In author Melanie Dobson’s time-slip drama The Wings of Poppy Pendleton, a young girl mysteriously disappears from a New York estate during the Gilded Age; years later, a reporter enlists a woman living on the same island to investigate the disappearance. In this article, Melanie talks about her research trip to Thousand Islands, NY and the real-life counterpart to Cade, the island caretaker in the historical novel.
When I began writing The Wings of Poppy Pendleton, I traveled to the North Country of New York to explore the mysterious Thousand Islands and tour its Gilded Age castles. Since one of my main characters—a much-loved man named Cade—was an island caretaker for about seventy years, I wanted to learn everything possible from locals who grew up on the shores of the St. Lawrence.
The Little Book Store in Clayton was my first stop, and the owner introduced me to a memoir called River bRat by Kenny and Melody Brabant. The authors, I soon discovered, lived right up the street, and they graciously invited me to their house.
I laughed when Kenny introduced himself as a “character.” Then he told me a few jokes before he launched into his favorite childhood memories. For the first time in my twenty-five years of novel writing, I felt like I was meeting one of my characters.
While Kenny is not Cade, he has lived in the Thousand Islands for most of his life. A self-proclaimed river brat, he grew up exploring the islands by ice boat, motorboat, and skiff. For the last forty-plus years, he has been a caretaker on the nearby Grindstone Island, and I laughed again when he told me that he begins each day “with a bowl of nuts and bolts.” Then he explained what his day—what Cade’s day—would look like caring for the gilded set.
Poppy Pendleton’s story begins at the turn of the 19th century, when a host of new-money families from New York City flooded the Thousand Islands. They arrived early each summer to wine and dine at the Thousand Islands Yacht Club. They hosted grand parties in their newly built mansions and castles and cruised the river in the finest of boats.
The winters, though, were reserved for hearty locals who boated across the ice to visit those who lived year-round on the islands. Even today, locals like Kenny and Melody continue to cruise across the St. Lawrence when it freezes over.
The ice had thawed by the time I arrived in May, and I enjoyed touring the island gardens and castles and the river’s many waterways by paddle steamer. As I explored, I envisioned my historical protagonist, Amelia Pendleton, overseeing an imaginary gala at Boldt Castle on Heart Island. In my mind’s eye, I saw my contemporary heroine Chloe at the decrepit cottage on Deer Island (my fictional Koster Isle) and then young Emma’s rowboat in the reeds of an uninhabited shore.
And little Poppy—I saw her everywhere. Wandering the cliffs. Riding the stormy waves. Skating across the icy channel. Watching the birds. I knew she’d disappeared from her family’s castle in 1907, but I didn’t know yet where she’d gone.
It was pure joy for me to meet locals like the Brabants that week and then return home to Oregon to write the stories of all my fictional characters. Now I’d like to introduce you to Cade, Amelia, Chloe, and Emma. We can journey together to find out where Poppy’s fragile but resilient wings took her when she flew.