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Breaking from a career of telling others’ stories, retired journalist Peggy Schenk recently wrapped up her own tale, a work of historical fiction titled It Happened. (Photo courtesy of Peggy Schenk )
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When Peggy Schenk told her son Rich she had finished her novel, he told her it was about time. He pointed out she had been working on it for 40 years.
It all started on a long-ago family trip. Driving through South Carolina, Peggy thought it would be more interesting to take back roads and see local scenery. As the family passed old plantation houses with long, shaded drives leading to the front entrance, the scene reminded Peggy of the high school she had gone to in Pennsylvania, Villa Joseph Marie, itself housed in an old mansion. The school, today as it was when Peggy went there, remains a private girls school run by an order of Catholic nuns.
Peggy was curious enough that she decided to find out about the history of the Villa Joseph Marie mansion and the small Colonial house on its grounds. Peggy, a Chester resident, did research on the project whenever she visited her family in Pennsylvania, finding information everywhere from local historical societies to old graveyards.
The result of her investigations is It Happened, a novel based on a true tale of conflicting loyalties at the time of the American Revolution. Peggy learned not only about the Dutch family that is central to the story, but also about local customs like the sin eater, who was central to the area’s burial customs.
At the time, a dead body was left out for two days, guarded by family members, and lumps of dough were placed on it. The belief was the newly dead person’s sins would leave the body and leaven the dough, which was then baked. An old woman, known as the sin eater, would consume the bread, taking away the deceased’s sins as she ate.
Peggy’s story takes place at the time of a far more famous moment in the American Revolution, George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Day, 1776 and that, too, figures in Peggy’s plot. In fact, it was part of her motivation for writing.
“I realized the reason I wanted to write the book was to inform readers about what else was going on during this snapshot to American history when Washington crossed the Delaware,” she explains.
All the characters in Peggy’s book are real historical figures with one exception, a soldier in Washington’s army who plays a small role in the plot. Still, he, too, is real in a sense. Peggy chose the name of one of her Chester neighbors, long involved locally in veteran’s affairs, for the fictional soldier, so her character is Jeremiah Lamarck, named for longtime Chester resident Jerry LaMark.
There is another Chester connection in the book: Rebecca Buland, an editor who now lives in Hartford and worked with Peggy on early drafts of the book. Buland, a graduate of Valley Regional High School, grew up in Chester and is the daughter of Joseph Friend, once a Chester selectman.
Karen Kratzer, a graphic artist who lives in East Haddam, did the illustration for the book, creating not only drawings but replicas of Colonial-era wallpaper as background for the illustrations. The novel, It Happened, is available through Amazon.
Peggy says she took so many years to start writing because the idea of doing a book was so daunting.
“I sat down to write many times before, but just didn’t feel I had the information,” she says, explaining her research of more than three decades. “The people just weren’t talking to me yet.”
Once the characters started talking, all that changed.
“It all just started coming out,” she says.
Even when she began, Peggy was not a novice writer. She majored in journalism at Penn State and spent her 30-year professional career as a reporter, working first for a weekly paper in Wallingford and later at the New Haven Register, mostly covering towns along the shoreline. She retired in 2005.
“It was time,” she says.
Since that time, Peggy has coped with both great sadness and unexpected accomplishment, of which her first book is only one part. Her husband died in 2014 and then two years later, her son Sean, a graduate of Valley Regional High School and the United States Coast Guard Academy passed away of colon cancer at the age of 46.
In high school, Sean had been an outstanding saxophone player and in his memory Peggy decided to learn to play, and on his saxophone. She took lessons at the Community Music School and now plays in the New Horizons Band at the school, a local group that is part of a larger national organization of senior musicians.
“When I started, only a few notes would come out but I just said to myself, ‘Darn, I am going to do this,’” Peggy recalls.
Even when she is in Florida, where she now goes for the winter, she is also part of musical groups.
Peggy had planned to have her book ready for her high school class reunion of students from Villa Joseph Marie, the 60th, scheduled for this September. The book is ready, but with the COVID-19 restrictions, she is no longer sure the reunion will take place.
At the moment, she has no plans for a sequel to It Happened.
“I certainly don’t have another 40 years to do it,” she says.
It Happened by Margaret Schenk is available through Amazon.com.
The 2020 guide to the Madison Chamber of Commerce has arrived!