Book review: 'Billy Budd in the Breadbox' is a collectible gem

One of our greatest Berkshire treasures is Herman Melville, who wrote what is perhaps the greatest American novel, "Moby-Dick," right at Arrowhead on Holmes Road in Pittsfield. But we may never have appreciated the genius of this famous work of literature if it hadn't been for Melville's granddaughter Eleanor, who discovered his last work, "Billy Budd, Foretopman" many years after his death. The mystery of that tale, of how and where it was discovered, is as much a life story as that of any Melville character. When she expedited the publishing of her beloved grandfather's final work, it was immediately recognized as very special. It was this discovery and publication that led scholars and readers to how important his monumental work, "Moby-Dick," really is.

Now we have the whole heart-felt story behind this extraordinary turn of events in the young reader novel, "Billy Budd in the Breadbox — The Story of Herman Melville and Eleanor,: by the first-ever Writer-In-Residence at Arrowhead, Jana Laiz. What is more, Laiz penned the story in Herman Melville's study, sitting at his own desk, the only one to write at this desk since Melville left Arrowhead in 1863.

"Billy Budd in the Breadbox" is a wonderful novel for kids for what it can tell us about a great American author and his story, but also in the way it weaves plot and mystery and the accurate way it portrays characters of multiple generations. There is a clear psychological portrait through the developing mind of the main character, Eleanor, but also for Melville himself and his wife, Elizabeth, who was very caring, but powerful in her ways of managing the difficult man's life of writing, always protective of his well-being, even if it seemed she may have been stern in her manner.

The tale is structured around Eleanor's visits from New Jersey to her grandfather's townhouse in New York. She is spellbound by his genius, proud of him, and clearly a progeny of the great man as she herself aspires to a scholarly life and a life of writing. Through their close relationship and Eleanor's inquisitive mind, the novel reveals the complex and tragic state Herman Melville experienced at the end of his life because of the failure of his later work in that era.

"Billy Budd in the Breadbox" is illustrated by the Irish artist Declan Kerr, whose well-placed and charming depictions of key parts of the story make this book even more of a must-have volume. This unique book is a collectable gem, a resource of fun reading and knowledge, worthy to have in any book collection. This is a book for generations, to pick up and read aloud with the children, or for kids to tuck in with for an inspirational read. The main character is a perfect role-model and true to the point of view of her age.

The Bookstore and The Lenox Library will present Laiz and the Berkshire Theater Group play adaptation of "Billy Budd in the Breadbox" by Travis Daly with Ralph Petillo as Herman Melville at 7 p.m. Friday, May 11, at The Lenox Library. Readers of all ages are encouraged to attend. "Billy Budd in the Breadbox" will be available for purchase and signing. The event is free and open to the public.

Colin Harrington is the events manager at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox. He welcomes reader comments at

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"Billy Budd in the Breadbox: The Story of Herman Melville and Eleanor"

By Jana Laiz

Illustrations by Declan Kerr

Publisher: Crow Flies Press, South Egremont, Mass.

136 Pages