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Helen Simonson kicks off Whitman community book talks

By Lucy Chen

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Whitman parent Helen Simonson discussed her bestselling novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand Oct. 5 in the media center as the first speaker in a series of community book talks.

Helen Simonson reads a particularly funny chapter from her book during the book talk.   Photo by Lucy Chen.

The events, scheduled to be the first Wednesday of every month, focus on inviting published authors, poets, and other literary figures in the Whitman community to discuss their works at the school.

Principal Alan Goodwin said local writers often share their literary works with him, and he thought would be a good idea to share those discussions with the public through a book club.

“It’s too bad we have all these talented authors in the community, and we don’t spend time having nice intellectual discussions about what they write,” he said. “So I came up with the idea of having a book discussion club. It would give notice to parents in the community who are writers, and it would give students a chance to talk to bona-fide published writers.”

Goodwin read Simonson’s book over the summer after his wife recommended it to him. He looked at the jacket photo of Simonson after reading, and recognized the face of a Whitman parent.

Simonson introduced herself as being born and raised in England, the setting of the novel. Her family moved to Brooklyn two decades ago from England, and last year, she moved to Bethesda.

Simonson also discussed the process of writing and publishing the novel. The manuscript took her five years to write, as she balanced writing with taking care of her sons. Originally, the novel was just one chapter. But after winning first prize at a short story competition, she expanded the idea.

Random House published the novel in March 2009, and the book debuted at number 24 on the New York Times bestseller list. Simonson didn’t expect that her novel would be so well-received.

“It’s been an absolute thrill ride,” she said. “This is my life’s dream, and I actually thought it would never happen.”

Simonson read a passage from one of her favorite chapters in the book, eliciting laughter from the audience members with the novel’s comic wit.

Afterwards, she answered questions about her inspiration for various characters, the book’s themes of love and racism, and the upcoming movie version of the novel.

“I was astonished at how many people had read the book and read it very closely,” Simonson said. “I was thrilled at the level of discussion, and that’s a testament to our community. It was a delight to be invited.”

Whitman parent Laura Roulier read the book over the summer and loved meeting the author.

“It’s always really neat, particularly for a story that you’re fond of, to find out where the inspiration came for it and to learn a little more about the person who wrote it,” Roulier said. “How lucky we are in the Whitman community to have such a wealth of talent around us.”

The next book talk Nov. 9 features prize-winning poet and former English department head Martin Galvin.

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The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School
Helen Simonson kicks off Whitman community book talks