Brooklyn writer Yona Zeldis McDonough set her first six adult novels in New York City, but when she got to her seventh, she felt restless. She was tired of New York and wanted something fresh.
So she decided to mix things up. The result, The House on Primrose Pond, was published in February and is set in her “adopted” state, New Hampshire, where she summers regularly with her husband Paul McDonough. He grew up in Portsmouth, and for years she’d heard stories about his childhood, which felt very Norman Rockwell-esque compared to her youth in the city. He went to Whipple Elementary School while she studied at P.S. 179. He skated on ponds and went out in the woods, and she, well, didn’t.
“Small-town life seemed very appealing to me. He moved to New York and wanted a bigger pool, but he loved growing up in New Hampshire,” McDonough said via phone last week.
Between these stories and the time she spent in the Granite State visiting relatives — normally they rent a quaint summer cottage on Jenness Pond in Northwood — she felt she could write about the state authentically, with conviction and passion. She’ll talk about her new book during this annual visit in August, stopping at nine bookstores for presentations and book signings.
Admittedly, she needed a little help getting her plot going. She had characters in mind but was uncertain how to tie them to the setting.
“I wanted to connect them to New Hampshire, and I wanted to draw the place in. I wondered — was there a flood, a fire, a disease of epidemic proportions I could use and harness in for my own literary purposes?” McDonough said.
She asked Google for the answer, searching for “New Hampshire tragedy.”
Lo and behold, there was. The first thing that popped up was the book Hanging Ruth Blay: An Eighteenth-Century New Hampshire Tragedy by Carolyn Marvin. Blay, she found out, was the last woman hanged in Portsmouth in 1768 after being convicted of killing and concealing the body of her stillborn, illegitimate child in the barn floor next to the house she stayed in. Historians now say the baby most likely died in childbirth, but the baby’s father was never named. She was granted three reprieves before the execution.
“It seems so monstrous, hanging a 31-year-old woman for having a baby out of wedlock, are you kidding? Yet that’s what was done at the time,” McDonough said. “I knew this was what I was going to use. I read the book cover to cover. … Her story seemed to me very contemporary and worth talking about.”
The House on Primrose Pond follows historical novelist Susannah Gilmore who, after a traumatic loss, moves from Brooklyn to her late parents’ home in Eastwood, New Hampshire — which is loosely based on the one McDonough rents in Northwood. There she finds an unsigned love note addressed to her mother — except not in her father’s handwriting. While researching both her mother’s past and her book about Ruth Blay, Gilmore uncovers secrets that could “surpass any fiction she could ever put to paper,” according to the back of McDonough’s book.
Much of the book, McDonough said, explores Betsey Pettingill’s point of view — she’s the girl who found the baby’s body that caused the hanging. She lived to 105.
“She went on record talking about her role in this … and named one of her daughters Ruth,” McDonough said.
During her research, McDonough’s sister-in-law brought her to South Cemetery in Portsmouth, where the hanging took place, and to the New Hampshire Historical Society archives in Concord, where she was able to see and hold some of the 250-year-old documents about the case. In some places you could still see where the seals had been. She was a little taken aback.
“This is so not New York. They just handed them to me. I was able to look at these documents and see the details of the indictment,” she said. “It was very moving to me, and very resonant.”
McDonough is also the author of dozens of children’s books. She feels lucky to be able to write fiction for a living.
“It’s sort of like hearing voices,” she said. “But having someone else participate in that foolishness is very gratifying.”