Dr. Virginia Hamilton. In 1952, the doctor helped pull a heavily pregnant patient 4 miles to the hospital in Bath on a toboggan because the road to the patient’s house hadn’t yet been plowed after a blizzard. Photo courtesy of Mid Coast Hospital, Brunswick

Actor Morgan Bailey Keaton never met her paternal grandmother. The lady in question, Virginia Hamilton, died in 1981, before Keaton was born. Keaton didn’t hear many family stories about her grandmother, either, although Hamilton was an unusually accomplished woman for her time.

So when Keaton had the opportunity to record the audiobook of Maine writer Cathie Pelletier’s nonfiction work “Northeaster,” in which her grandmother plays a minor role, she leapt at the chance. “This is just such a gift-wrapped opportunity for me,” Keaton, an experienced voiceover and dubbing actor, said during a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles.

Courtesy of Tantor

That audio recording was released in December. The book, which first came out a year ago, chronicles the impact of a real-life blizzard in 1952 on the lives of Mainers. It focuses on the stories of several people whose experiences in that storm were particularly dramatic, among them a heavily pregnant woman in Bath who was unable to get to the hospital to have her baby because of the towering snow drifts. The woman’s doctor was Virginia Hamilton.

In fact, it was the story of Hazel Tardiff’s singular trip to Bath Memorial that sparked “Northeaster” in the first place. Pelletier has said she was intrigued by a newspaper photograph she stumbled across that showed the 9-months-pregnant Tardiff being pulled to the hospital on a toboggan. A nurse, a Bath city councilor and Dr. Hamilton, all three in snowshoes, pulled her 4 miles through the deep snow. Pelletier, who is well-known for her many novels, began researching the storm, and ultimately wrote a book about it.

It was also one of the few family stories that Keaton already knew about her grandmother. “I mean, who wouldn’t want to tell that story?” she said. “That’s not just a great story, but that’s such dedication to your work.”

Keaton was aware of the book before it was published. Her aunt, Anne Benaquist – Dr. Hamilton’s daughter – was among the many people Pelletier interviewed while doing research, and she’d been keeping her niece apprised of the book’s progress. At some point, Benaquist mentioned the audiobook rights to Keaton. “Audiobook, you say?” Keaton perked up her ears. She’d long wanted to get into audiobooks, and for other reasons, too, the timing was impeccable.


Keaton’s father had died suddenly when she was just 13. “It got cut off,” Keaton, 35, said of a nascent adult relationship with her father. “And so this book – I’m in a phase of life where it’s become really important to me to forge more of a connection with my dad’s family. It’s always been there. But they are not getting any younger, and they are the only connections I have to all of these amazing memories, and so when this audiobook came up, it was just amazing timing.”

Actor Morgan Bailey Keaton in the L.A. studio where she recorded Maine writer Cathie Pelletier’s “Northeaster.” Keaton is the granddaughter of one of the characters in the book, which is about a blizzard in Maine in 1952. Photo by Ben Wise

There was just one problem: Keaton had never recorded an audiobook. Undaunted, she sent a “really barebones email” to Tantor Media, the company that had acquired the rights to record “Northeaster.”

“I just said, ‘Hi. My grandmother is in this book. Nice to meet you,’ ” Keaton recalled. ” ‘My website is below. You can hear my voice there.’ I just figured I wasn’t going to get it.”

A few months later, without so much as an audition, she landed the gig.

Keaton didn’t know it at the time, but she had an important ace in the hole: Pelletier. “Can you believe this?!” Pelletier thought to herself when she learned that Hamilton’s granddaughter was an actor and, moreover, that she wanted to narrate “Northeaster.” “My god, the granddaughter of one of the supporting characters, unforgettable characters, in the book?! What an opportunity for the book. And just what a nice thing to do to honor the grandmother.”

Dr. Virginia Hamilton first appears in “Northeaster” a few pages in – in two sentences about when she expects the Tardiff baby to enter the world. For most of the book, she appears only briefly and sporadically. But about two-thirds of the way through, Pelletier devotes several pages to the seriously impressive Hamilton, a graduate of Cornell University Medical College at a time when just 6 percent of doctors in the United States were women.


According to Pelletier’s account, Hamilton grew up in Kentucky, a daughter of privilege. She came to Maine with her husband, Boyd Bailey, when he took a job with the state as an assistant attorney general. She established a medical practice in Bath (while raising two children), and, unusually for the time, she practiced under her maiden name. (Newspaper accounts in the 1950s refer to her sometimes as Dr. Virginia Hamilton and sometimes as Mrs. Boyd Bailey.)

Pelletier has an eye for the telling detail: She describes Hamilton’s desk (which once belonged to Kentucky statesman Henry Clay), her wedding outfit (its British designer is mentioned by the fictional Countess of Grantham Cora Crawley in an episode of “Downton Abbey”), her smoking habit, her sometimes peculiar fashion sense and, “most importantly,” her patients’ respect for her – “they trusted her to deliver their babies,” Pelletier writes. Hamilton delivered “a ton of babies,” Pelletier wrote in an email.

Like her grandmother, Keaton was born and raised in Kentucky. And though on the surface, their lives seem quite different – one, a doctor practicing in a small town in Maine in the 1950s and, the other, a 21st-century video game/TV show voiceover actor in cosmopolitan Los Angeles – Keaton sees a parallel: Both careers require moxie. Her grandmother had the grit and enterprise to become a doctor at a time most American women were constrained to be housewives. Acting, Keaton said, takes a different sort of courage: Performers must cope with erratic incomes and constant auditions, she said, “putting ourselves out there vulnerably on a daily basis.”

Pelletier can spin stories for hours about the network of links that “Northeaster” has engendered. Everywhere she goes, actually and virtually, she encounters babies that Dr. Hamilton delivered and children, grandchildren, cousins, employees and many others with surprising ties to the Mainers she wrote about in the book.

“I have always wanted to feel connected and to find those little gems here and there,” she said. “You don’t find that in fiction writing very much. We aren’t just chess pieces on a board. We collide now and then.”

She hasn’t yet listened to the audiobook of “Northeaster.” Many of her books have been recorded before. She never listens to any of them. The characters don’t sound on the audio the way she hears them in her head. “I can’t bear it,” she said. This book, though, she intends to listen to, and not because it got a good review from AudioFile. “It’s Dr. Hamilton’s granddaughter,” Pelletier said. “I told her I would.”

Keaton has never experienced a northeaster in Maine. As a girl, she visited Maine every summer with her parents, where she experienced, she laughed, “mosquitoes!” But she hadn’t been back to the state since her father’s death until last summer, when she went to see the house in Bath where her grandparents lived and where her father grew up. She stayed at her aunt’s cabin in Harpswell, not far from the cottage where her grandparents retired in 1962. She marveled at herons and splashed in tide pools, which “really awoke something in me that I remember from being a kid,” she said. “They are such magical spots.”

Before recording the book, Keaton made a spreadsheet of every single person and place name that appears in it, with detailed notes on accents and pronunciation. (In the end, the audio publisher decided against accents.) The actual recording work, though, took just a week in a studio in L.A. In some ways, Keaton felt, “the stakes were high. I really want to honor this person’s text that they put so many hours into,” she said of Pelletier.

“And then in other ways, it almost felt a bit more comfortable because my family comes from there. I’ve seen some of the places that are in that book, so it felt a little like a homecoming.”

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