April 04, 2013

The call of an unusual life

Behind the Book by
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The year was 1996. I stepped off the Nantucket Ferry clutching the little flyer I’d picked up onboard: Come and see the home of the famous girl astronomer from Nantucket. I was 25 and on my own. I had no agenda. I’d never been to Nantucket. Girl astronomer? Why not.

Main Street took me past boutiques and restaurants and buildings that looked like they hadn’t changed in a century or three. Before long, I reached the little lane where Maria Mitchell had lived and worked. I was entranced by the stillness of the place; grey sky and grey shingles and grey cobblestones commingled, blurring the distance between past and future. I had to know more about this teenaged mathematician and astronomer who’d discovered a comet while in her 20s, and I set about learning everything I could about her life and times. 

Born into a tight-knit Quaker community in 1818, “Miss Mitchell” learned navigation and basic astronomy from her father, whom she assisted with rooftop observations used to “rate”—or, adjust—the chronometers of the island’s legendary whaling fleet. She excelled in math but couldn’t go to college—there were barely a handful of options open to women then—so she studied on her own, while family friends who ran the Harvard Observatory kept her apprised of news and innovations in the field. Rather than marry and begin a family, she spent her youth on a little platform attached to her roof, in every kind of weather, scouring the night skies for the appearance of a comet. If she found one before anyone else in the world, she could win a monetary prize from the King of Denmark, and—more importantly—recognition for her accomplishments. 

I had to know more about this teenaged mathematician and astronomer who’d discovered a comet while in her 20s.

On October 1, 1847, she found what she sought—though her hesitation in reporting it almost cost her the award. Luckily, after an exchange of letters among important men (!) from Cambridge to Washington to Europe, her “priority” was established and Comet Mitchell was recorded for posterity. With that finding, she became famous, was hired as a “computer” for the National Almanac, and, 13 years after the discovery, was the first person hired by Matthew Vassar for his women’s college in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Great story, right? But I knew nothing about Quakers, astronomy, whaling or 19th-century New England. Determined to get the facts right and adhere closely to the life of this inspiring woman, I spent year after year doing research and rewriting the same chapters over and over. No matter how much I learned, though, something felt like it was missing. A reconstructed version of Maria Mitchell’s life wasn’t the story I wanted to tell, after all. To get to the heart of that girl, on the roof, searching the night sky for something that would change her life, I was going to have to invent her, and the people around her as well: friends and foes, her loved ones and her beloved. 

Thus began the long, slow work of puzzling together the setting and endeavors of a real person’s life with an invented character and plot. I kept some details and made up others; re-created scenes that had occurred, but changed the time or place in which they happened. By the time I was done I’d forgotten, in some cases, what was “real” and what I’d made up. Thankfully, I kept good notes. And I had a lot of help along the way, from research fellowships and stints at libraries and historical associations up and down the New England seaboard.

I hope that the novel and its protagonist, Hannah Gardner Price, bring much-deserved attention to the life and work of Maria Mitchell. But I hope she stands on her own, too. In truth, Hannah is a hybrid of every young woman I read about who longed to go to college, to accomplish something beyond the domestic sphere, to make a contribution to society commensurate with her intellect and her passions. Without trailblazers like Miss Mitchell and her contemporaries, I certainly wouldn’t be writing this today. For this, I am eternally grateful.


Amy Brill is a writer and producer who has worked for PBS and MTV. A Movement of Stars is her first novel and was inspired by the remarkable life of Maria Mitchell. Brill lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters. Find out more on her website.


Amy Brill

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The Movement of Stars

The Movement of Stars

By Amy Brill
ISBN 9781594487446

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