From the very beginning of my “author” journey, the SONS OF NORWAY members around Wisconsin and beyond have been welcoming, encouraging, and supportive of my work. I am deeply grateful for their invitations, and always enjoy the company of their members.
Now, as IN-PERSON events are again possible, I will be joining the ‘Norsemen of the Lake” sector of SONS of NORWAY on Saturday. Especially is you asked “What is Sons of Norway?”, this is the event for you. This is a public event in with the stated purpose of introducing the organization to a wider audience. I’d love to have friends and colleagues from that area stop by that day. Anyone looking for a delightful series of programs on history, crafts, genealogy, and more will find the gorgeous drive from any distance is worth the trip! My half-hour presentation will be at noon, but I’ll have a table for the entire time (10:00 AM to 2:00 PM). My Norway WWII history trilogy and other recent books will be available for sale, but I encourage folks to just stop by for a treat and a chat!
Young Norvia’s story is one of coming of age in a world that has been turned upside down by her recent family events and looming global war. Her pursuit of a place in the real world is also shaped by longtime social pressures of identity, class, gender restrictions, and social expectations in the early twentieth century. Rising like guiding stars are Norvia’s heroines from the pages of novels: Anne (of Green Gables), Jo (and her sisters in Little Women), Betsy-Tacy, and Pollyanna, among others. references to these are threaded throughout, always through the relevant issues Norvia faces at a given time.
Norvia also treasured the stories of her Native heritage, told by her Ojibwe grandfather, Grandpere. His presence in her early years anchored and inspired her. The stories he shared, and those of fictional young women represented Norvia’s North Star, the star that always stays. But in that era (early twentieth century), with both Native and French bloodlines, her mother discouraged any retelling of those stories or even mentioning their ancestors. The less said the better, leading to a sense of questioning and social shame.
Intermittent chapters bounce between past and present for Norvia, but each is clearly labeled and tagged for location. This will support younger readers in recognizing that the same characters function in different roles and at different ages throughout the story. Norvia, as the central character, travels a complex but compelling journey through those times, with emotions and reactions suited to the shifting times and views. She arrives at the conclusion of the novel in a credible space and stage of life that offer both satisfaction and optimism.
Each of the other family members is distinctive and well-developed, from her younger siblings Casper (the youngest brother) and Dicta (an unforgettable younger sister who is pricelessly opinionated and self-directed), to her older brothers (mostly out of the home but significant in her life). Her mother, new step-father, Grandpere, and even her ancestors emerge as engaging and evolving over time. Her same-age step-brother is portrayed as a narrow “type” at first encounter. Time and effort allow both Norvia and readers to expand their view of him and his struggles, including empathetic awareness and recognition of gradual changes in his view of the intrusions on his life. I admired the ways in which such emotional truth throughout the cast enriched the story. Norvia’s school relationships explored friendships with a wide range of realities that echo school kids today, especially those who are “new kids”, and even more so when they are “othered.”
A brief peek at the story line will avoid spoilers but is worth a quick look and a full read of the novel: Set in northern Great Lakes area, the scenes toggle between rural/island memories and the comparatively “urban” Boyne City, Michigan. Norvia’s mother had been unhappy with her Swedish immigrant father for many reasons. He is portrayed as both a goodhearted and flawed/biased husband/father, one who Norvia’s mother eventually divorced. That occurs very early in the story, followed by Norvia’s mother announcing she has fallen in love with a well-to-do widower. This sets the stage for family protests and powerlessness to prevent the marriage and new family configuration. Among many fears and adjustments, Norvia is allowed to attend Boyne City High school as a freshman, her longtime dream at a time when few attended high school, especially girls. With the arc of a passing school year, she and her family and friends mark progress and setbacks against a framework of academics, holidays, and school and home social events. Tension throughout this period increases with escalation of World War I, family twists and turns, and bullying at school.
Despite unfolding more than a hundred years ago, issues of identity, trust, misunderstanding, dealing with divorce, sibling separation and stress, school bullying, crushes and friendships, and step-family relationships will resonate deeply with current audiences. The fact that this fictional family account is firmly rooted in Johnson’s actual family history amplifies the impact even more. Also, the character Norvia’s traditional stories and family history heritage are woven into her memories and present pressures in artful ways. Occasional Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language) words are used, with in-text references or context providing clear understanding. French words are also used at times, and a brief glossary for both sets of vocabulary are in back matter. A helopful star and constellation list/translation is listed because the vast night sky plays such a vivid role in this novel, becoming nearly a character in its own right. A brief author note indicates that an actual child, Norvia, her birth on Beaver Island, her mother’s divorce and remarriage were all verifiable elements of the author’s family history. These discoveries led the author to genealogy searches and other research to make this novel as authentic to their lives and memories as possible while being accessible and entertaining for modern youth. The note concludes that this research and writing process was a joy for the author. I’ll add that her work produced a novel that was a joy to read. There are far too few novels for this audience (or for any audiences) that provide authentic Native perspectives and experiences. This is a valuable addition to late elementary and middle grade libraries and classrooms. This is a Junior Library Guild Selection and I join in recommending it highly
This is not how I’ve used my posts here, in the past. But the past is past and I’m really focusing on staying in the moment and celebrating life, which is what yesterday felt like, all day.
Lake Geneva, WI, Public Library hosted a Beachwalk Authorfest on July 9, their 8th annual, and my first with them. It couldn’t have been more perfect: weather sunny and light breezes, joyful and curious crowds, great company with illustrator of IS IT OVER?, Rebecca S. Hirsch. Add in snacks and sales and it was a fine way to reflect back on the changes in a single year.
Worth every minute of struggle to land on my feet and feel like myself again!
I thought long and hard about this post title, since it humbles me to admit how absent I have been from my public-facing writing life. (Hint, it was NOT about COVID.) There are good reasons for my radio-silence (as old-timers say). I issued this new- newsletter post to summarize what’s been going on in my life, explaining why I have been “ghosting” this site (as young ones say), and what lies ahead. If you don’t subscribe to my newsletter, HERE is a link to that recent post. While I’m at it, I’ll invite you to subscribe to my newsletter in that sidebar, over there to the right of this post. Clearly, I will not be flooding your inbox, but I do expect to return to a quarterly schedule, if you’d like to keep up about four times each year.
Writing about my year of challenges was yet another challenge for me, because I am quite private and tend a bit toward being a recluse. That can be a good fit for a writer, not so much for sustaining friends and followers. But those who have cheered and encouraged me so often in the past, even those with just a budding curiosity, deserve a direct and honest update on what has changed in the last year, and a statement from me about how I plan to proceed.
In fact, I will be returning soon to public appearances, safely outdoors, in the company of other writers for adults and kids, in an upcoming event at a “dream” setting- Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Details below:
Becky Hirsch, the talented illustrator of my recent picture book, IS IT OVER?, will be joining me for part of the day. Learn more about the venue HERE, about Becky HERE, and about the book, HERE.
Fair warning, summer weekends are very busy in this area, but the payoff is that you’ll find a plethora of fun things to do, see, and eat, as well as fantastic shops and that gorgeous beach. Our authorfest is outdoors, so here’s my personal warning: a SEVERE weather forecast will mean I need to cancel. I won’t melt in an occasional sprinkle, but damage to the books I bring along is not something I am willing risk.
Barring bad weather, I’d love to see some/all of you next Saturday, July 9, near the glorious beach of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. If I miss you there, I hope you’ll continue to stay tuned here, and possibly follow my reviews on my picture book blog, HERE, and on Goodreads, HERE, where I review works for all ages, including adults!
For now, I’m feeling good to once again reach out, and I’m looking forward to more in the near future. Meanwhile, here’s hoping that your own lives have been successful and healthy and happy, at least much of the time since I last popped by. Feel free to share an experience from your own year in comments. Take care of yourselves, out there. We need each other, right?
“In war torn Laos, thirteen-year-old Nou daydreams of the legendary heroes and mythical beings who live in the folklore stories she loves to hear. Remembering them helps her ignore physical pain as she struggles through the endless chores expected of a dutiful daughter. Each night, she examines the two books given to her by her ex-soldier father and prays for an end to the Vietnam War.”
Although I read many self-published books, I rarely review them. This, though, demands that effort from me. In the most respectful way possible, I hope to demand that readers spend time meeting Nou and her family, learning about a time in history that is too little understood, or is neglected, distorted, or actively ignored.
It is easy to miss the “BOOK ONE” in the title that indicates this is the first book in a series that will follow Nou through her changing life, in geography, circumstances, relationships, and self-awareness. even if a stand-alone title, the scenes and intensity of character, culture, crisis, and concern are page-turning and absorbing, yet they reveal and inform with details and revelations about the daily life of people trapped and betrayed by political forces on all sides. The fact that we can expect to meet her again in future books is a bonus.
Nou’s role as a middle child, as a girl, also trap her in a culture that denies her what she wants most- to learn to read. The patterns of duties, discipline, and sometimes desperation will elicit emotional reactions, but readers should avoid judgments. This is fully developed view of a culture different from ones most commonly portrayed in familiar novels, but that is a welcome revelation to expand and inform young minds.
Nou’s series has the tag YOUNG GUARDIAN for many valid reasons. Each event, each challenge in her journey of personal growth and family roles strengthens her capacity to move beyond the deeply traditional cultural expectations into which she was born. Her intense drive to learn to read comes from her storytelling talent, but she discovers that reading can be a survival skill, too.
This is a sensitively-constructed story that was inspired by various true experiences, written with rich details. I imagine that it will ring true to those many who lived in those times and places, but will also make young readers feel immersed in that very real world. Hmong Americans have far too few books that reflect or reveal their history, and those of us who are NOT Hmong also suffer from that lack. It is also America’s national history, and one we should all learn. In this novel we can expand our understanding while meeting a character who rises from the page and stands fully formed in our lives. Nou is a character reader will want to meet again.