Monday, March 5, 2012

Emily and Carlo by Marty Rhodes Figley

Women's History Month Giveaway:  If you'd like to win a prize pack with Emily and Carlo and five brand-new Women's History Month picture books, please leave a comment below or on any post this month!  You will get one entry for each comment you leave this month on Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month.  The winner will be drawn on April 1, after all comments are submitted.   

March 5 - Today's post provided by Marty Rhodes Figley

The theme of National Women’s History Month 2012, Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment, embodies much of what my new picture book Emily and Carlo means to me. Education, Empowerment . . . and Serendipity, because this book might not have happened if:

1. My husband’s aunt and uncle hadn’t owned a 150-pound Newfoundland named Londerry that I met years before when I was wearing white. After an ecstatic greeting from this huge dog, my dress was covered with long dog hairs and drool.
2. I hadn’t gone back to school to finish my undergraduate degree at Mount Holyoke College.

Mount Holyoke College

Eleven years ago, during an evening Shakespeare class at my local junior college, the professor mentioned that three Seven Sister schools, Mount Holyoke, Smith and Wellesley colleges, offered excellent programs for nontraditional students. I was experiencing a lull in my publishing career, so I was tempted. When I told my husband about it, he graciously encouraged me to follow my dream, even though we lived in Northern Virginia and these schools were in New England. Our kids were grown, we were between dogs, and he knew I had always regretted not finishing college. I enrolled at Mount Holyoke College—Emily Dickinson’s alma mater. I lived in a dorm on campus with traditional students for the next two years and graduated with a degree in American Studies at age 55. It was an empowering experience.

In my second year, I couldn’t resist taking a course offered by the college at the Emily Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Dickinson Homestead

I already knew that Emily Dickinson (1830-86) was considered one of our finest, yet most enigmatic poets. She never married and spent most of her life living at the family home in Amherst. Later in her life the townspeople referred to her as “The Queen Recluse” and “The Myth.” I envisioned Emily as a wispy, ethereal, white-clad genius, untouched by the corporeal elements of life, privately committing to paper profound, passionate lyrical poetry about nature, love, pain, and immortality.

Emily Dickinson at seventeen
On the first day of the Emily Dickinson class our professor—extraordinary teacher and Dickinson scholar, Martha Ackmann, took us on a walking tour of the town. She mentioned that Emily’s dog, Carlo, a Newfoundland, was her constant companion for sixteen years. I stopped in my tracks and said, “A Newfoundland?” I remembered Londerry, his hair, his drool, his friendliness . . . his size. My perception of the poet changed instantly.

Londerry - in all his enormous glory
Edward Dickinson gave Carlo to Emily sometime during the winter months of 1849-50. His motive may have been to provide his daughter protection, companionship, or both. Emily’s younger sister, Lavinia, was away at school and her brother, Austin, was immersed in his college life. Emily wrote to a friend, “I am all alone.”

Emily’s intensity was sometimes too much for her friends. It exhausted them and many times drove them away. Her letters are showcases of her wit, her virtuosity with prose and poetry, and her constant demands for attention and reassurance. Loneliness underlies her words. Emily’s literary mentor, Thomas Higginson, described his first meeting with her. “I never was with anyone who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.”

Carlo provided a friendship for Emily that was constant and unconditional. Having a dog that probably weighed well over one hundred pounds to accompany her, surely gave shy Emily the confidence to venture out to visit friends and explore the countryside.

Amherst Main Street (Dickinson Homestead in background on left)
A neighbor recalled, “Her companion out of doors was a large Newfoundland named Carlo.” She wrote about him in her poems and letters. To Emily a dog was “a noble work of art.”

Her Newfoundland was her loving confident and companion. In a letter to Higginson she wrote, “They [dogs] are better than Being—because they know—but do not tell— . . ..” Emily called Carlo her “shaggy ally.” She referred affectionately to his “brown kisses.”

Emily grieved acutely when she lost Carlo. After his death, she wrote Higginson telling him she missed her dog. Six months later she wrote about her dog again, “ . . . I wish for Carlo.” Emily stayed closer to home after her beloved dog died. She never owned another.

Emily Dickinson is sometimes difficult for children to understand; her love of her dog is not. I wanted to write a book that showed the poet in a more earthy light. She was a person who loved a very large, messy, hairy dog for sixteen years. He was her playmate, friend, guide, and protector. Emily’s dresses probably carried evidence of this special relationship most of the time.

A friend reminisced that as a little girl, she went walking with the poet “while her huge dog stalked solemnly beside them.” Emily confided to her young companion, “Gracie, do you know that I believe that the first to come and greet me when I got to heaven will be this dear, faithful old friend Carlo?”

It was a privilege to write about Emily and her dog, and to share their story with young readers. Here’s to Education, Empowerment, and last, but not least, Serendipity.

And, I might add, dogs, poetry, and love.

from Emily and Carlo

Editor's Note:
"Marty Rhodes Figley was born in Joplin, Missouri, and grew up in Springfield, Missouri. Her parents came from Hannibal, Missouri, where she spent much of her childhood visiting. She now lives in the Washington, D. C. area.
She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies (cum laude). Marty is the author of seventeen books and numerous magazine articles."
Copyright Marty Rhodes Figley


  1. What a beautiful beautiful guest post! This sounds like a book that will be cherished not just by children but also by aspiring poets and adults who have this sense of affinity with Dickinson's poems. I will look for this poem in our library. We are also launching our bimonthly theme on girl power so we would most likely review a number of books related to this theme. We shall continually visit your site and leave our links. :) Great giveaway as well!

  2. Thanks so much for your beautiful post! I will be visiting Mount Holyoke and Amherst this April with my daughter, and will think of Emily Dickinson romping with her giant dog Carlo when we visit her house! I love the artwork in your book because it portrays such a different Emily from the dour spinster we see in her portraits! Thanks for sharing a new view of this iconic poet for young readers.

  3. Your book arrived at my library today, and immediately went out to fill a previously placed hold. That's most likely a good omen for a great new book. We have had two Newfoundlands visit the library as reading therapy dogs. They are such beautiful and docile animals. I look forward to your book's return to my shelves so I can read it for myself. Thanks so much for your contribution. Lisa

  4. My class has an Artist of the Month. Each month, I have to choose appropriate books about an artist whose work maybe more difficult to understand, but reading books like this help my students to feel more connected to the artist. I'll have to keep my eye out for this.