A tribute to bookstores, nice people and the challenge of accepting ourselves, Martha Woodroof’s debut novel will have you counting your own blessings this season.
Scroll down for Twitter chat details with the author!
Small Blessings opens with a quote from an old Shaker hymn that reads “‘Tis the gift to be simple. ‘Tis the gift to be free. ‘Tis the gift to come down where you want to be. And when you find yourself in the place just right You will be in the Valley of Love and Delight.” This holiday season, Virginia author Martha Woodroof‘s first novel is a gift in itself.
About Small Blessings, Woodroof has said “I think I’m interested in writing about nice, well-meaning people who are willing to face the extreme challenge of accepting themselves as they really are and, in the process, learning what it is they really, truly want.” Her “nice” people are English professor Tom Putnam, his neurotic wife Marjory, her mother Agnes, new hire at the college bookstore Rose Callahan, little boy Henry who turns up claiming to be Tom’s son and a quirky cast of characters that make up the faculty.
There she was, as welcome in this insular community as fresh air in a multiplex, a woman who, rumor had it, risked being happy. Tom had heard the most about her from Russell Jacobs, his colleague in the English Department, and now he was looking at her in the flesh, at this tall, slender, dark-haired creature, oddly stylish in her ill-fitting, baggy trousers and white T-shirt.” – Small Blessings, Chapter 1
Woodroof’s fictional college is located outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, and inspired by Sweetwater College, where she once ran the bookstore coffeeshop. “As for setting Small Blessings at a college, I’ve been connected with college campuses all my life,” she says. “They are, in my opinion, the idea setting for an examination of community.” (She dropped out of Mount Holyoke College in the 1960s and later talked her way into graduate school at the University of Virginia.)
Woodroof says she felt most like herself in that college bookstore during a time when she was also reinventing herself as a sober person. All of her characters are undergoing some sort of transformation in the novel, while searching for their true selves, trying to find their place in the world and ultimately seeking human connection.
It seems to me we are each responsible for living our own lives kindly, productively and well.” – Martha Woodroof
This theme was derived from The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, the book Woodroof says she would bring with her if she was stuck on a desert island. In a particular letter, someone asks O’Connor what our duty in prayer is. She replies something like our duty is to figure out what we want and ask for it. “Even though I wasn’t even a person of faith at the time, I remember those words hitting me like a blow,” Woodroof says. “At the time I was clueless about who I was, let alone what I wanted. That moment with Ms. O’Connor began an ongoing process of learning to accept myself exactly as I am in the world as it actually is.”
Two of her characters — Iris Benson, who is dressed in the color of her namesake flower from head to toe when we first meet her, and Tom’s best friend and colleague in the English Department Russell Jacobs — are undergoing a similar struggle, one Woodroof describes with grace and the understanding that only someone else in recovery can.
In fact, Woodroof treats all of her characters with a fondness and sweetness that is sure to cause the reader to love them as much as she obviously does. This is her first novel, so it’s safe to say Small Blessings has been a labor of love. “When I hit my early sixties, I made a bucket list,” Woodroof explains. “As I’ve done (and failed to do) a lot of very different things, my bucket list had one item on it: Publish Small Blessings. I’d recently reread the novel, and re-fallen in love with its people, and the one thing I really wanted was to land them a better gig than life in a cardboard box in my home office.”
This is like living in a village, Rose thought. Or at least like living in a village the way she’d always imagined it; a place where people had no choice but to know one another, where you couldn’t go anywhere without having chats about the weather or people’s children or how insufferable skateboarders were.” – Small Blessings, Chapter 17
There’s no doubt Woodroof has brought to life Tom, Rose, Iris, Russ and the rest of her charming cast of characters on the page and will have readers wanting to settle into life in her idyllic college town. She may even inspire them to risk being happy — if they dare.
We’ll talk more about Small Blessings (including movie news) on Friday when we chat with Martha Woodroof on Twitter. Co-hosted by Tamara Welch of Traveling With T, our chat will run from 1-2 CST (2-3 EST) using the hashtag #southernlit. Sign into our chat room for easy access here.