Tracey Finck: Caley residents are first audience for book by local author

“Summer Secrets” is a story about an eleven-year-old girl growing up during the Great Depression. She lives by the railroad tracks, and the hoboes come frequently to ask for food. (“Hobo” was a widely-used term in the ’30s and not considered derogatory. A hobo was someone willing to work, as opposed to a “bum,” who was not). The girl’s mother wants to feed them, but her father hates the hoboes, so Mary and her mother have to keep their kindness a secret. But that’s not the only secret being kept by the characters in Michelle Cunningham’s book-in-progress.
Cunningham, who teaches English at Princeton Middle School, began work on this children’s book several summers ago. The plot is inspired by stories she heard from her grandmothers, who both grew up during the Great Depression. Both women also happened to be the only children in their families (an advantage when food is scarce) and one of her grandmothers actually lived along the railroad tracks, so the hoboes used to knock on their door.
After she had a few chapters written, Cunningham gave the draft to a relative to read. The feedback wasn’t very positive, so Cunningham lost her enthusiasm for the project. Then a year ago, something happened that re-energized her efforts.
It started when she contacted Tami Bruns, Activities Coordinator at Caley House in Princeton, to arrange for bringing her students over to do projects with the residents (See “Eighth graders begin Warming Hearts and Souls,” “UnionTimes,” November 6, 2016). Cunningham wanted to get to know some of the residents first, so Bruns suggested she come and read to them.
The book Cunningham decided to read was the one she had started writing. The residents loved the story and were eager to find out what was going to happen next. Their enthusiasm was the spark that got Cunningham writing again. “It’s so helpful to have a real audience,” says Cunningham. “And reading the story aloud helps me to notice little details I need to change to make the story clearer or more authentic for the time period.” For example, in the first draft, someone overhears secret information while she’s in a bathroom stall. But as she read it aloud, Cunningham realized that bathrooms would have been quite different in the early ‘30s, so she rewrote the scene. And she’s still writing—when she can find time between teaching and family obligations. Her goal is to finish next summer.
“Michelle is phenomenal,” says Cindy Boschee, Director of Caley House. “She’s got that clear, strong voice that is easy to understand. And she makes a book come to life. You get caught up listening to her.” Boschee loves it when Cunningham or the other wonderful volunteer readers like Ike Carlson and Jim Olson come to read to the residents: “It stimulates their senses, and the listeners whose eyes are no longer strong enough to read print can feel a part of something they’ve lost.”
Do you know anyone whose eyes aren’t as strong as they used to be? Perhaps they would appreciate hearing you read to them. Let me know how it goes. You can reach me at [email protected]