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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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Lauren Wolk, author of the 2017 Newbery Honor Book Wolf Hollow, discusses Beyond the Bright Sea, her new novel about feeling isolated, searching for family, and experiencing the power of love.
Crow, the protagonist of the 1920s-set Beyond the Bright Sea, was only a baby when she was abandoned and set adrift on a small boat from one of the islands on the southern coast of Cape Cod. Osh, the man who rescued her, and Miss Maggie, a tough but affectionate neighbor, care for her and attempt to shield her from the cruel island residents and tourists who are convinced that she is a child of a leper. Now 12, Crow is consumed by curiosity about her past and sets out on a journey filled with danger and surprises to find out the truth about her parents and why they abandoned her.
Recently, we spoke with Wolk about Beyond the Bright Sea, her research, and her writing process.
The prologue in
Beyond the Bright Sea
sets the conflict of the novel: Crow’s search to know where she comes from. Will you tell us about your decision to use a prologue?
WOLK: All readers need to be drawn into a book, but younger ones may need a somewhat sharper hook. A prologue can be just that. It’s also a natural way to set the scene and establish the protagonist’s voice before the introduction of a plotline. Strong setting and characters are essential to a book . . . and to the development of a compelling plot full of conflict, both internal and external . . . so starting with setting and character as they relate to and introduce conflict makes perfect sense.
Readers are quickly pulled into the story by the last sentence of the prologue: “But I didn’t understand what I was risking until I nearly lost it.” Tell us about the importance of first and last sentences in chapters. Do such powerful sentences come immediately, or do you edit them after you are well into the story?
WOLK: Those sentences don’t always “come immediately,” but they do come as I write a draft. I really don’t go forward unless I feel that the work is anchored by the evolution of its characters and by its structure and language, even though I know I’ll make plenty of changes later. The beginnings and endings of chapters are like rungs on that ladder, and I’m grateful that they rise when I need them. I’ve spent five decades writing poetry, paying close attention to first and last lines, so they do come when I call them. And after writing thousands of pages of prose, too, I find that writing is a matter of both strenuous effort and a certain ease acquired through practice, devotion, and a whole lot of sweat. If these lines “come immediately,” it’s because, over time, I’ve become comfortable with how I write. But the work is still work.
Osh and Miss Maggie accept Crow, regardless of her roots. The people of the island avoid coming in close contact with her because they believe she came from Penikese, a former leper hospital. Is their reaction out of sheer ignorance?
WOLK: Because it is so highly visible, and because what it looks like is so frightening, Hansen’s disease makes people behave irrationally. Back in the 1920s, when the book is set, before there was an effective treatment, before most people understood how difficult it was to contract, leprosy terrified people, made them cruel (as fear tends to do). But even today, people are terrified of the very idea of leprosy. When I went with some middle-school children to visit Penikese, one girl absently leaned her hand against the old wall of the tumble-down laundry where the lepers washed their clothes nearly 100 years ago . . . and then she jerked it away and said, “Am I going to get leprosy now?” It’s far less contagious than many diseases, but it still elicits that kind of response.
My aunt began her nursing career at the federal leprosy hospital in Carville, Louisiana, sometime in the 1930s. Do you think those who worked with the leprosy patients, like Dr. Eastman, Nurse Evelyn, and maybe my aunt felt a threat to their own health?
WOLK: I’m sure they felt some fear, given the characteristics of the disease. But people who enter the field of medicine know full well that they will be exposing themselves to risk. And they know enough about disease to treat it with the respect it deserves, which allows them to fight it without fearing it so much. Regardless, your aunt and the fictitious caregivers I invented in Beyond the Bright Sea deserve accolades for their courage and selflessness.
How did you approach your research about leprosy?
WOLK: Typically, I conduct most of my research after I’ve begun to write, as I have questions that need answers. I don’t plan my books, so I can’t always anticipate what answers I’ll need. And I want the work to drive the research, not the other way around. In the case of Beyond the Bright Sea, I started, as I always do, with setting, so the first stages of my research involved learning about what life was like on the Elizabeth Islands in the 1920s.
When Crow saw a fire burning on Penikese, where there had once been a leper colony, I knew I would have to learn more about that island, its hospital and patients, and the disease itself. So I read what I could find about that particular experience, and some, too, about leprosy in general. Fortunately, there are some very fine publications about the Penikese colony. But, regardless of what I’m writing, I never want to know more than I need to know. Especially when it’s my job to stay inside the skin of my protagonist, to know only what she knows, and to see the world through her eyes.
Tell us about your inspiration for Osh. He is so willing to lose his past, while Crow has a desire to know hers.
WOLK: When I met Osh, I was intrigued. I wanted to know his background, but he was very secretive. Like Crow, I loved him and wondered what had made him decide to strand himself on a tiny island, starving and cold and alone. But I was content to let his secrets lie. It was only when the audiobook was underway that I had to make some decisions about his background. The producer asked me what kind of accent Osh should have. At first I balked, but then I decided it would do no harm to choose the origins I’d always imagined for him. Maybe Armenian. Or Ukrainian. Given the horrors unfolding in those places when Osh would have lived there, I could easily imagine him fleeing and wanting to be apart from people for a while. That choice was cemented when I met a young man named Max who had come to America to escape life in the Ukraine. He sounded the way Osh did, in my head. When I asked him why he’d left Ukraine, he told me that, had he stayed, he would have been forced to fight for a cause he did not embrace, against people who had done him no harm. Just like Osh.
Osh tells Crow, “You need to look in as much as you look out.” How did you look “in” and “out” in order to write this story?
WOLK: Artists are sharp-eyed observers. Spies. Eavesdroppers. We watch, listen, and absorb things that others miss. We learn a great deal about the world, people, and human nature that way. But that’s not enough. We have to blend that knowledge with what we know about ourselves and what we want to say through our art—our ideas, wisdom, and understanding. As a poet, a visual artist, and a novelist, I am constantly looking both out and in. It’s almost as if my skin is the border between one world and another, both of which I inhabit. It’s the two combined that make me a writer.
The ending is very powerful, and strikes the right chord. At what point did you know that the sailor wasn’t Jason?
WOLK: I went back and forth a lot over that sailor. In my first draft, he was, indeed, Crow’s long-lost brother. But although there have been many precedents for that kind of coincidence—from Shakespeare to Dickens—it just didn’t ring true. And it made for a tidy ending, when there wasn’t much tidy about Crow’s life. I tangled it up a bit by making Jason leave her, even though he was her brother, but that felt cruel. So I rewrote the ending to make it more realistic and to give Crow a chance to understand firsthand what Osh had been trying to tell her all along: that she was the one worth finding.
What are you writing now?
WOLK: In the past year, I finished two new books, one of which needs to rest for a while before I return to it. I’m about to start the second draft of the more recent, which I finished in January. It’s another middle-grade book that will likely appeal to older readers as well, set in the 1930s on a mountain in Maine. I loved writing it. And I can’t wait to work on it some more.
Tell us about your work schedule.
WOLK: I am a ridiculously busy woman. I have a more-than-full-time job, write books and poems, make art, and devote as much time as possible to my family and friends. When I’m writing a book, I get up early and write for a couple of hours before I go to work. If I have enough energy, I write at night, too, but the work is usually lousy if I push too hard. If I have a day off (which is rare), I binge-write for many hours straight. Maybe someday I’ll have the luxury of having just one job, but I love all of what I do, so I really can’t imagine giving any of it up. Not yet, anyway.
Beyond the Bright Sea. 2017. $16.99 (9781101994856). Gr. 4–7.
Wolf Hollow. 2016. $16.99 (9781101994825). Gr. 4–7.
Further Reading: Searching for Family Identity
Below, find a short list of books about mysterious parentage and lineage.
The Boy on the Porch. By Sharon Creech. 2013. Harper, $16.99 (9780061892356). Gr. 4–6..
A newly married couple, John and Marta, are surprised when they find a sleeping boy on the porch of their farmhouse. The only information about the abandoned child is from a note in his pocket: Plees taik kair of Jacob. He is a good boy. Wil be bak wen we can. The couple grow to love Jacob and live in dread that one day his parents will return to claim him.
The Higher Power of Lucky. By Susan Patron. Illus. by Matt Phelan. 2006. Simon & Schuster/Richard Jackson, $7.99 (9781416975571). Gr. 4–6.
After Lucky’s mother dies, her father abandons her and calls upon his ex-wife, Brigitte, to come from France to the small desert town of Hard Pan, California, to take care of Lucky. At 10, Lucky longs for a real mother, and as her story progresses through two sequels, Lucky Breaks (2009) and Lucky for Good (2011), she ponders the question: Does her father really hate her?
Pablo and Birdy. By Alison McGhee. Illus. by Ana Juan. 2017. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy, $16.99 (9781481470261). Gr. 3–5.
Pablo is about to turn 10, and he has questions about his past. He knows that he was a baby when he was placed on a raft with a parrot named Birdy and that they eventually washed up on the shore of an island. The islanders have cared for him ever since, but now it appears that they are protecting him from something.
The Search for Belle Prater. By Ruth White. 2005. Farrar, $8.99 (9781250008138). Gr. 4–7.
In this sequel to Newbery Honor Book Belle Prater’s Boy (1996), Woodrow Prater has lived with his grandparents in rural Virginia since his mother, Belle Prater, disappeared more than a year ago. On his thirteenth birthday, Woodrow believes that he has received a message from his missing mother, and he sets out to find her.
Pat Scales, the author of Books under Fire: A Hit List of Banned and Challenged Children’s Books (2014), recently received the honor of the “Pat Scales Special Collections Room” opening at the University of Montevallo’s Carmichael Library.
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