Brattleboro, by way of Italy, gets graphic treatment

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GENOA, ITALY — Italian writer Andrea Fontana was browsing on Google Maps for a place to set his graphic novel, "Clara e le Ombre," when he stumbled upon Brattleboro.

"I needed a place in the United States where there was a river, a forest. A place where the colors of autumn were particularly bright and where it snowed in winter. It was not supposed to be a big city but a small town," Fontana said in an email from his home in Genoa, a seaside city on the northwest coast of Italy.

When navigating the online map, he said he started from New York, moved west, then north. He found the Madame Sherri Forest, and west of the Connecticut River, "a little town: Brattleboro." He used Google Street View to simulate walking the streets.

"I discovered Brattleboro by accident, browsing on Google Maps, and it was immediately love," said Fontana, 39.

He still dreams of visiting the town in person, but his book, set in Brattleboro in the 1980s, was published in Italy on May 28. Its illustrations, by Italian artist Claudia Petrazzi, introduce overseas readers to Brattleboro through depictions of residential neighborhoods as well as landmarks such as the Latchis Theatre, the Creamery Covered Bridge and Brattleboro Area Middle School.

Petrazzi, 35, is a freelance illustrator and cartoonist in Arezzo, a city near Florence. She said she got a feel for the town through photographs sent by locals and online research, including "walks" via Google Street View.

"While doing this, I fell in love with your city and Vermont," she said in an email, complimenting the autumn colors and architecture. "I was a little scared of missing the '80s atmosphere of Brattleboro, but tried to do my best to make the main buildings look like they were in that period."

"Clara e le Ombre," which translates from Italian to "Clara and the Shadows," tells the story of Clara, a shy girl who has just moved from New York to Brattleboro after her mother left the family without explanation. Clara, who suffers from "a slight form of epilepsy," Fontana said, is targeted by some bullies at school. Soon, some of the boys begin to disappear. The police suspect a serial killer, but the reality, according to Fontana, "is much more complicated and mysterious."

"It is a story for children that can very well be read by adults, a story of education that tells the fragility, the emotional void, the difficulties of a particular period such as adolescence, the need to find handholds outside the family," Fontana said.

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Among the first to purchase the book was Ellen Kryger Fantini, a Brattleboro native now living in Vienna, Austria. She said she ordered the book via Amazon in Italy after she and her husband, Mario, learned about it from "Brattleboro, Vermont," a public group on Facebook. Fantini and her husband both graduated from Brattleboro Union High school in the '80s, when the book is set.

"We were intrigued for many reasons — particularly the unusual story of an Italian author writing about our hometown without having been there, as well as the graphic novel format and the incredible illustrations," Fantini said in an email.

Fantini describes herself as a beginner in Italian, and said she thought the book would be a great way for her to practice reading the language.

"Graphic novels are a perfect format for this because the reader can figure out a lot of what's going on, even with a limited vocabulary," she said.

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She also bought a copy of "Clara e le Ombre" for members of her family in Italy who had a chance to visit Brattleboro years ago.

"I have just started reading it and find the story compelling — and the illustrations are such a comfort during these strange times when we're so far away because they're so familiar and evocative of a place we love," she said.

While researching Brattleboro, Fontana corresponded with several residents, who told him stories, shared photographs and artwork and explained to him how the town has changed since the 1980s.

"What fascinated me was the intimate dimension in a wonderful context like that of Vermont," he said. "The colors, the seasons, everything seemed simple and unique to me."

Among those who aided in his research was William Hays, who sent images of his own artwork depicting Brattleboro and shared stories about the character of the town. Hays is an artist who moved to town 31 years ago, had a studio downtown for 25 years and also used to run a bed and breakfast, Artist's Loft Bed & Breakfast and Gallery, on Main Street.

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"Since we live in the place that he's writing about, we all have, I'm sure, a completely different picture, but it will be very interesting to see the one he paints," Hays said.

Mary White, a Brattleboro resident for 20 years, describes herself as having been a "cheerleader" for Fontana's project since he first started sharing his progress via the Brattleboro Facebook group. She said she took photos of some of the sites illustrated in the book to assist with marketing.

"I think it's fabulous," she said of Fontana's choice of Brattleboro for his book's setting. "Most of us think Brattleboro is a great town. It's not perfect — no place is — but I think the vast majority of people here work really hard to make it better and be helpful to others."

White posts her local photography on Instagram, and said she enjoys watching international users admire the town.

"In some ways, I think that gives the locals here the opportunity to view their town with different eyes," she said.

She hopes to see the story of "Clara e le Ombre" translated into English and sold in the United States — an aspiration shared by the author. Fontana said the Spanish rights have been sold.

White envisions a "great, big talk" at the Brooks Memorial Library, where Fontana would discuss his book before a local audience.

"I know if that should ever happen, Brattleboro would welcome him with open arms," she said.


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