MANCHESTER -- Sometimes they arrive like the mythical thunderbolts from Mt. Olympus. Sometimes it takes a cocktail on a warm summer evening. Ideas for books happen when they happen, and in the case of John Demos, the Samuel Knight Professor Emeritus at Yale University, the summer cocktail was the catalyst. A conversation while visiting a friend in Cornwall, Conn. nearly 20 years ago turned to a long neglected and nearly forgotten chapter in the town's history.

In 1816, an unusual school whose purpose was to educate "heathen youth" opened its doors. Formally known as the Foreign Mission School, it was intended to bring all manner of non-Christian young men from Hawaii, the Pacific Islands, and China, along with Native Americans and some European Jews -- to be educated for their eventual return to their homelands where they would spread the word of Christian civilizing virtues.

At last year’s Booktopia, author Nichole Bernier led a discussion about a new book she had written last year, "The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth
At last year's Booktopia, author Nichole Bernier led a discussion about a new book she had written last year, "The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D." (Andrew McKeever photo)
While there were already other schools at that time designed to inculcate those virtues to one specific group of "heathens" or another, the one in Cornwall was the first to take a "melting pot" approach. Ultimately, it failed after a few years, engulfed in a scandal, when two of the students -- Cherokee Indians -- married two local women. That was anathema in 1820s America, and the school folded.

One of the takeaways the Protestant missionary movement gleaned from the experience was that it might be more effective to go to where "the heathens" lived, and teach them there, rather than trying to bring them here, Professor Demos said.

"This was a small story that tells us quite a bit about America's growth and development," he said.


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"If I hadn't gone to dinner that evening it never would have happened."

The school provides a platform for Professor Demos to explore some of the grand themes of American history, such as the nation's sense of itself -- right from its very beginnings -- as an "exceptional" place with a mission to spread and share its blessings with those elsewhere. Part of that impulse was noble, and parts of it proved more negative, he said.

Demos will be discussing his latest book at this weekend's "Booktopia," an annual gathering of writers and readers held each year at the Northshire Bookstore since 2011. He will be joined by six other authors who will also be discussing and leading workshops on books and writing with 90 attendees. The four-day long event begins Thursday, April 10, and runs through until Sunday. Most of the events are closed to the public -- the 90 available slots were claimed within 6 minutes when tickets went for sale online -- but a discussion planned for Saturday night, where all seven authors will discuss their books and take questions -- is open to the public. It starts at 6 p.m. at the Northshire Bookstore. A second event on Sunday morning is also open to the public.

"Booktopia" grew out of a podcast called "Books on a Nightstand" that the two co-founders, Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman, sales representatives with Random House, had started. The idea was so well received that the pair thought it would be fun to organize a weekend retreat to bring together authors and readers, Kindness said.

Both were familiar with Manchester and the bookstore and thought it was the perfect spot for such a gathering, he said.

"It's a way for us to bring together authors that we like and that we think our listeners will enjoy meeting and talking to," he said. "We really intend for it to be an interactive weekend and not just a weekend for presentations."

The main criteria for selection are authors that have something new out and something that both Kindness and Kingman have read and enjoyed, he said.

A wide range of books and their authors will be circulating across the various events, some of which will be held at the nearby Inn at Manchester. The authors include, in addition to Demos, Gail Caldwell, the author of "New Life, No Instructions: A Memoir"; Kelly Corrigan, the author of "Glitter and Glue: A Memoir"; P.S. Duffy, author of "The Cartographer of No Man's Land"; Bruce Holsinger, the author of "A Burnable Book"; Rupert Thompson, author of "Secrecy"; and Jennifer McMahon, author of "Winter People," a mystery tale set in Vermont.

Even the staff at the Northshire Bookstore looks forward to the event, said Mary Allen, their director of events and publicity.

"It's exciting to be hosting Booktopia again," she said. "There's nothing like it -- bringing such a passionate group of readers and writers and so many talented writers into the store in one fell swoop is an amazing shot in the arm after a long winter."

While the fortunate 90 attendees will have multiple opportunities to corner writers and quiz them as to how their books came to be, the public forum Saturday night also offers those chances. After they finish their individual presentations, the authors are usually approachable for queries.

On Sunday, April 13, there will be an additional workshop -- Reading Like a Writer -- that will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to noon. Author Steve Himmer will lead a discussion on learning to think about plot, structure, characterizations and more, while reading.

For those who were shut out of the Booktopia event this time, there are two others scheduled later this year, one in Boulder, Colo. and the other in Asheville, N.C.

"We're always trying to balance fiction, non-fiction, and male and female writers -- trying to get a good mix," Kindness said. "No matter who comes to Booktopia they're going to find some good authors to connect with."

For more information, call the bookstore at 802-362-2200, or visit their website at northshire.com.