[#PoetryFriday is hosted today and all week by Margaret at REFLECTIONS on the TECHE!]
Ruthie Arons is a curious kid who has known recent horror, including Nazis brutally ransacking her beautiful home. Yet, she is still is a sprite who ponders all that crosses her path aboard the M.S. St. Louis, sailing from Germany to Cuba. Ruthie pranks passengers in an inventive way. She initiates shipboard friendships with all ages and cheers each of her parents as they fall ill. She is a companion to cherish.
Cover art by Kelly Murphy
Q. I am a Ruthie Arons fan. Please share something of Ruthie’s arrival in your author-mind. Is it possible she is modeled on strong or fun-loving young girls you know today or in family history?
BK: I did not base Ruthie on any girl I know today. I did interview a St. Louis survivor in 2010 who had shown a lot of spunk and I had her in mind a bit.
Q. It’s clear that Ruthie not only admires her father, who becomes a shipboard leader on this troubled voyage. But also, Ruthie discovers the German captain is decent, too. She finds out that others of the crew don’t know the word, decency. Why is it important reveal the kindness of German Capt. Schroeder?
BK: Passengers of the St. Louis nominated Captain Gustav Schroeder for his Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center recognition as Righteous Among Nations. The captain was most decidedly not a Nazi and he truly cared about the passengers. One man I interviewed, who had been about ten years old on the ship, said the captain was “a peach.” I wanted to show that not all Germans were Nazis, not all Germans hailed Hitler, not all believed in or adhered to the Nazi ideology–at great risk to themselves.
Q. Ruthie and her parents leave the MS St. Louis in Belgium knowing they will journey to England, after being turned away by Cuba and the United States. What do you think they experienced in England that we don’t see in the story?
BK: Once in England, Ruthie’s father would have been interned on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien. In Germany, he was a Jew. In England, he was a German. Ruthie would have been evacuated out of London during the Blitz. So “safe haven” was only temporary.
Q. In your acknowledgements, there is summary of what feels to me like years of perseverance in research, especially with your careful speaking to trip survivors found by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. How do you approach a survivor, who may not want to discuss such a time?
BK: I first contacted Scott Miller of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He co-authored Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust. He gave me a list of survivors in the NJ-PA-NY area. I already knew that most of these people had been working with the museum as spokespeople about their experiences. I read as much as I could about the St. Louis experience before meeting with these survivors in their homes. The issue was not so much whether they wanted to talk. Rather, it was a challenge for me to get them to go beyond their usual spiel, to get underneath the narrative they typically shared so it would relate to kids. I learned so much from these people. Nothing fazed them, not a locked gate to their senior living community after 8 or a dishwasher that flooded the house while the family was away.
Q: Let’s speak about creating a story in verse. Is writing in verse something you’ve always gravitated to? What in your child days, career or study prepared you for writing poetry and especially a verse novel? What makes a story ideal to be presented in verse to young readers? And do you have preferred poetry forms to read or to write, other than free verse?
BK: I began writing poetry after I received my MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2006. When I first drafted this narrative about the St. Louis, it was middle-grade nonfiction. After hearing a panel at the 2012 Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference about historical sources and contemporary poetry, I rewrote the book as adult poetry in several voices. I workshopped and workshopped. Then I attended two Novel in Verse workshops at the Highlights Foundation and the story finally took shape as a fictionalized account with a single narrator for middle grade. I did take a post-graduate semester at Vermont in poetry with David Wojahn and read Holocaust poets in particular. What makes a story ideal to be presented in verse–that’s a great question. Trauma narratives lend themselves to verse treatment. I’ve also seen novels in verse feature many narrators which would be unwieldy in prose. I like to use certain repetitive forms at particular points of the narrative. For instance, I use villanelles at moments of great despair.
Q: Who are the poets you read frequently or especially feel drawn to?
BK: I’m always learning about poets and their craft. I appreciate in particular Paul Celan, Miklos Radnoti, Wislawa Zymborska, Theodore Roethke, Dylan Thomas, and Elizabeth Bishop. I also like reading Nikki Grimes, Jacqueline Woodson, Richard Blanco, Mark Doty, and many others. I attend poetry readings on a regular basis and invest in literary journals.
Q. Can we hope for another verse novel from you, now that your first is birthed? If so any early details?
BK: I do have a young adult biography in verse I’ll be able to talk about soon. That book, too, underwent a long process starting as nonfiction prose. I’ll just say it reflects the early Cold War period. My agent is shopping around a contemporary YA novel in verse, and I’m working on a new one–a narrative of a 16-year-old who had been a hidden child during World War II who comes to America in 1951 as an orphan to family she’s never known.
This is news I welcome, Barbara! Appreciations for your visit today. 37 Days at Sea leaves me feeling that this debut verse novelist is destined to add more beautiful words to my bookshelf and yours. And I would love to see this book be a movie. jga/Bookseedstudio
Please know that one of children’s literature most-honored authors, Kathryn Erskine, writes of 37 Days at Sea that it is “a timely, compelling story of real-life refugees, seen through the eyes of a child, who is both innocent and wise.”
And further, Barbara is known to many for her notable p.b. bio limning a moment for Goldie, a schoolgirl in Milwaukee, who history came to know as Golda Meir, future elected Prime Minister of Israel.
See a book trailer for GOLDIE TAKES A STAND.
Barbara Krasner’s fascinating website is The Whole Megillah.
Pre-order 37 Days here