Ethel Parton, born in 1862, was going to find it hard to escape the happy destiny that awaited her. She had “landed” in a family with an array of forebears who exulted in ideas, reading, writing, and publishing. Ethel’s great-great grandfather had founded TheYouth’s Companion; her grandmother was an early best-selling author and woman’s columnist; and her uncle, a well-known biographer, lecturer and essayist. Breathing in that atmosphere, Ethel made it her own and would shape her own perceptions and loves from the rich material. Ethel’s own contribution would be with children’s literature. And for this outcome, place—her own New England seaport town and the people who dwelt in it—would supply a wealth of ingredients to the books she became best known for.
It was in Newburyport, Massachusetts that Ethel, orphaned very early in life, was brought up; first, by the writer-grandmother, (known by her pen name, “Fanny Fern”); later, by her aunt Ellen and her uncle, James Parton. “Never for a moment was I allowed to feel myself an orphan....I had a most happy childhood,” she affirmed. Home-taught until age 11 by the gifted James Parton, Ethel relished the moment she was given free use of his library. She next attended “the remarkable school of Jane Andrews, writer of books for children.” When Ethel graduated from high school (Putnam Free School) in 1880, there was opportunity for college. But young Miss Parton declined it in favor of the educationally rich environment offered by working at home with her Uncle James. She acted as his secretary, literary assistant and sometimes as writing collaborator.
Already in high school, Ethel was composing articles for the Youth’s Companion. As an adult, and a member of its editorial staff for the next forty and more years, she contributed verses and stories both to it and to St Nicholas. Only in later life, after she left Youth’s Companion, did Ethel find time to write in the longer format of books. “I found it was for children I most wished to write.” Thus, Ethel Parton’s first book did not appear until she was nearly 70, and through the next decade, eight more titles came out. Though her first book was one of stories set in Ancient Greece, she says of her later books:
I turned to the city where I live, whose history and traditions I have absorbed...from living lips, as they are passed down, even today, in fine old deeply rooted families. I have been able to weave into a fictional narrative also many true incidents told me by my aunt and grandmother, in the days when I used to beg for a “when-you-were-a-little-girl” story.
Melissa Ann, then Tabitha Mary, next Penelope Ellen, and yet others formed a group of well-researched, though fictional accounts, that came to be called The Newburyport Chronicles. These books, each weaving its story set in a particular historical period of Newburyport in the 1800s, became well-known and loved when they were published during the 1930s. Gentle humor glistens across them all. Miss Parton said of all these books:
I find thinking of the ways and feelings of children brings my childhood back to me. This gives me a warm comradely feeling with my own book-children so that when they have fun, I have fun too. It is like getting away from grown-ups and being all of an age together.
Ethel Parton was able, especially through the child’s eye and times of these books, to invite both children and adults memorably into that world. Miss Parton died in February, 1944