By Teresa Winchester
UNADILLA – The evening of April 27 was a trifecta of firsts at the Unadilla Public Library.
Author Shelly Reuben premiered her latest book, “My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree,” reading publicly from her work for the first time. Another first: Reuben incorporated a ferret into the novel, even though she has had seven as pets in her lifetime.
Recalling a 19th century journalistic practice, her novel was previously serialized in The (Norwich) Evening Sun.
Approximately 15 people, joined by librarian Andrea Edwards’ Nigerian dwarf goat Marigold, turned out for the event, which took place on Arbor Day – an appropriate occasion to introduce a story that focuses on trees.
According to Reuben, the trees of Unadilla resonated with the seed of a story already germinating in her imagination.
“I was on my way to Oneonta (and) when I saw the trees in Unadilla, I just had to stop,” Reuben recalled. “I took pictures of the trees and knew they would become the trees in my book.”
Working from Reuben’s photographs, illustrator Ruth McGraw, who, like Reuben, resides part-time in Afton, made numerous pencil drawings for the book.
A unique feature of the book, which Reuben describes as a contemporary fairy tale for children and adults, is its narration by a children’s climbing tree.
“It’s the story of a tree that thrives on the love of children,” Reuben explained, “and what happens to that tree when bureaucrats start denying it the love of children and the tree starts dying.”
Reuben’s tale draws inspiration from her own family, especially her father, who, like the protagonist Sam Swerling, was an inventor.
Born in a city slum, Swerling has never seen trees until being captivated by them on a college campus in his city.
Later, Swerling’s invention of a system that teaches people how to learn Morse code quickly (which Reuben’s father did) makes him a wealthy man.
With his newly acquired fortune, Swerling builds an idyllic park where, according to Reuben’s website, “trees fall in love, eavesdrop on conversations and muse about human nature.”
Reuben read a passage from her book in which Esther, Swerling’s granddaughter, encounters Winston, a homeless ferret. After an amusing introduction, she takes the friendly ferret home to be her pet.
But there is trouble in paradise when City Councilman Jarvis Larchmont, thrown out of the park as a boy for bullying, seeks revenge later in life by attempting to destroy Swerling’s park.
Generations of Swerlings fight City Hall to protect the vision of the park’s creator.
If persistence is a theme in Reuben’s book, it is also one in her life.
Reuben recalled her literary agent saying: “You can’t sell a book with a narrator that’s a tree.”
Nevertheless, Reuben persisted, proving her agent wrong. The stack of “My Mostly Happy Life” available for purchase Friday dwindled as Reuben autographed copy after copy.
Autographing included stamped paw prints of Reuben’s ferret, Homer, also present at the talk.
“She’s a fantastic writer. She makes me cry, because her writing touches your heart,” said Bill Palmer of Roxbury, attending the talk with his wife, Karen.
Karen Palmer added: “It made me laugh and it made me cry. It hit home. (Reuben) has a way of describing things that makes you feel like you’re there.”
“My Mostly Happy Life” represents a break in style for Reuben, who has also penned 10 crime and mystery novels and a collection of short stories entitled “Dabbling in Crime.”
A full-time writer, Reuben plans to start work on her next book after her “My Mostly Happy Life” book tour.
“I have two ideas,” she said. “I’m not yet sure which one I’ll do.”
Reuben continues to write monthly newspaper columns for The (Norwich) Evening Sun and for HuntingtonNews.net.
Information on Reuben and her work is available at shellyreuben.com/wordpress/.
“My Mostly Happy Life” is available at amazon.com, along with her other novels, some of which are also available on audible.com.