Have you ever passed by a house and wondered about the people who live in it? I have. Almost every day after my family moved to the small southern Indiana town of Paoli, I’d look up at the elegant white mansion overlooking the community and wonder about who or what might be inside. The “Cornwell mansion,” as it is known locally, had been a fixture on the hill above the town since my grandmother was a young girl. Mysterious and grand, the house seemed almost out of place in a sleepy small town with a quaint courthouse square and a single stoplight.
The Cornwell mansion, Paoli, Indiana, U.S.A.
Photo credit: Ramona Pinnick
Years later, as I began to formulate a central story arc for my first novel, the image of that big white house kept appearing in my mind. By that time, I had also learned about Sol Strauss, a former Paoli resident who, during the 1940s, fled Nazi Germany and opened a successful dry goods store in town. As a Jewish gentleman in a conservative Christian region, it would be fair to say that Mr. Strauss was not fully embraced by the town’s population. Nevertheless, he was fond of the community and adopted it as his own. Upon his death, the residents of Paoli were shocked to learn that he had bequeathed an enormous amount of money to the town, which was to be used for charitable purposes to benefit its people.
Inspired by the majesty of the Cornwell mansion and the generosity and kindness of Mr. Strauss, I developed what became the central premise of The Mill River Recluse. That is, what if there was a person – a fragile, broken, yet loving person — hiding behind the walls of a beautiful home? And further, what if this person, as misunderstood or unknown as she was, turned out to be more special and more integral to her community than anyone could imagine?
While The Mill River Recluse it is not a Christmas story per se, so many themes in the book – the importance of generosity and kindness toward one’s neighbors, and the true meanings of love and friendship – are so often emphasized during the holidays. Even in our frenetic, stressed, and materialistic society, there are still so many instances in which the good in people – between friends and family members, as well as between complete strangers – shines through. It is my hope that you experience such warmth, friendship, and love this holiday season.