BY WES CIPOLLA
Pine scent in the air, snow falling, a loving family and a horse named Nellie. It doesn’t get more seasonal than that.
Sherrill Silberling, retired Pottsville Area High School English teacher, has published “River of Gifts,” a collection of short stories set during Christmas and New Year’s. It is a tribute to what Silberling calls the three Ls — family love, loyalty and laughter — and offered a dose of joy and warmth during an unusually difficult and lonely time.
“The uncertainties of (2020) and the pandemic itself have changed me from a procrastinator to a doer,” Silberling said. “The time for this book felt right.”
Set in Schuylkill County in the 1920s, “River of Gifts” brings to life the family stories that Silberling’s mother, Florence, used to tell her. Her mother died in 2015 at 104.
“Florence was a woman who loved life and approached it with energy,” Silberling said. “Florence remembered frightening and sad and painful experiences. Sometimes she told stories about them, but mostly she chose to remember joy.”
Silberling remembers her mother’s Welsh cooking — roast turkey, coleslaw, filling and homemade pie. Florence also made potato kugel and rice pudding for her Jewish husband every Hanukkah.
“The setting is as true as I could make it, reconstructed from research and details my mother remembered and shared with me,” Silberling said. “The schoolhouse description, the coal stove, the fruit trees, the layout of the house and its furniture.”
“River of Gifts,” published through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, tells of a family that doesn’t have much but loves each other enough to make up for it. It takes place during childhood, a time where every sight, smell and taste is magical and larger than life.
“Several (readers) have told me they wanted to be one of those children,” Silberling said. “I used to teach my students that readers bring to literature something of themselves and their own experiences. In the past few weeks, I am seeing evidence of that lesson.”
Silberling described the stories as a “combination of fiction, memoir, historical fact and fantasy” and “truth as (Florence) remembered it.”
“Memories are shaded, I think, as a result of later experiences we have,” Silberling said. “Perhaps none of us really know how accurate our memories are. However, the final story seemed a clear and constant memory, as did the descriptions of (Florence’s) childhood home and surroundings.”
The book also is based on the history and heritage of Schuylkill County, where Silberling has lived for her entire life. One story describes falling into “the charcoal-colored waters” of the Schuylkill River in winter.
“I have experienced the goodness of its people and the beauty of its scenery,” she said.
Her great-grandfather died in a mining accident when her grandfather was a baby, and her grandfather’s only brother died in the mines when he was a teenager.
The book also includes illustrations from local artist JoAnne Doyle, done in pen and ink to represent the simplicity of the family’s lifestyle. Because of COVID-19, Doyle and Silberling collaborated without ever meeting in person.
“There were a lot of trials and errors and back-and-forth communication until final results were achieved,” Doyle said.
Silberling’s former coworkers, Pat Hauptly Kramer of Reading and Cindy Barto Lucia of New York, also contributed. Silberling’s childhood friend, Donna Schultz Van Fleet, who lives in Texas, edited the book. Retired PAHS math teacher Don Schneider of Minersville designed the cover.
The title was the finishing touch, coming to Silberling near the end of the writing process.
“Once I had it, I knew it was what I wanted,” she said. “Each of the four stories is about gifts — tangible and intangible. Within the stories are also small gifts that can be almost overlooked like the extra candy from the store owner and the dry blanket from the rescuer. During this time of unrest and COVID-19, gifts keep flowing — sunny days, delicious fruit crops, spectacular foliage, electronic connections with friends and family. Gifts just keep coming. They flow like a river. The Schuylkill, of course.”
“River of Gifts” is available on Amazon and at the Schuylkill County Historical Society in Pottsville, the Pottsville Free Public Library and the Arts Barn in Orwigsburg.
‘River of Gifts’
- Author: Sherrill Silberling
- Publisher: Sherrill Silberling/Kindle Direct Publishing
- Pages: 50
- Price: $9.99
- Find it: Amazon; Schuylkill County Historical Society, Pottsville; Pottsville Free Public Library; and the Arts Barn, Orwigsburg