 2009
When I heard that Ann Hood was coming to Falmouth to talk about her book, “The Knitting Circle,” I was intrigued and got the novel out of the library to read.
“The Knitting Circle” is about Mary, who loses her 5-year-old daughter Stella suddenly to meningitis. Crippled by grief, she is encouraged by her mother to take up knitting, as a way of healing, and she joins a knitting circle to get help in learning how to knit. The other women in the circle each have lived through similar, possibly worse, tragedies, and one-by-one, they share their stories with Mary.
The book is a little formulaic, weaving Mary’s the other women’s stories with Mary’s unrelenting sadness (her husband leaves her, she does not get along with her mother) and her day-to-day efforts to write restaurant and book reviews for the local alternative newspaper (the editor of which is unbelievably patient). Ultimately, the knitting, or the friendship that knitting brings her, is healing.
What makes the book compelling is that it is largely autobiographical. Ann Hood’s own five-year-old daughter Grace died of a virulent form of strep, just as suddenly as Stella did, and Hood was unable to read and write (what might have been a source of comfort) for months. When she finally found her voice, she began to write about Grace. She decided to change the story, she said last Thursday at Highfield Hall, by adding some “what-ifs.” What if the child who died was an only child (Hood also had an 8-year old son), what if she was new to town and had no friends, and what if the husband left (Hood’s husband did not). She thought about the many dimensions of grief: guilt, bitterness, hope, love, and gave each of the women in the knitting circle represent one of these qualities.
Hood did learn to knit, as therapy, when she was unable to read or write, and she joined not one, but nine knitting circles. Both Hood and the fictional Mary live in Providence, Rhode Island, and they are both writers.
The dramatic difference between Hood and Mary, one which I was not expecting, is that Hood is hilariously funny and a very engaging speaker, who has clearly found a way to cope with her daughter’s death, whether through knitting, through writing, or through friends. She kept the packed house at Highfield Hall laughing. I asked her after the talk if her humor played a role in her recovery. She said with friends who knew her sense of humor, it was, indeed, helpful.
Hood was not naturally drawn to knitting, having grown up in a home where her grandmother “crotcheted clothes for the toilet paper.” She struggled with home economics, causing her teacher to say, “You may be getting an A in English, but you are not getting an A in home ec. And we’ll just see which one serves you better in the future!”
English was her first love. She grew up in Warwick, Rhode Island, and remembers reading “Little Women,” the first book she had ever read in which a character dies, in second grade. She was so engrossed in the story that she neglected to stand for the morning pledge of allegiance. When she explained why–“Beth died!”–her teacher, impressed that a second grader was reading “Little Women,” gave her permission to read during morning exercises.
Her efforts were frustrated by the fact that the local library allowed children to take out only one book a week. Hood would finish hers on the first day. So, she started writing her own stories, based on her own life.
Her cantankerous grandmother had 10 children and 21 grandchildren and would bless the children “in the order in which she loved them.” Hood came in around 18, and “the last three grandchildren were in jail.” So one of her early stories was bout a little girl who came home from school and found that her grandmother had vanished.
Hood said she read “to escape to places where a little girl from Warwick could not go,” and she wrote “to figure out the world in which she lived.”
“We all have loss and grief in our lives,” she said, “and words have always gotten me through.” They failed though, when Grace died, when “the insult of the sun coming up the next morning” left her bereft. It was a friend who had also lost a child and found healing in knitting who encouraged her to give knitting a try. She found that it was the first time since the death of her daughter that she was able to get through two hours without sobbing. Slowly, her concentration came back, and her ability to write.
She wrote the book, she said, “to give voice to that confusing, glorious mess that grief is, and to give voice for all of us.”
Two years after Stella’s death, Hood and her husband adopted a baby girl from China, who is now five years old. Hood’s next novel, due for publication on Mother’s Day 2010, is about six women adopting children from China, and the six birth mothers relinquishing those children.
The event was sponsored by the Gosnold addiction treatment and recovery center, and featured, in addition to Hood, women from Emerson House, who have found strength to fight their addictions through knitting. They each told tales of the “knitting ladies” who visit Emerson. Their stories were true, and inspiring.
Nicole said the rhythm and repetition of knitting makes her happy, and creating knitted items gives her a feeling of accomplishment. Joyce said her first scarf was a tangled, messy triangle, but she persevered, and loves knitting. Jackie said Emerson House saved her life, and knitting and crocheting have been very therapeutic for her. All thanked the knitting ladies for their gifts of time and yarn.