By Andrew McKeever, Manchester Journal

MANCHESTER -- Ideas for books happen when they happen. For John Demos, the Sam uel Knight Professor Emeritus at Yale University, it took a cocktail on a warm summer evening.

A conversation before dinner while visiting a friend in Corn wall, Conn., nearly 20 years ago, turned to a long-neglected and nearly forgotten chapter in the town's history, which seized Demos' imagination.

In 1816, an unusual school, whose purpose was to educate "heathen youth," opened its doors in the quiet New England village. 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 American Indians and some European Jews -- to be educated for their eventual return to their homelands, where they would spread the word of Christian civilizing virtues. While there were al ready 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 Cherokee students married two local women. That was anathema in 1820s Amer ica, and the school folded.

The Protestant missionary movement changed its model to teach its prospective students where they lived, instead of bringing them here, Demos said.

"This was a small story that tells us quite a bit about America's growth and development," he said. "If I hadn't gone to dinner that evening, it never would have happened.


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The school lets Demos ex plore some of the grand themes of American history, such as the nation's sense of itself from its 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 discuss his latest book at this weekend's Book topia, an annual gathering of writers and readers held each year at the Northshire Book store since 2011. He will join six other authors, who will also discuss and lead workshops on books and writing with 90 attendees.

The four-day-long event be gins today and runs through Sun day, April 13. Most of the events are sold out -- but a discussion plan ned for Saturday night, where all seven authors will discuss their books and take questions, is still open. It starts at 6 p.m. at the Northshire Book store. A second event on Sunday morning is also open to the public.

Booktopia grew out of a podcast, "Books on a Nightstand," that the two co-founders, Mic hael Kindness and Ann King man, sales representatives with Random House, started together. The idea was so well-re ceived the pair thought it would be fun to organize a weekend retreat to bring together auth ors and readers, Kindness said.

Both were familiar with Man chester 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 we like, and 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 who have something new out -- something both Kindness and Kingman have read and enjoyed, he said.

A wide range of books and their authors will circulate across the various events, some of which will be held at the nearby Inn at Manchester.

The authors in clude, along with Demos, Gail Caldwell, the auth or of "New Life, No In struc tions: A Memoir"; Kelly Cor rigan, the author of "Glitter and Glue: A Memoir"; P.S. Duffy, author of "The Carto grapher of No Man's Land"; Bruce Hol singer, the auth or of "A Burnable Book"; Rupert Thompson, author of "Secrecy"; and Jen ni fer Mc M ahon, author of "Winter Peo ple," a mystery tale set in Vermont.

The staff at the Northshire Bookstore looks forward to the event, said Mary Allen, its 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 many 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, an additional work shop -- Reading Like a Writer -- will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to noon. 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." If you go ...

What: Booktopia -- discussion and Q&A with all seven authors

When: 6 p.m. Saturday, April 12

Where: Northshire Bookstore, Manchester

What: Workshop -- ‘Reading Like a Writer.'

Steve Himmer will lead a discussion on learning to think about plot, structure, characterizations and more, while reading. Open to the public.

When: 10 a.m. to noon Sunday

Where: Northshire Bookstore

Information: (802) 362-2200, or northshire.com