When my daughter, Maddy, was just a chubby little thing, she and I used to spend quite a bit of time toodling around our tiny town. We would go on wonder walks to seek out the charming and mysterious and unusual. The downtown of Guelph (where we lived) has old limestone buildings and small streets at odd angles and a fair few interesting things to discover.
The main road went pretty much straight from downtown to our house over mostly flat ground. That was the easy way home—not an inconsequential consideration when lugging groceries and a sturdy four-year-old who claimed her legs were so tired they were about to fall off. But we were in search of magic. So usually, we’d go a roundabout way that took us past more interesting things.
Maddy at the age she was when she listened to the bell (with her beloved Bella)
Often, we’d go up the steep hill to the Church of Our Lady and then behind, which led us past a boxy school. What we loved about that school was the bell. It sat out front on a squat block that was mismatched with the bell’s grace. Who would stick such a graceful thing on a chunk of cement like that—and why? Every time we went past, we wondered about it and stopped for a moment to appreciate the bell.
One time, Maddy asked me to lift her up to the bell so she could touch it. She put her little arms around its big belly and held tight. Then—I suppose because bells have voices—she put her ear to it and listened.
“I can hear the children, Mama!” she said. “I can hear the children from the school.” What a thought, what a horrifying thought!
I don’t remember what I said to her in response, because in that moment, the story came to me. I guess I’ll never again be hit on the head by the muse in that way. I say hit on the head, because that’s what it felt like—something entering my brain from outside. I rushed us home. Feed the child, start writing. Time to take the wee one to her dad’s. Keep going. I wrote the entire first draft in a weekend.
Afterwards, with visits to the local archives, and of course, lots of rewriting, I filled in more details. But it’s a mystery how the story came to me or why. Over the years, I’ve edited and tweaked and added some things based on feedback from Maddy and her friends, now the age of Annika in the book (and very good feedback it was). I went through the obligatory rounds of rejections from publishers and wondered how the story would ever see the light of day. But I was never willing to let it go, because it was given to me. I felt responsible to bring it to life.
The Berenice Bell lay dormant for years while I was too busy and didn’t know what to do next . . . until I decided to just do it. I took courses on independent publishing. I hired an editor. I’ve since moved away from Guelph, but was back there for a short time one November and, by happenstance, walked right past the bell. It was a gloomy, wet day, which was perfect for capturing the inspiration for the story. I snapped some photos.
Now, at long last, The Berenice Bell is out in the world. I hope the story the muse gifted me with is a gift to you, too, in some way. You can get the first three chapter free here, if you'd like to check it out for a young reader in your life. I’d love any feedback from readers, young or old! I hope you love the bell as much as we did.