When Dolley Carlson returns for her fourth author appearance and book signing at Blackstone’s of Beacon Hill on Thursday, May 19, it will be a homecoming for the South Boston native who now lives in Southern California, especially since Charles Street was the route her father once walked on his beat as a Boston Police officer assigned to the erstwhile Station 3.
Carlson, who calls Orange County, Calif., home today and is also the author of four nonfiction books, will be back at Blackstone’s next week to promote her debut work of fiction, “The Red Coat – A Novel of Boston.” The historical novel, set in Boston in the 1940s and ‘50s, tells the story of the Parkers, a Brahmin family living on Beacon Hill, and the Kings, a family of Irish immigrants living in South Boston whose matriarch, Norah King, is a domestic worker in the Parker household.
Norah crosses class lines when she spots the titular “Red Coat,” which was first owned by Cordelia, one of the Parker children, and has been marked for donation. Norah asks the Parker matriarch if she can have the coat for one of her daughters instead. After Mrs. Parker grants the coat to Norah, it passes through the hands of all three King children – Rosemary, Kay, and Rita – and ignites a series of events that no one could have predicted, and which juxtaposes the lives of the Parkers on Beacon Hill against those of the King family living only five miles away in South Boston.
“The novel looks at a time when the roles of women living in the city were beginning to change,” said Carlson.
In the King family, one daughter became an accountant and another a social worker while the third daughter was a homemaker.
“It’s a vehicle of empowerment for them,” Dolley said of The Red Coat. “Each sister has it at a real turning point in their lives.”
Unbeknownst to Mrs. Parker when she first marked The Red Coat for donation before granting it to Norah, the article of clothing also has great sentimental significance for its original owner, Cordelia Parker.
“The coat has tremendous significance for Cordelia, but her mother doesn’t realize it,” said Carlson, adding that for Cordelia, the coat represents “unrequited love.”
Over the course of the novel, the coat comes to represent what Cordelia and the King sisters have in common, despite their class differences.
“Rich or working class – they all want the same things and have tremendous losses they deal with,” said King. “Think Downton Abbey taking place in the heart of 1940s and ‘50s Boston.”
Next week’s event at Blackstone’s will be Carlson’s first book signing since the pandemic struck, as well as effectively a “rain date” for a book signing she had booked at Blackstone’s on the day of the scheduled Hidden Gardens tour in 2020. But like the tour, her planned book signing and author appearance was scuttled due to COVID.
Since her first appearance at Blackstone’s in 2014, three of the four events, including the upcoming one, have coincided with the annual Hidden Gardens of Beacon Hill tour.
“I knew my father was with me at the first signing,” said Carlson, who added that her father would regularly walk down Charles Street on his police beat.
This will also be the first trip back to Boston since the pandemic struck for Carlson, who still considers the city her true home even though she relocated to Southern California with her family as a teenager in the early 1960s.
Her father, Robert Dolley, whose parents had immigrated from County Galway to South Boston in 1910, went to work as a patrolman (and later a detective) based out of Station 3 at 74 Joy St. immediately after returning home from serving in World War II. (The building at 74 Joy St. last served as a police station in 1962.)
“It was a real coup for my father to land at Station 3,” said Dolley, adding that he worked there alongside her father’s brother-in-law and her uncle, John King, after graduating from the police academy.
Dolley often accompanied her father to Station 3 as child, and her early memories of Beacon Hill include attending a Christmas candle-lighting in the neighborhood with him, along with holiday festivities held on the Boston Common.
Since her father died in 1970, John King assisted Dolley in researching “The Red Coat,” as did Margaret Sullivan, a Boston Police archivist, particularly in regard to selecting the firearms that police would carry in the novel.
Dolley worked on “The Red Coat” for seven years before it was independently published in 2014. She had the good fortune of enlisting another South Boston native, Dan McCole, a renowned watercolor painter who has visited the White House, to create the book’s cover art.
The novel sold briskly before coming to the attention of the owner of Skyhorse Publishing. He contacted Dolley, and they struck a deal in 2018 for Skyhorse to publish a second edition of the book, which is now distributed by Simon & Schuster.
“It’s the work of my heart,” said Carlson. “People have said it’s a love story to Boston.”
Moreover, the feeling has been mutual judging by how much support she has received from Bostonians not only while she was researching and writing the novel, but also since its publication.
During her research trips back to Boston for the novel, Carlson said she was graciously received when she knocked on the doors of people she’d never met before.
After “The Red Coat” was published, the late Boston socialite, Smoki Bacon, interviewed Carlson for “The Literati Scene,” the long-running longtime TV show she hosted with her husband, Richard Concannon, to showcase writers. Bacon lauded the novel for its “spot on” dialogue for characters from both the Beacon Hill and South Boston communities, as well as for accurately capturing the time period.
New York Times bestselling author Robert F. Kennedy Jr. also described the novel as “a great American story that affirms the lives and honors the sacrifices of all the immigrants who have made and continue to make this country great.”
For Carlson, the enthusiastic reception “The Red Coat” has received locally has been beyond gratifying.
“Everyone has been so gracious,” she said. “I love Boston so much.”
Dolley Carlson will be on hand for an author appearance and book signing on Thursday, May 19, from noon to 3 p.m. at Blackstone’s of Beacon Hill at 40 Charles St.
“The Red Coat” is available in hard cover, Kindle, and audible formats at Amazon.com; Barnes & Noble, both online and in-store; and everywhere else where books are sold.
Visit “The Red Coat” website at www.theredcoatboston.com to read a segment of Chapter 1, to see vintage photos of Boston, and to learn Carlson’s uncle’s (John Michael) recipe for Irish Soda Bread.
Her schedule permitting, Dolley Carlson is also happy to meet with book clubs to discuss “The Red Coat” and can be reached via email at [email protected].