PEABODY — Standing before the paintings of Marblehead’s J.O.J. Frost, librarian Priscilla Moulton was inspired with the idea for a book.
“At the time, I was working with children and especially children’s picture books. ... I could see (Frost’s paintings) going into a picture book,” she said.
Formerly a Marblehead resident for 50-plus years — she now lives in Peabody’s Brooksby Village — Moulton wanted to tell the story of the town’s fishermen struggling to make a living on the Grand Banks and to tell it in a way that kids could understand. In addition, it was only natural to somehow incorporate Frost’s own recollections of a brief career fishing in the late 1800s. Like the paintings, this material had been stored by the Marblehead Historical Society.
Working at the Lee Mansion, Moulton typed a copy of it on an old portable typewriter. She also recorded the papers of other 19th-century fishermen, again painstakingly typing them.
Once she gathered her research material, she formulated a story, even testing it on receptive fifth-graders at Swampscott’s Hadley School.
Moulton could not use a copy machine for her research, said her daughter and co-author Bethe Moulton. This happened before copy machines were in common use, half a century ago in 1961. But if such obstacles couldn’t stop Priscilla Moulton, something else did. As a young mother with two children, and a librarian in the Swampscott and then the Brookline schools, time got away from her.
“And it was really difficult for me to find a way to configure all these stories,” Moulton said, “... and relate them appropriately to the Frost paintings.”
Six years ago, when Moulton moved to Peabody, her family came across the materials, along with the never-finished book.
“Well, I guess this goes to the trash heap,” she said then.
Not so fast, said Bethe Moulton. A business consultant with degrees from Cornell and Harvard Business School, she saw possibilities and went to work. Using her mother’s story concept, she returned to her Florida home with her mother’s papers and fashioned a story of a fictional Marblehead fisherman’s first time at sea.
Which is all to explain how Priscilla Moulton, at age 89, is a first-time author, sharing the byline with her daughter.
“Molly Waldo” is due out this fall, with every sale to benefit the Marblehead Museum and Historical Society, which authorized the use of eight full-sized color reproductions of J.O.J. Frost’s paintings, along with details, in black and white, from several others.
Originally, the book was aimed at young children, but reflecting on the often-tragic and hard quality of the fisherman’s life, it’s since been decided that this is a tale best-suited for young adults.
“It was a rugged life,” Bethe Moulton said.
“It’s a very mature subject,” added Priscilla Moulton.
While some see Frost’s paintings as childish, the tough, dangerous world of Marblehead fishermen was anything but, and for those who look closely, the paintings sometimes portray a town and an occupation stalked by sudden, random death.
Frost’s work is often dismissed as lacking perspective and skill. But he never held himself out as an artist, Priscilla Moulton said. He wanted to document the world he knew, and he did it with a straightforward honesty that despite his limitations shines through, particularly in his depiction of the Grand Banks gale of 1846, which killed 66 men and boys.
“The paintings have a very special power,” Moulton said.
“I do not view them as great works of art,” Bethe Moulton said. “I do view them as paintings that capture the story of a time that was already past when he did them. Each captured in a tangible way what the town looked like and felt like. ... Frost paintings are primitive, but I think they are powerful.”
The title “Molly Waldo” can be traced to the unique language of Marbleheaders.
“It was a shout of joy used by Marblehead fishermen,” Bethe Moulton said.
After months at sea, when one Marblehead boatman spotted the sails of another, he would shout, “Bodgo!” a word of uncertain origin. The response would be, “Molly Waldo!”
“Molly Waldo” the book will also be available, paintings and all, as an e-book.
Staff writer Alan Burke can be reached at email@example.com.