Sean Stone hasn't had an easy life. Within his family, the Monomoy Regional High School sophomore has been exposed to abuse, violence and addiction.
He found an unlikely mentor to guide him through these difficulties and help point him on a path toward a career: Sherlock Holmes.
The fictional detective, Stone said, “gave me a sense of hope,” partly because even though he solves seemingly impossible crimes using deduction and his rapier-sharp intellect, Holmes is also flawed and battling his own demons, including addiction.
“That hit close to home,” said Stone, whose older brothers battled substance abuse.
Stone, a Harwich resident, revealed these details in a letter to Holmes' creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, written as a class assignment for Karen Kelley's English language arts class. As she does every year, Kelley submitted the letter, along with those of Stones' classmates, to the “Letters About Literature” contest, a national competition sponsored by the Library of Congress. The Massachusetts Center for the Book runs the state level version of the contest, and Stone and three of his fellow Monomoy students were recognized last month for their letters, written to authors – living or dead – whose books have influenced them.
Stone's letter was one of 10 in the state chosen for top honors. Three other Monomoy sophomores – Veronica Simundson of Harwich, Ryan Neiser of Chatham and Ted Clifford of Barnstable – were named semi-finalists. Simundson wrote her letter to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling; Neiser wrote to William Golding about his book “Lord of the Flies;” and Clifford wrote to Beatrix Potter about her Peter Rabbit books.
Kelley said she's had her students write letters to favorite authors for the contest since she first found out about it, through the Brooks Free Library, in 2001. Several of her past Harwich High School students have also finished at the top of the state contest. Students can choose any book or author, as long it is one that has resonated with them; over the years kids have written to authors as disparate as J.D. Salinger and Dr. Seuss.
“In this age of technology, it's nice to know they're still reading,” she said.
Stone recalls being 6 or 7 years old when his stepmother gave him the Holmes short story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.”
“I just got hooked immediately,” he said during an interview last week. “Sherlock really became a hero to me.” He took the hero's characteristics to heart. “I've been trying to become more like him.”
In his letter to Doyle, Stone writes about the difficulties in his life and about how he just couldn't idolize the sports figures and celebrities that other kids looked up to.
“I only ever found truly good people, ones I could earnestly look up to, in books; reading was my escape,” he wrote.
Doyle's stories helped him understand addiction and how even good, smart people can get locked into substance abuse. It led him to support his older brothers in their struggle, even when others in the family disowned them.
“I figured that if a great man such as Sherlock Holmes could be susceptible to the allure of mind-altering substances, then surely anyone could suffer the same fate,” he wrote. “I also realized that he had overcome his addiction and gone forward to do great things. Sure, my brothers could do the same. Your books showed me that they could get better, and they did.”
The stories also helped determine his career path. He became interested in the use of science, especially chemistry, to solve crimes, and is now interested in becoming a forensic scientist.
How does he think Doyle would respond to the letter?
“I'd hope he'd be touched that someone connected so deeply and held [Holmes] in such high esteem,” he said. Many writers hope to influence young people, he added, and with him, Doyle certainly succeeded. “I hope he would be proud of that.”
Neiser said he was never much of a reader, but when he was assigned “Lord of the Flies” in English class when he entered the newly created Monomoy High School, he connected with the courage of the character Ralph, who desperately tries to keep the tribes of stranded boys together.
“I needed the courage of Ralph” to get through the initial school merger, Neiser said.
As a child, Clifford's father, who was in the merchant marines, would send home tapes of himself reading books, including the Beatrix Potter stories. They were not only a connect with his father, but also fables that taught him valuable lessons.
“I think she'd be proud that they were so effective,” he said.
(Simundson was not available for the interview.)
This year's Letters About Literature national honor winner also has a local connection. Mark Leschinsky of Mahwah, N.J., wrote to author and Chatham resident Lisa Genova. Her book “Still Alice” him understand his grandmother's Alzheimer's disease. “I understand now my grandma’s everyday struggles and try to help her as much as I can,” he wrote in his winner letter, posted on the contest website. “Your book taught me to be patient and enjoy every day with my grandma. I try to spend as much time with her as I can now. I praise her for things that she can still do and remember...”