Fact and fictions
Sally Gunning sets her novels in familiar, favored places that bear the imprint of the town’s history
The wet sand stretches out as far as our eyes can see, and a mist hides all but a sliver of the homes on a nearby rise. It is low tide on the Brewster flats. No tourists are in sight as Sally Gunning, the historical novelist, shows off the Cape Cod town she loves. “You come out here, and there’s nothing but space,’’ she says.
Spend a day with Gunning and the town she reveals is intimate, quiet, and rugged, with a rich history and unique sights. First stop is this patch of beach just 100 yards from her and her husband Tom Gunning’s home, a 1,200-square-foot cottage once owned by her grandparents. Five of her family members, including her mother, live here in homes on six acres. The nearby nameless beach is accessible to anyone taking a stroll down the shore from Breakwater or Points of Rock beaches.
Gunning, 58, traces her roots back 300 years in this town. “The Cape literally is a part of me,’’ she says, having been barely a month old when she spent her first summer here. In 1977, she moved here from Providence.
As she stands on the flats in late June, she thinks back to the mid- to late 1700s.
“I can picture this beach just covered with these whales. The cry was up. Everybody rushes to the beach, gets into their boats, and drives them in purposely. In those days, it was heaven. They’d just sit there and hack up the blubber, load it into the barrels,’’ she says.
Brewster is the setting for Gunning’s “Widow’s War,’’ published in 2006; “Bound,’’ published last year; and, in part, “The Seeming Truth,’’ due out next year. All three books are set in the 18th century.
“Widow’s War’’ begins as the main character, Lyddie Berry, hears a shout, “Blackfish in the bay!’’
Writes Gunning of Berry’s view from a hill above the beach: “She leaned into the wind and soon had a clear view of the beach, blackened as far as her eye could see, by the whales, driven ashore by the men’s oars beating against the water. It was a rich sight.’’
Her characters walk around Brewster. We climb into Gunning’s silver Honda CR-V to get to our next destination: Hopkins House Bakery, the setting for the home of character Betsey Hopkins, Berry’s cousin. The house is now a bakery and gift shop.
Mary Beth Baxter, who runs the gift shop while her daughter runs the bakery, greets us as we enter. She chats about the history of the house while she threads wire into signs made of old window shutters, souvenirs for the shop. Baxter says she discovered that it was always known as the Hopkins house because members of that family lived here for at least 200 years.
The building is two structures, linked together, a house built in the late 1600s and a 19th-century home. In the back of the shop, there’s a four-foot-long bed, akin to what Cape Codders used to have because they slept sitting up.
Baxter says Cape Cod book groups visit just to walk in the footsteps of Gunning’s characters. At the bakery, they can purchase Intoxicating Rum Balls or Gunning’s favorite, Georgia peach muffins.
While her husband is at his job as a social worker, Gunning, like her characters, spends much of her time alone, writing or walking. With an index card tucked in her bathing suit in case she wants to jot down a description, she strolls the beaches, reflecting on Brewster’s herring run and the Grist Mill along Stony Brook Road. That spot entrances Alice Cole, the teenage servant on the lam in “Bound.’’
Writes Gunning of what Cole sees: “Behind the tavern the millpond shimmered in a slice of newfound sun, its waters somersaulting down the hill into the millstream below. The mill wheel spun under the force of the spring flood waters, churning gobs of spray into the air that the sun turned to minute snowflakes.’’
In June at the mill area, the scene is bucolic. The tavern is replaced by a house. The upper and lower ponds shimmer, but the mill wheel is inert.
Gunning remembers her childhood as she stands on a footbridge overlooking the brook.
“When we were kids, we dropped sticks to see whose would come out first,’’ she says, then grabs a stick, drops it, and darts to the other side of the bridge to watch its path. “I’m having a stick moment.’’
Herrings are nowhere to be seen, though a lone seagull perches on a rock. “He’s hoping,’’ Gunning says.
Only months before, I had stood in the same spot. In late April, the brook was black with fish fighting to jump up the rocky ladders to get to the ponds to spawn. Gulls sat on the ledges, squawking, then dove into the waters to snag a hapless fish. People lined the path and bridges to watch the show.
Gunning points out remnants of the foundation of another mill that burned to the ground, then leads us across the road and sits under a willow tree near the ponds.
“This is one of my favorite spots. It’s peaceful,’’ she says.
Minutes later, we amble along a nearby path so she can show the rock where her character Berry sits pondering her future. Gunning rests on the rock, crossing her jean-clad legs, gazing at the lily pads and a turtle sunbathing on a log.
She advises visitors to consider the history of this place more than just its natural beauty. “You have to think of that as a teeming business center, the mills, the tannery. There was a cobbler’s shop near there,’’ she says. It is hard to think of commerce with the ponds so serene.
Later we head to Wing’s Island, another favorite spot of Gunning’s, accessible on trails behind the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. Because we underestimate when high tide is over, we have to wade in ankle-deep water on the boardwalk over a marsh and past the resident osprey. We get to a dry path, then take an easy jaunt to the island, seeing a sandpiper, red-winged blackbirds, and once again, with Gunning’s help, the past. In the 1800s, dozens of salt mills dotted the landscape, and the Sauquatuckets, a Wampanoag tribe, camped, fished, and grew crops in an area known as Quivet Creek.
On our return, Gunning picks leaves off a bayberry bush, crumbles them, and holds them near my nose. “Smell,’’ she says. It is the sweet scent of a bayberry candle, the same candles Berry is making when she is burned in a fire. A bird whistles in the trees above. For Gunning, on this island, as on the beaches by her home, history, fiction, and nature collide.
Linda K. Wertheimer can be reached at email@example.com.