Getting a governor to hand over their private communications is typically a tough task for a reporter.
But former NPR journalist Shannon Mullen, who lives in New Hampshire, asked Gov. Janet Mills to do just that in the late spring of 2021 after they met at a dinner party hosted by a mutual friend, the painter Jamie Wyeth, who promised the Democratic governor would be “unlike any politician you’ve ever met.”
That’s where Mullen learned of a Maine woman who wrote the governor letters through the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting her decisions and sharing intimate glimpses into her homestead in the Franklin County town of Temple, next to Mills’ hometown of Farmington.
Their correspondence became the subject of Mullen’s book, “In Other Words, Leadership: How a Young Mother’s Weekly Letters to Her Governor Helped Both Women Brave the First Pandemic Year,” which was published in June. It tells the story of an unlikely bond that developed between a state leader and constituent who had never met.
“We had an immediate connection,” Mullen said of the governor, recalling a time when Mills choked up as she spoke about receiving Knapp’s final letter. “She was so open and sincere.”
Mullen drew the book’s narrative primarily from Ashirah Knapp’s handwritten letters to Mills and unedited excerpts from the governor’s journals, she said.
In the 50 or so journal pages that Mills sent to Mullen, the governor was candid about what it was like to lead Maine during a time of uncertainty, when she ordered businesses to close and issued an executive order requiring Mainers to mask up in public.
In April 2020, during a snowstorm and a “lousy week in the pandemic universe,” Mills “broke down” upon hearing news of the Jay mill explosion, fearing people had died, according to the book.
“When are the locusts coming?” Mills recalled exclaiming to her staff.
The governor also wrestled with the politics of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout of the 2020 election. After the Capitol riots of Jan. 6, 2021, Mills wrote that then-President Donald Trump was “simply repulsive” with “greater a love of self than of the nation.”
It wasn’t long after Mullen met Mills that she visited the Blaine House in late May 2021 and read the exchanges between the women, which made her tear up and laugh because they were civil and “there was such simple wisdom,” in their words, she said.
Knapp wrote to Mills that she and her husband were in their early 40s raising two adolescent children. The couple ran a sustainable living school, and Knapp worked part-time at a medical office, but the family’s income halted during the pandemic.
Still, Knapp “felt strong and sensible leadership from you, which has been a great comfort and confidence-builder,” she wrote to the governor.
Sometimes she talked about her perception of political tensions brewing amid the pandemic, while other times she shared small comforts around her, such as the songs of tree frogs and bullfrogs and watching her cat hunt chipmunks.
“Ashirah would write and tell me what her week was like, and it was captivating,” Mills said during a book talk at BookSpace by The Briar Patch in Bangor on Thursday night. “It was grounding when you’re dealing with massive decisions every day and every week. It sort of brought me back to Earth.”
The event drew about 20 people and is one of several book talks Mullen and Mills have done together around the state. University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy was the moderator.
Mullen wanted to share the relationship that grew between the women, and both of them gave her permission to use the written materials for a book. It took her about seven months to write it last year. To get people to relive the pandemic, the book needed to remind them of positive moments, creativity and connections made during an isolating time, she said.
Mills’ journal entries offered a peek into the pressure of being responsible for the health and safety of an entire state, while Knapp’s words were “so personal that they were almost universal,” Mullen said.
“Hearing from Ashirah was like expanding your family or having a pen pal,” Mills said.