From the Shadows of Glensheen: A Legacy of Hope
Suzanne Congdon LeRoy's memoir, "Nightingale: A Memoir of Murder, Madness, and the Messenger of Spring," tells the story of the Congdon family of Duluth from the author's personal experience. LeRoy is the granddaughter of Elisabeth Congdon; her book presents a deeply felt portrait of the inspiring grandmother she knew for 22 years.
Elisabeth Mannering Congdon, heiress to her father Chester Congdon's mining fortune, was a patron of the arts, a director on numerous community boards, a volunteer nurse during wartime, and an advocate of women's health. LeRoy conducted extensive research into archives in Duluth and at various colleges and universities, visited significant places in Elisabeth Congdon's life, and read more than a thousand newspaper articles on the family.
Her narrative is composed largely of vignettes based on her memories beginning in childhood and later journal notes. The splendor of Glensheen under the orderly direction of her grandmother and peaceful interludes in the natural setting of the family's Brule estate are contrasted with scenes of LeRoy's turbulent home life, which left a painful mark on the first decades of her life. The various players in LeRoy's account appear as detailed cameos, whose personalities are deftly and vividly captured.
Darker years followed the homicide of Elisabeth Congdon and the subsequent criminal and civil cases, when LeRoy confronted the terrible truth of her own mother's complicity in the crime. But another influence was at work: Seeds had been planted by Elisabeth Congdon – of optimism, education, and public service – encouraging LeRoy to overcome the shadows and to find her own place in the world.
The conclusion to her story demonstrates the possibilities of healing. High in the mountains of Bhutan, LeRoy leaves behind her most treasured mementos of her grandmother, two faded photographs of the two of them together. She attaches the photos to a colorful stream of prayer flags, setting them free to the wind, to the air.
"Nightingale" is riveting testimony of how personal tragedy can be transformed into a life of meaning and hope.
Author Suzanne Congdon LeRoy will talk about the life and legacy of Elisabeth Congdon at Cloquet Public Library on Saturday, November 8, at 11 a.m. Copies of "Nightingale" will be available for purchase, with proceeds donated to Cloquet Public Library. Congdon LeRoy earned her Ph.D. in nursing from the University of Minnesota and has specialty certifications in Women's Health, Family Practice, and Advanced Practice HIV/AIDS.
Mark King: You have been described as a private person. Why did you decide to go public with your memoir at this time?
Suzanne Congdon LeRoy: My memoir is actually about my relationship with my grandmother, Elisabeth Mannering Congdon, and the effect of her life on mine. I wanted my grandmother remembered as the extraordinary woman that she was and not solely for the last day of her life. No one in my immediate or extended family had ever done research on her life. I knew there were many things that only I knew and that much of my lived experience with her would lead me to the stories that she was not able to tell after she had a stroke. I was passionate about this project and the timing was right.
MK: In the beginning chapters of "Nightingale," you record events from the perspective — literally through the eyes — of yourself as a child. How did you choose this method to convey your story?
SCL: I knew that I wanted to tell the story in first person so that the reader would feel like they were right there beside me. I also found it much easier to inhabit the child that way and bring myself back to those lived experiences. There are scenes of child abuse (with my mother) and neglect and abandonment (my father) juxtaposed with the beautiful and loving grandmother who built a foundation of hope, optimism, and the power of possibility for me. In my work with women and girls, and my grandmother’s long history of charitable work with maternal and child health, I realized that it was especially important to emphasize the child’s voice. Children tell things in the only way they know how and we all need to remember to “listen to the voice of a child.” It just might save their life if we do.
MK: Your book is unusual for a memoir in the amount of research that was involved. Had you planned on that when you started?
SCL: Actually, memoir can be written about many things and in many ways. There are a number of memoir writers who delve into history and their ancestors. My research was related to the historical context and verification of memory and the stories that my grandmother had told me. I also wanted to find the stories about her life that she couldn’t tell me after she had a stroke. I visited many archives, the schools and colleges she attended, colleges and universities that were important to my grandmother and the Congdon and Bannister families, and much more. I knew that I wanted the entire book to be as historically and factually accurate as possible. It is especially important now as the book is part of many archives, libraries and institutions in the United States and England.
MK: You seem to feel a deep connection with the past and the history of the Congdon family. Has that always been true? How has this relationship with the past guided you?
SCL: When I was a little girl my grandmother told me many stories about the family, the two estates (Glensheen and Westhome) that her father built, and as I got older she included even more detail about the eras and historical context. She made sure that I knew about her ancestors on both sides of the family (Congdon and Bannister) and their contributions to the family. The richness of my grandmother’s life and the legacy that she shared is worth more to me than anything I can imagine. It was her greatest gift to me.
MK: What did you discover about your grandmother, Elisabeth Congdon, in researching your book?
SCL: There are so many things I knew already but there were also some wonderful surprises. A few of the highlights about my grandmother’s life include:
– She graduated from high school barely eight weeks after the Titanic disaster.
– She was in the Vassar class of 1917 with Edna St. Vincent Millay.
– She attended college when less than 5 percent of women did so.
– She started a birth control clinic in Duluth along with her personal physician and friend, Dr. Elizabeth Bagley, in 1936 (the same year the Comstock Law was overturned, giving physicians the right to discuss and prescribe birth control).
MK: Besides writing your memoir, what activities are you engaged in now? Do you still work in the medical field?
SCL: I am very involved with volunteer work: YouthLink (homeless youth), the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis, Second Harvest Heartland (hunger relief), and other health and human rights initiatives that benefit women and girls in the areas of education, reproductive health, and violence prevention. I am very involved in speaking and book promotion and trying to decide what I will write next. I hike and canoe and I look forward to snowshoeing and cross country skiing this winter. My work in the medical field is now in the nonprofit sector with a focus on at-risk and homeless youth, and prevention of sexual trafficking and sexual exploitation.
MK: You spent a great deal of time at both at the Brule and at Glensheen while growing up and describe both homes in close detail. Do you have a favorite room at Glensheen?
SCL: My grandmother’s estates are wonderful in different ways. Glensheen is an extraordinary place for the beautiful natural landscape, the setting of the home at the edge of Lake Superior, the art, architecture, sense of place, sense of legacy, sense of family, and the lived experience I was fortunate to have with my grandmother. It’s hard to pick just one room at Glensheen but the breakfast room with the stained glass design of oak leaves and acorns and the walls and floor covered with Rookwood tiles would be high on the list.
MK: Do you have a favorite memory of your time at Glensheen?
SCL: There are so many! As a little girl I would sleep in my grandmother’s childhood bedroom and she would tell me stories about the family, the estate, and the ships on Lake Superior. It was magical.
Mark J. King is the adult services librarian at Cloquet Public Library. He can be contacted at 218-879-1531.