“Victoria Trumbull’s Martha’s Vineyard Guide Book” by Cynthia Riggs

December 16, 2011

Book Review

Cynthia Riggs’s new book, “Victoria Trumbull’s Martha’s Vineyard Guide Book,” is a treasure for anyone who has read and enjoyed her mystery novels about Victoria Trumble, a 92-year-old poet and sleuth who is slowed only slightly by her advanced age. It will also be appreciated by anyone interested in Martha’s Vineyard, even if they have not yet discovered Ms. Riggs’s novels.

The book, an insider’s guide to the island and particularly those places mentioned in Ms. Riggs’ 10 novels, is lavishly illustrated with gorgeous photographs (261 of them) by Lynn Christoffers, of Martha’s Vineyard, and nicely crafted maps by Stephen (Step) Wesley of Mashpee.  A 13TH generation islander, Ms. Riggs shares background information on she came up with some of the ideas for her stories and provides personal anecdotes, tales of old Martha’s Vineyard, and quirky little facts, all presented with warmth and humor. There are quotes from books and poetry by Dionis Coffin Riggs, Ms. Riggs’ mother, who died in 1997 when she was almost 99.

Ms. Riggs based her main character, Victoria Trumbull, on her mother, who was an accomplished poet, a writer for the Vineyard Gazette, and a memorable character, known for her Saturday night dinners of New England baked beans and her forthright personality and zest for life.

Ms. Riggs, a young 82, shares her mother’s energy and gift for writing. She earned a degree in geology, wrote for the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian, spent two months in Antarctica, taught at the Annapolis Sailing School, operated boat charters, ran the Chesapeake Bay Ferry Boat Company, and was a rigger at Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard.

When her mother died, Ms. Riggs went back to college, at the age of 68, receiving an MFA in creative writing when she turned 70. Since then, she has written a novel every year, each based on the name of a plant. An avid gardener, she has started each of her books with a plant in mind, and the ideas spring from that concept, and memories of her mother.

Some plant names are a natural for a mystery. “Deadly Nightshade” was the name of her first book. In it, Victoria discovers a dead body floating in the harbor and uncovers a drug-smuggling scheme. Ms. Riggs keeps her books current by addressing contemporary issues. In “The Cranefly Orchid Murders,” for instance, she deals with the Endangered Species Act as a means of stopping an unscrupulous developer, and, in “Indian Pipes,” she finds herself in the middle of a conflict between Wampanoag tribal members who want to build a casino on the island, and tribal members who want to stop it.

She gets involved in community theater in “Shooting Star,” and, in “The Paperwhite Narcissus,” Victoria is fired from her job as a newspaper columnist by the narcissistic editor, who replaces her with a younger writer. She deals with corrupt local politics, beekeeping, fiber optics, global warming, church politics, having her driver’s license taken away from her, and more.

Ms. Riggs met Mr. Wesley when he was working at the former Inkwell Bookstore on Main Street in Falmouth. Mr. Wesley arranged a book talk and signing with Ms. Riggs, and began reading her novels. He was immediately taken the books, and he and his wife Donna Wesley developed a fast friendship with Ms. Riggs. When the concept for the guidebook came up, Ms. Riggs immediately thought of Mr. Wesley as the author for the book, appreciating his “wacky sense of humor.”

However, after he drafted a version of the book, Ms. Riggs took it to the members of her two Island writers groups and they agreed that Ms. Riggs should write the book herself, from her personal point of view, and that Mr. Wesley, as graphic artist, should create the maps. His clearly detailed maps are illustrated with drawings of important locations, such as Victoria’s house, lighthouse, and natural features. Victoria’s gnarled lilac wood walking stick becomes the North arrow on the maps.

In the novels, Victoria carries the walking stick because her granddaughter made it for her—not because she needs it. In the guide book, Ms. Riggs reveals her mother also carried a lilac wood walking stick—and for the same reason.

The book took two years to complete. Mr. Wesley and his wife spent as much time as they could on the island, staying with Ms. Riggs, and learning about island lore. It was a wonderful time for them, Mr. Wesley said. He and his wife appreciated getting to know Ms. Riggs and the world of Victoria Trumbull. They stayed at her home and bed-and-breakfast, which caters to writers and poets.

The 250-year-old house has been in the family for generations; Dionis and her husband Dr. Sidney N. Riggs moved in in 1950. Furnished in comfortable Victoria style with a touch of whimsy, the house also serves as the home of Victoria Trumbull. Mr. Wesley was particularly delighted with the walls of one of the stairways, which was papered over in covers from the New Yorker magazine, one of his favorite publications.

Ms. Riggs has uncovered a wealth of information about the island. She shares it, and insights into her world of imagination, with the reader in a most inviting way.

“Victoria Trumbull’s Martha’s Vineyard Guide Book” is available at local bookstores, including Eight Cousins in Falmouth, the Market Street Bookshop in Mashpee, Titcomb’s  Bookstore in Sandwich, and Books by the Sea in Osterville.

For more information, visit http://www.cynthiariggs.com/guide.html

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