BRATTLEBORO—Denise “Jane” Ashworth says she has been writing all her life.
However, the Holton Home resident hasn’t run out of stories to tell or new experiences to try.
Ashworth, who turns 100 in April, held a book release and signing party on Dec. 10 to celebrate her first children’s book, Zoa and the Fawn.
The book tells the story of a Siamese kitten, Zoa, who lives near the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee. One day, as he chases a mouse through a grassy pasture, Zoa bumps into a sleeping fawn named Sable. They quickly become friends and the book follows them both as they grow up.
Ashworth is vision-impaired, but a team effort enabled her to write the book.
Her youngest daughter, Sara Flavell, did the typing from her mother’s notes. Artist Shannon McCarthy did the illustrations, and filmmaker and graphic designer Roger Ingraham managed production. Art Bookbindery of Winnipeg, Manitoba, did the printing.
Drawn from experience
Ashworth said the inspiration for the book came from her days as a horticulturalist and landscape architect for the U.S. Forest Service from 1979 to 1990.
“They sent me all over the nation,” she said. “I never knew what was going to happen next.”
She designed trails, camping areas, and other features at national parks, but her favorite park was the Cherokee National Forest, said Flavell, who said her mother chose to spend her retirement years in Tennessee near the park.
Long before she became one of the few women working for the Forest Service, Ashworth had already lived a very eventful life.
Born in England, she was the daughter of a priest in the Church of England and grew up in the English countryside.
As a young woman, she traveled the European continent and became fluent in German and French. That would come in handy as World War II began.
During the war, she was part of the team at Bletchley Park in England that worked to crack the German “Enigma” code. Their work enabled allied forces to find out in advance what the Germans were doing on land, sea, and air. The codebreakers’ work, so secret it was classified for decades, is credited as an important factor in Germany’s ultimate defeat.
At war’s end, she married Norm Ashworth, a U.S. Army Colonel, and moved to America. The Ashworths lived in northern Virginia, and she ran the family farm while he worked for the Defense Department.
Ashworth and her husband divorced in 1966, and she went to college and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticulture from the University of Connecticut, then earned a master’s in landscape architecture from the University of Georgia before joining the Forest Service.
Back to school
After her stint with the Forest Service, she retired to Greenville, Tennessee, and ran a bed-and-breakfast. After retiring from that job, she moved to Connecticut in 2004. She has been at Holton Home for about three years.
In retirement, Ingraham said Ashworth went back to school and got a creative writing degree.
“She was in her 80s and everyone else in the class was in their 20s,” Ingram said.
What she learned — combined with some prodding from her great-grandchildren — led her to eventually write a dozen children’s books over the past 15 years, Zoa being the 12th.
For McCarthy, a painter who lives in Connecticut, illustrating Ashworth’s book was a new experience.
“I’m primarily a painter, and I’ve never illustrated a children’s book before,” she said. “There was a learning curve for me in trying to paint animals. But once I got the setting of the book inside my imagination, I could envision all of it.”
McCarthy said she has been a friend of Ashworth’s family “for decades” and gladly took on the job of providing the pictures to go with Ashworth’s prose.
“When she asked me, it was easy to say yes,” she said.
Ingraham, whose first feature film, Moonshine, premiered at the 2006 Sundance festival, said Ashworth “is an inspiration to me.”
“She is an amazing woman,” he said.