The Historical Literary Treasures of Penguin Hall

Have you ever become so enraptured by a book that you forget where you are? You look up, blink and can’t tell how much time has passed. It feels as though the very words in the pages you’ve read were happening in reality–that you became part of the story itself. 

For Penguin Hall juniors, that’s exactly what happened in Mr. Williams’ Global Literature class. 

“Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a novel about two teens taken from their families and sent for ‘re-education’ in Maoist China (a story informed by the author’s own experience during the Chinese Cultural Revolution).” described Mr. Williams. “In a time when most books other than Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book had been banned or even burned in the streets, the two youths discover a hidden stash of forbidden Western classics by authors such as Balzac, Hugo, Stendahl, Dumas, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Rolland, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Kipling, Emily Bronte, and Melville. Too bad we can’t take a field trip to a library with old collections of these landmark literary works…”

Except, they did! 

When The Academy at Penguin Hall was founded in 2015, the stone manor house nestled in sweeping lawns and woods in Wenham, MA was chosen as its building. Built in 1929, it was the original summer home of Ruby Boyer Miller, a progressive-minded Detroit socialite. When the building was purchased in 2016, renovations began. When the basement was being cleaned, a vast collection of books were stumbled upon in the basement. Dusted off, the old books were placed on the shelves of Penguin Hall’s library where you can see them displayed today. 

Armed with a list of authors and books, students raced to APH’s own Gothic library and the Excellere room on a scavenger hunt assigned by Mr. Williams. Standing on chairs and crouching on their knees, students browsed high and low and the almost faded titles of the very old book collection. With one resounding “gasp!” after another, books were being pulled from the shelves. 

“I found a Tolstoy!” “Is this a first edition?” “I think I see one by Emily Bronte!” One by one, the books from their current literary work of study materialized before the students’ eyes. 

“They eventually found works by almost every author on the roster, with some volumes even dating back to the nineteenth century!” described Mr. Williams. Students, who were also studying French, read aloud to the class Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo in its original language. Among the literary goldmine was a twenty-volume German translation of works by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. 

Like the melody of a song, the enjoyment of a good meal, or the feeling of warm sunshine, the love of books is just as universal. While language can be a barrier in most cases, there’s a familiar wonder that still unfolds as you step into the pages of history. The same novels that were devoured by hungry readers a hundred years ago, feed us today. 

“It’s easy to fall under the spell of old books (like the characters in our novel),” says Mr. Williams. “and APH has its own share of hidden treasures!”

At Penguin Hall, students go far beyond just learning content to learning and applying that content in innovative ways in and beyond the classroom.Giving our faculty the freedom to develop meaningful, relevant curriculum, and our young women the opportunity to delve deeply into that coursework, is at the heart of our mission to enlighten and empower students as they prepare for college study.