Session Spotlight: Confronting Difficult Life Events through Story

by Ann Parker, Pima Community College, Tucson, Arizona

Today’s blog begins a discussion by authors Ruta Sepetys, Jim Deem, and Jewell Parker Rhodes at the 2012 Tucson Festival of Books in March entitled “Confronting Difficult Life Events through Story.” The discussion will continue in the next two blogs. All three authors have published books, both fiction and non-fiction, that deal with terrible historical events and the resiliency of people to endure in the most horrific of circumstances.

Ruta Sepetys’ first young adult book, Between Shades of Gray, brings to light the plight of Lithuanians who were departed to Siberia in 1941 by the Russians. It tells the story of 15 year old Lina, who is forced from her home with her mother and young brother by the Soviet police and sent to a labor camp; her father has been arrested and sent to a prison camp. Throughout their harrowing ordeal, Lina and her family find strength in community and art. According to the book’s website, “The nations of Lithuania, Lat­via, and Estonia disappeared from maps in 1941 and did not reappear until 1990. As this is a story seldom told, Ruta wanted to give a voice to the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives during Stalin’s cleansing of the Baltic region.” Sepetys is a Carnegie Medal nominee and was the first American author to win the prestigious French literary prize, RTL-Lire, for the best novel for young people.

Jim Deem is the author of numerous books of nonfiction and fiction, including the Sibert honor book Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past. Two of his most recent books are Kristallnacht: The Nazi Terror that Began the Holocaust and Auschwitz: Voices from the Death Camp. Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass) tells the story of the pogrom carried out by German secret service and citizens in 1938, in which thousands of Jewish homes, stores and synagogues were destroyed and Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration campus. Auschwitz examines the history of the largest World War II concentration camp from its construction through the extermination of more than 1 million people. Both books are told through the stories of real people and are based on firsthand accounts as well as historical documents.

Jewell Parker Rhodes is a well-known author of adult historical novels including Voodoo Dreams and Magic City; her one novel for young adults, Ninth Ward, was named a 2011 Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Ninth Ward is the story of Lanesha, a strong, resilient young girl who lives with her caretaker, Mama Ya-Ya, in New Orlean’s ninth ward and lives through the unimaginable experience of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Q: What inspired you to write your books?

Ruta: My identity is wrapped up in being the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. My father was on Stalin’s extermination list and escaped Lithuania; he lived in refugee camps for nine years while the Soviets searched for him. Since they couldn’t find him, they took his extended family and sent them to labor camps in Siberia for up to 15 years. Very few of the survivors of these camps want to talk about what happened to them, so the story of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania is virtually unknown. It’s thought that hundreds of thousands of people died in Siberia.

Jewell: I was called to write my book Ninth Ward. I was in California during the big earthquakes [in Northridge] so when I heard about Katrina bearing down on New Orleans I thought about all my friends and the children living there. At the time, I was afraid to write the story, but three years later, when Hurricane Ike was threatening the same area, Lanesha, the young girl from the book, popped into my head.

Jim: The ideas for the non-fiction books I’ve written have generally come from my own imagination, but a publisher who was doing a series of books on the Holocaust contacted me and asked if I would be interested in writing two of them. When I learned that one was on Kristallnacht [the night of November 9, 1938, when German storm troopers and civilians carried out a series of planned attacks on Jewish businesses, synagogues, and homes] and one on Auschwitz [the infamous concentration camp], at first I thought it would be difficult to find information on Kristallnacht and to write a book about one night, while there were already lots of books about Auschwitz, so writing another one would be also be hard. The company also wanted me to write the stories through the eyes of ten people, and I wondered how I could narrow down both books to the stories of just ten voices. But then I thought, ‘I love a challenge’ and agreed to write them. The first thing I did was travel to Auschwitz itself.

Next week: The authors discuss how they went about researching their books and how they felt as they were writing about such difficult topics.

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