Emily Bean hesitates to call herself a poet, despite the fact that her brain is always composing poems, more so since her life has been shattered by tragedy. Emily’s boyfriend shot himself in the library of their high school after she breaks up with him. To remove her from the painful aftermath, Emily’s parents send her to the Amherst School for Girls. Plunging into a new environment has its own stresses, but it is the hometown of Emily Dickinson.
In the book, Emily Bean is drawn into the solitary world of the other Emily. The Dickinson family was very invested in Amherst College, and Emily herself attended the Amherst Academy from 1840-1847. Her home still stands in the center of town. Becoming immersed in the culture of Amherst and the proximity of all things Dickinson, Emily Bean finds a way to express her own voice. Poems pour from Emily Bean’s pen, articulating all the pain and wisdom inside.
At one point in the book, Emily is asked what sort of music she likes. As the book is set in 1995, her choices reflect another time. “Shawn Colvin, Indigo Girls, stuff like that.” And, indeed, the Indigo Girls’s song, All We Let In, seems to speak directly to Emily Bean:
Lost friends and loved ones much too young
So much promises and work left undone
When all that guards us is a single centerline
And the brutal crossing over when it’s time
-Diane Colson, currently reading Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom