“Write about our community,” Suzanne Davenport challenged residents of Sandy Hook and Newtown, and nearly 100 people responded.
On Saturday, September 21, the Sandy Hook resident and five other members of the community were at the Newtown Arts Festival, reading from letters contributed to Ms Davenport’s forthcoming book, Letters From Sandy Hook-Newtown To The World. Rachel Marlin, Susan Osborne White, Kate Mayer, Andrea Zimmermann and Eileen Byrnes were scheduled to read their own letters on what Newtown or Sandy Hook is to them, while Ms Davenport will read letters from two other former Sandy Hook residents.
The book, compiled and edited by Ms Davenport and being published by Karuna Publications, a new, nonprofit organization, will be available in area bookstores and online as of December 10.
Visitors to the arts festival this past weekend had the opportunity to get a taste of the sweetness that lies between the pages of the yet to be released book. Made up of approximately 98 letters collected since June 3 by Ms Davenport, from people who live and work in Newtown and Sandy Hook, the collection is intended to give the world a look at who and what makes up the town.
“I decided to do this book for many reasons,” Ms Davenport said. Part of her motivation came from volunteering with the Newtown Documentary Project. Reading, photographing, sorting, and scanning the thousands of letters and cards that came to Newtown after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December showed her the depth of feeling the event had elicited from people world wide.
“A lot of love came to our community,” Ms Davenport said.
The other factor that pushed her to create Letters From Sandy Hook-Newtown was the level of frustration she felt toward national news outlets that swarmed the town this past winter. Those reports, produced “as if they knew us,” fumed Ms Davenport, were the tipping point.
“I realized that the only way for the world to know what Newtown really is, is to hear it from our residents,” she said.
She began mulling over how to do that in March, and shortly after, shared her idea with Newtown First Selectman Patricia Llodra. As a Creative Writing student at Western Connecticut State University (WestConn), she submitted two commentaries as part of a class assignment to area newspapers, and had them published. One, she said, focused on the “gawkers” who came to town following the shootings, and the other focused on “all the love” that was sent to the community.
Mrs Llodra was the first person to submit a letter reflecting on her connection to the community, for the book.
In soliciting letters, Ms Davenport stressed that she did not want the book to be about 12/14, but rather about what makes Newtown special. Some of the letter writers chose to write about how they were affected by the events of 12/14, but many more wrote about growing up in Newtown, places in Newtown, interesting people who have lived and played in town, and thoughts on how Sandy Hook and Newtown shaped the lives of many.
Each participant was asked to submit a letter by e-mail. After initial editing, the letter writer was requested to submit a handwritten copy.
“I knew that I wanted handwritten letters to be part of the book,” Ms Davenport said. “To me, it shows more love. People just don’t actually write letters anymore. A couple of people said that it had been so long since they had written anything by hand, that it took them four or five days to get it right. But they did it,” she said. “All of the different handwriting looks so wonderful, to me,” she added.
Because handwriting, even the best, can be hard to decipher, a typed copy of each letter is also included in the book.
Many of the letters are signed by those who submitted the pieces, but some writers preferred to remain anonymous. Reading each letter was a moving experience, said Ms Davenport.
“[Monsignor Robert Weiss, of St Rose of Lima Catholic Church] wrote about the love he saw demonstrated 12/14 as he waited with the families at the Sandy Hook firehouse that day. I didn’t expect that story,” she said.
Msgr Weiss also provided the Foreword for Ms Davenport’s book, emphasizing her knowledge that Newtown is a place of many facets. Comparing the town to a kaleidoscope, Msgr Weiss writes, “We are all pieces that make a beautiful and intriguing pattern to all who look at us. We have been brought together to create a diversity of patterns that reflect to others the complexity and the simplicity of our lives. We each represent a different color and a different pattern, and yet when all assembled together we create a powerful image that is ever changing and ever new.”
A letter from Nathan Gaines, which was one Ms Davenport shared at the arts festival, grabbed her attention.
“It resonated with me. He describes things like standing under the flagpole at midnight, laying down in Ram Pasture, and every fifth line reads, ‘I am Sandy Hook.’ It’s about how much this town contributed to who he is,” she said, and like so many of the letters, confirmed to her that this task of compiling Letters From Sandy Hook-Newtown was not in vain.
“I was overwhelmed when I read the letter from Mead Treadwell, who is now the Lt Governor of Alaska. All of the famous people from here that I didn’t even know about, he had met, or played with their children, growing up in Newtown. I can’t believe all the famous people who have floated through Newtown,” she said.
Ms Davenport moved to Sandy Hook in 1991, and she and her husband have raised two sons here, both of whom are graduates of Sandy Hook Elementary School. The second letter she read on Saturday is by her oldest son, Bobby.
Letters From Sandy Hook-Newtown To The World is Ms Davenport’s first book. She feels fortunate that her former advisor at WestConn, John Briggs, was willing to introduce her to John Cuello of Karuna Publications.
“I had no idea where to start to find a publisher, otherwise,” she said.
“Now that the book is completed, I really know what a great town this is. I grew up on a small island off of South Carolina, and Newtown has always felt like the same kind of place to me, a place where everybody knows everybody, and looks out for everybody else. We’re probably like thousands of other towns like ours, and that’s what I want people to realize; not what they saw on television for weeks and weeks.
“I want the world to know that 12/14 does not define us, even if it made us a different place. I want people to know,” she said, “this is what we are. We are a town that’s been through something horrific, and we go on. And after all we’ve been through, our residents love this town.”
A book that tells the stories of a real town populated by real people is what Ms Davenport hopes readers will take away from her book.
Letters From Sandy Hook-Newtown To The World can be preordered by contacting Ms Davenport at firstname.lastname@example.org. All of the profits she makes from the sales of the $35 book will be donated to The Newtown Memorial Fund and other local charities in Sandy Hook and Newtown.