“Mighty Queens” Making a Big Impact on Readers

Jeffrey Lewis of Lansing, an oral surgeon with a practice in Ithaca, bought a copy of syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson’s best-selling memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville, shortly after it was published. Lewis, who describes himself as a voracious reader, said that in the last few years he has found memoirs especially appealing. He believed Dickinson’s book would be the perfect bedtime read. It was, Lewis said, but there was a problem: “I couldn’t put it down.”

Lewis said he sat in an easy chair in the bedroom at home reading the Dickinson memoir as his wife, Kristin, fell asleep. “Hours later, the light is still on, and I’m sitting in the chair reading the book,” he related. “My wife wakes up and asks, ‘My God, when are you going to put that book down?’ and I say, ‘When I finish it.’” Lewis said he did put out the light and go to bed a short time later, but he repeated his marathon reading session the next night. He finished the book in just a little more than two days.

“It was driving me crazy,” Kristin said with a laugh. “Jeff was so taken with the book he sat up with the light on into the wee hours of the morning.” But then she admitted that a few nights later, she picked up the book herself, “and I pretty much turned around and did the same thing to him. It was just such an incredibly engaging and delightful book.”

Words like “engaging” and “delightful” only partially describe the enthusiasm many readers – especially women – seem to have for Dickinson’s memoir. In cities and villages around the country, and especially across Upstate New York, scores of them have been turning out to hear her read from her book and elaborate on the charming and candid story of The Mighty Queens of Freeville.

The book tells of the author’s upbringing on a small dairy farm in the tiny Tompkins County village of Freeville, population about 500; of her difficult teenage years after her father ran off with a truck-stop waitress and then abruptly sold the farm’s herd of cows; of another painful period when her husband, a television network foreign correspondent, renounced their marriage and left her in a London apartment with a baby to care for; of her determined effort to raise her daughter Emily and achieve success in the extremely competitive world of American media, and finally, of her storybook romance and marriage two years ago to a childhood acquaintance. Bruno Schickel, a farm boy who went on to become a successful Tompkins County building contractor, at one point refused to renovate Amy’s small, aging house on Freeville’s Main Street. Not long afterwards he did agree to, “renovate my life instead,” said Dickinson.

“A family of women who have a lot to say”
Not far into her memoir, Dickinson asserts, “I come from a family of women who have a lot to say.” That is an understatement. As the successor to the late advice columnist Ann Landers, Dickinson writes a daily “Ask Amy” column read by about 20 million readers of some 200 newspapers across the country. She also makes monthly appearances on National Public Radio’s popular news quiz, “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” and is a frequent contributor to the network’s other news shows.

Amy’s sister, Rachel Dickinson, lives in Freeville in a classic Victorian home a short distance down Main Street from the house Amy now uses as an office. Rachel is a widely published travel writer. Her articles have appeared in The Atlantic, Audubon, the Columbia Journalism Review and the Christian Science Monitor. She is also the author of a well-received book, Falconer on the Edge – a portrait of legendary falconer Steve Chindgren, a descendent of Mormon pioneers who lives in Utah and hunts with his birds in the sage grouse country of Wyoming.

Rachel’s book examines the deepening conflict between the traditional sport of falconry and the current rush by gas drillers to tap into the resources below the surface of the environmentally sensitive grouse habitat. Rachel’s husband, Tim Gallagher, is himself a falconer and author, and serves as editor-in-chief of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s quarterly Living Bird magazine.

Reflecting on the effort that went into writing her book, Rachel said, “There are times when I look at that book and I can’t believe I actually wrote it. When you think about the amount of time that goes into writing and researching a book, it’s monumental.

“Amy’s book was based on her life, and they were like personal essays,” Rachel said. “Mine was based on someone else’s life, so I couldn’t just go back into my thoughts about when Steve was 18. I actually had to ask him about it.” Then, she added, there were questions of, “How much do you reveal? Where do you draw the line?

“There are things he told me I didn’t put in the book because he said, ‘If you do, it will kill my mother.’ So, you know, I respected that. I didn’t want to kill his mother – I really didn’t,” she said.

Adding to the difficulty of producing and then selling the book was the revelation that because of the recession and hard times for publishers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt wasn’t going to put up any money toward promoting her book.

“You think writing the book is hard? Wait until you’re selling it out of the trunk of your car – that’s hard,” she said. Eventually, the company did help with promotion – after Rachel initiated things by lining up her own readings and radio and television appearances around the country.

Despite her need to travel for work, such as earlier this year when she visited Ireland for several weeks on assignment for the The Atlantic, Rachel has served for more than 20 years in one position or another in Freeville village government. Lately, she has been a village trustee, “I just kind of rotate through. I’ve either been on planning or zoning or a village trustee for the entire time I’ve lived here as an adult.

“I tried to quit a few years ago,” explained Rachel. “I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I travel too much.’

“They begged me to come back after three months. ‘No one understands the budget,’ they said.

“I said, ‘Oh my God, figure it out,’ but I went back anyway.”

“Freeville is one mile square,” she noted, “and it’s very interesting how much things don’t change. That’s what I love about it; that’s what keeps me here. It’s a place that seems stuck in time, and that’s fine with me.” As for the major issues facing the trustees, Rachel explained that the water table is very high in Freeville. “So that’s the big deal – where the water’s going to show up next,” she said, with a laugh.

A third sister, Anne Dickinson, serves as assistant dean for grants and contracts at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

The paperback version of Amy’s book was published last spring with a new subhead: “A Story of Surprising Second Chances.” The book describes how, like Amy, many of the women in her family went through divorces, raised kids as single parents and later went on to successful careers.

The Dickinson sisters’ mother, Jane Dickinson, provides one of the best examples of that perseverance and success. After her husband abandoned the family and their farm failed, Jane Dickinson got a job typing at Cornell University, then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. She went on to teach creative writing for 15 years, first at Cornell and later at Ithaca College.

Amy’s daughter Emily Mason, 21, is a senior majoring in English at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. She hopes to pursue a career in writing. Amy Dickinson said she named her daughter after nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson, a distant relative.

The family traces its roots back to Nathaniel Dickinson, a Puritan who emigrated from England to Massachusetts in 1630 and eventually settled in Hadley in the western part of the state. On her mother’s side, Amy said, the family has roots in Freeville that go back 200 years. Amy related that her siblings were named after relatives but her mother named her after Ray Bolger’s Broadway tune, “Once in Love with Amy.”

“Continuing a lifelong conversation”
In her book, Amy Dickinson tells how for years the family has gathered at a diner on Wednesday mornings to “continue our lifelong conversation.” The weekly breakfast gathering began at Toad’s in Freeville and, when that establishment closed, adjourned to the Dryden Queen Diner.

At one of the recent breakfasts, Amy, Rachel and two aunts, Millie Sherwood and Jean Pearson, both of Freeville, showed up at the Queen. Over eggs, French toast and a steady flow of coffee, the “Mighty Queens” – so named by Amy’s daughter Emily – caught up on recent family activities and some broader issues. “It’s our window on the real world,” Aunt Millie commented.

Amy mentioned that she “just got this great letter” for her column. (On average, she gets 500 e-mails and a couple hundred letters each week.) “I like to run the letters past the gang here,” she said. She went on to explain that a woman wrote that she and her husband had thrown a housewarming party and received beautiful gifts.

“I wrote ‘thank you’ notes promptly,” the reader related, “and I gave my husband a pile of the notes to pass around to his colleagues at work who had come to the party.” Two years later, according to the letter, the woman discovered the undelivered notes in her husband’s desk at work. “I don’t know what to do,” she wrote.

Amy said she suggested that the reader have her husband help her write each guest a new note and this time “put a stamp on it and put it in the mail.” The other “Queens” at the breakfast agreed with Amy.

“Two years later it’s not too late. You just back-date them,” Rachel advised with a laugh.

“Put a little water on them like they’ve been stained,” an aunt added.

“You know what?” Amy exclaimed, “I’m going to totally revise my answer. I love that!”

At that point, Rachel caught the group up on her latest endeavor – spending two 10-hour days in Washington, D.C., interviewing a woman who had started a national organization devoted to helping feral cats. “You get off the elevator in this office building and they have the whole floor. There are 30 people in this office for feral cats.”

Rachel said that as she was interviewing the organization’s founder in a conference room with an elegant table, “a white cat whose name escapes me – Jezebel or something – leaps onto the table, flops down between us and proceeds to completely clean herself while we’re talking.

“I’m wearing black,” Rachel relates, “and I look down and I say, ‘Next time you need to give me the dress code, like khaki – is that what you’re supposed to wear here?’” Rachel then noted that there are about 240 local feral cat groups around the country.

“Are feral cats a problem?” Aunt Jean asked.

“Well, if you’re a bird person, yeah,” Rachel replied with a laugh.

Inspiring literary pilgrims
Not long ago, a group of Amy Dickinson’s book fans made a pilgrimage to Dryden and Freeville from the small Oswego County village of Mexico along Lake Ontario to visit the sites made landmarks by the best-selling memoir. Dickinson had conducted via Skype a meeting with readers of her book (sponsored by the village’s library).

“It was a lot of fun. I’d never done anything like that before,” said Madelyn Schmidt, a retired farmer. Afterwards, Schmidt and five other participants in the meeting got together and drove a van the almost 90 miles to Dryden on a Wednesday to check out the weekly meeting of the Freeville “Queens.” The “literary pilgrims” met Amy’s mother, an aunt and another relative and “had a good little visit,” Schmidt related.

“And then, of course, we did the tour of Main Street in Freeville and figured out which house was probably Amy’s and also saw the Methodist Church and the chicken barbecue pit that she mentions in her book,” Schmidt added. “It was a good road trip, I should say.”

As it happens, readers’ tours of Amy-related sites in Dryden and Freeville have become something of a regular occurrence. In fact, Jeffrey and Kristin Lewis, the Lansing couple who each spent a considerable number of late-night hours reading The Mighty Queens of Freeville, related that afterwards, they got in a car and visited Freeville to see Amy’s house and the church.

Madelyn Schmidt, who said she enjoyed Amy’s book so much she read it three times, had a suggestion: “They probably should put up one of those historical signs – you know, those blue and gold signs that tell where somebody lived.”

Schmidt added, “We’re all anxiously awaiting Amy’s second book, too.” That much-anticipated next book is bound to add to the steady stream of out-of-town cars and vans slowly cruising by Amy Dickinson’s little white house on Main Street in Freeville.

by Bill Wingell

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