Greenbackville Resident Shifts Creative Energy from Music to Writing

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Author Gwendolyn Skeens holds a copy of her first novel, “Last Chance,” at the Book Bin in Onley on Monday, Aug. 23. Photo by Carol Vaughn.

By Carol Vaughn —

Gwendolyn Morey Skeens, best known on the Eastern Shore for her musical talent, is turning her creativity to a different art form — the novel.

Skeens taught music in Baltimore County, Md., schools for three decades before moving to Greenbackville in 2001.

She was commissioned to compose the music for “Piece of Eden,” a musical recounting Virginia’s history from 1618 to 1776 that was performed several times at the Historic Palace Theater in Cape Charles.

Another musical she adapted from O.Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” was performed at the Palace Theater in November 2019.

“The Season for Sharing,” a Christmas song Skeens composed, became the theme for Cokesbury Church’s Christmas concerts for a number of years, and her song, “God’s Vision,” was selected in 2003 for the Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women in Louisville, Ky., where it was sung by more than 5,000 women from around the world.

She also created several musical adaptations of literary works for young performers — starting with her own students — including among other works Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” and “Tom Sawyer.”

Both musicals were published by Shawnee Press and performed at the Kennedy Center under the auspices of Opera for Youth.

Skeens, former director of The Society for Early Music in Baltimore, also sang professionally and is a skilled player of the recorder.

Now Skeens, who will turn 80 in September, has written a book.

“As a career music teacher, writing a book was a far stretch,” she said.

Still, she always was drawn to writing both lyrics and poetry, so writing itself is not new to her.

Skeens hopes others will be inspired by her example to follow their creative urges in whatever directions they may lead.

“I’ve never thought that I would ever get wealthy on any of this. I mean, you just don’t — and it’s not important. It’s more important to get it out there. I guess that’s one of the things I would say to people,” she said.

Skeens published her first novel, “Last Chance,” last year and already has plans for a sequel.

The book is set on the Eastern Shore.

It is illustrated by Clelia Cardano Sheppard, of Cape Charles.

Skeens got the idea while driving down Route 12, through acres and acres of farmland.

“It was like an epiphany. Looking out over the fields I thought, now wait a minute — I have lived here for 20 years. … I could really appreciate the farmland, the work that goes into it, watching the farmers with their combines and the different pieces of equipment that they have. And I thought, come on, I have absorbed a lot of this and I think I’ve got a story,” she said.

Her protagonist, Parker Lee Brantley, raised on a farm on the Shore, hopes to pursue an engineering career after graduating high school, but his father’s untimely death leaves him responsible for running the family farm at age 19.

Skeens worked her love of music into developing the character — Parker was a member of his high school band and was influenced by his music teacher to love music. He continues to play the French horn at night after the farm work is done and is invited to play at the Christmas Eve church service, where he becomes reacquainted with Mary Louise Custis, a high school crush who is a descendant of the Shore’s historic Custis family. Now a museum curator living in New York City, she has come home for the holiday.

The two young people, living in such different worlds, stretch each other to grow and reach their goals.

Other characters include members of a Latino immigrant family who help Parker on the farm and become extended family for the young man, left alone with his dog after his mother also passes away.

Skeens during an interview spoke about her characters as though they are flesh and blood, perhaps neighbors or acquaintances.

“This is just exactly what I think the book was all about. It came out of everything that I’ve absorbed,” she said.

In comments made about the book online, people said the story and the characters felt familiar to them.

“…(T)he scenery is in my neck of the woods and the names are so familiar. I seem to know the characters but in reality I don’t,” wrote one commenter.

“Last Chance” is for sale at the Book Bin in Onley, Sundial Books on Chincoteague, Lemon Tree Gallery in Cape Charles, and Greyhound Bookstore in Berlin, Md., and online at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com

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