On Memorial Day weekend in 1995, Priscilla Cummings '73 was visiting her ailing mother-in-law, Prudence Shannon Frece, at her old farmhouse in Heathsville, Va. As they were talking, her mother-in-law pointed to an old trunk, and said, "Priscilla, I want you to open that trunk and take all those things home."
Inside the trunk were diaries, and in one of these diary entries, Cummings found the germ of an idea that became her third young adult novel, Saving Grace.
In several entries, Frece wrote about a young girl named Betty Stone. Just before Christmas in 1932, in the darkest days of the Depression, Stone's parents were forced to place their children in a children's home in Washington, D.C., because they couldn't afford to keep them. Some of the children at the home were invited to spend the holidays with more fortunate families, and Betty was invited to join the Shannons.
The Shannon family had recently moved to Washington from West Virginia where her father had owned a store. Thinking there would be more opportunity to ride out financially trying times in the city, her father sold the store and bought two boarding houses. It was a smart move—both parents and the five Shannon children ran the houses throughout the 1930s, and they weathered the Depression relatively well. They were happy to help other families who weren't so lucky, and Betty fit well into the Shannon family—so much so that she stayed with them for four years. She and Prudence became good friends, and they kept in touch throughout their lives.
The story of their friendship and how it illuminated a particularly difficult period in American history captured Cummings's imagination. As an English major at UNH, she had learned about the power of a well-chosen detail from Don Murray '48, now professor emeritus of English, a lesson that served her well in her career as a newspaper reporter and feature writer. With the diaries, her mother-in-law had bequeathed to her a wealth of details about the 1930s, and Cummings set to work. She spent a year reading newspapers from 1932, and eventually interviewed Betty, now Betty Stone Stults.
In her novels for teens (Autumn Journey, in 1997, and A Face First, 2001), Cummings focuses on young adults who are forced to grapple with tough problems. She is noted for her portrayals of the complexity and sophistication of the adolescent mind. As a child, Cummings always loved writing but never thought of it as a job possibility. She went to UNH with the idea that she would become a teacher. But two things at UNH changed her mind: working on The New Hampshire, and taking a class with Murray.
After graduating from UNH, Cummings worked for several newspapers, as a reporter for the Hartford Courant and the Richmond News Leader, and then as a feature writer for the Baltimore News American. In 1986, she wrote her first children's book about a crab named Chadwick. The book was enormously successful, especially in Maryland where Cummings lives with her husband and two children, and led to a series of Chadwick books. Along with writing, Cummings visits elementary schools to talk to children about writing. Her next novel, due for release this fall, is set in the Chesapeake Bay.
"Don taught me how to find the details that really bring a story to life," she says. "If it's not alive, it's not believable, and if it's not believable, it's not a good story."Return to UNH Magazine Alumni Profiles