Several years ago, one of my favorite readers, and bloggers, told me about a book written by a Salem author called The Little Locksmith, but for some reason I didn’t pick up a copy until just this past week–and I spent the cold and windy weekend reading it. This was quite an experience, as this is a memoir that puts our indulgent modern memoirs to shame in its ability to present an engulfing narrative of suffering (or perhaps I should say not suffering) and survival. The Little Locksmith was published in 1943, several months after the death of its author, Katharine Butler Hathaway, who was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis right here in Salem in 1895, when she was five years old. For the next ten years, she was confined to her bedroom and strapped to a board “like a specimen butterfly” in the hope that her spine would grow straight. She emerged not only hunchbacked, like the little locksmith that used to come to her Salem home (on Lafayette Street, sadly swept away by the Great Salem Fire of 1914), but also severely stunted, a very wise young woman in a child’s body. One would imagine that she would look back on this childhood with horror, regret, and even anger, but she does not, instead we read of “joyous” days: Though my back was imprisoned, my hands and arms and mind were free. I held my pencil and pad of paper up in the air above my face, and I wrote microscopic letters and poems, and made little books of stories, and very tiny pictures, I sewed the smallest doll clothes anybody had every seen, with the narrowest of hems and most delicious little ruffles. I painted with watercolors and made paper dolls and dollhouse furniture out of paper. Paper was the nearest thing to nothing in the way of material, and yet it was possible to make it into something that people would exclaim over and fall in love with. It was something precious made of nothing.”
Katharine Butler Hathaway (1900-42): from the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, where her papers are located; a first edition of The Little Locksmith (1943); the Mark Hatch House in Castine, where she lived from 1921-1931, Penobscot Marine Museum.
This ability to discern, appreciate, and make things that are precious stayed with her for the rest of her life. After she emerged from her Salem bedroom at aged 15, her “horizontal life” leaving her misshapen yet somehow also enchanted, she was off to Radcliffe, New York City, Paris, and Castine, Maine, where she found a neglected old house which she crafted into a precious touchstone. The Little Locksmith is really about this house and what it means to her more than anything else, which makes it even more fascinating for materialistic me. Her ability to describe places and what they mean to her is captivating: the chapter where she describes her family’s return to a sultry September Salem from their summer residence in Vermont is probably my favorite, as the sounds of crickets and steps on the brick sidewalks of Salem are the sounds that I always notice when I return home from up north. Upon her marriage to Daniel Hathaway of Marblehead, she is forced to sell her beloved Castine house, but they move on to settle in an old brick house in Blue Hill, Maine, which becomes yet another charmed setting for her, unfortunately her last.