Eleanor Phillips Brackbill has a true love for history. She earned her M.A. in art history at Boston University and studied in the art history doctoral program at City University of New York. For twenty-five years, she served as the director of education at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York. Afterwards, she embarked on a second career writing about history.
Brackbill has published two books An Uncommon Cape: Researching Histories and Mysteries of a Property (2012) and The Queen of Heartbreak Trail: The Life and Times of Harriet Smith Pullen, Pioneering Woman (2016), which was a 2017 Willa Literary Award Finalist in Scholarly Nonfiction.
Eleanor Phillips Brackbill currently lives in Westbrook, Maine with her husband, the artist, writer, and educator Michael Torlen.
We invite you to join Eleanor Phillips Brackbill on Thursday, May 9th at 6pm as she presents an illustrated talk about her book, An Uncommon Cape: Reasearching the Histories and Mysteries of a Property.
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WALKER MEMORIAL LIBRARY: Who has inspired you as a writer?
ELEANOR PHILLIPS BRACKBILL: David McCullough. I’ve read most of his books. I love biography and non-fiction. Some of McCullough’s books focus on a sole person or family as in his recent The Wright Brothers. Others, like The Path Between the Seas, tackle an expansive drama. The building of the Panama Canal was a daunting project that took decades and demanded the resources of France and the United States and myriad engineers, politicians, and skilled laborers. McCullough bases his books on deep and broad research, much of which he does himself. A writer friend of mine told me that she saw him doing research last fall at the Library of Congress. Age 84 and still at it!
WML: Who are your favorite heroines of history?
EPB: Harriet Smith Pullen, the subject of my recent book, The Queen of Heartbreak Trail, is a favorite heroine of mine. She was my great-grandmother, famous in Alaska, but little known in the lower forty-eight. In 1897, she landed broke and alone in the midst of the Klondike Gold Rush. Her enterprising attitude and gregarious nature made her an Alaska legend. Another favorite is Martha Ballard, the Maine midwife whose thirty-year diary provided the grist for Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Midwife’s Tale. Ballard labored in obscurity, but her story has been brought to us two hundred years later by the diary she left and Ulrich’s dogged research into the tiny Maine village on the Kennebec River where Ballard lived.
WML: What natural gift would you most like to possess?
EPB: I’d love to have the courage and cunning to be a detective. My own historical research is like investigative work, but being a real detective would take my passion a step further.
WML: What is your favorite children’s book?
EPB: The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, a Caldecott Medal winner. The illustrations are wonderful, but the story is even better. This 1942 book predates the suburban development that has taken place since World War II so in that sense it was prophetic. A little house in the country happily appreciates the four seasons. Then she finds herself slowly surrounded and nearly smothered by the skyscrapers, subways, crowds, noise, and smoke that urban sprawl has brought. That is, until the great-great-granddaughter of the first owner finds her and moves her out of the city and back to the country where the little house is much happier, surrounded by daisies, apple trees, and the changing seasons. The book’s cover illustration includes a small rendering of the house, and under it are the words “her story.” And by the way, in another book of mine, An Uncommon Cape, I tell the story of a little house that was actually moved soon after World War II when I-95 came barreling through its neighborhood.
WML: What is your favorite word?
EPB: My favorite word is “history.” Embedded in the word “history” is another word—story, and everyone loves a good story. Other synonyms include chronicle, archive, record, diary, report, narrative, account, study, tale, saga, memoir, and I love those words too. I heard David McCullough in an interview with Ken Burns say, “History is an antidote for the hubris of the present.” I think that speaks to history’s importance in our lives.