Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for March, 2014

Running Away to Home

Running Away to HomeThis month, I’ve been participating in a community reading program. For that annual event, people are invited to read a book chosen by the planning committee. There are activities such as book discussions and it all culminates with a presentation by the author. It’s one of those things I’ve always intended to do, but never got beyond the thinking about it stage. So I kind of surprised myself when I signed on. What was different this year? The main thing was that I was intrigued by the book selection, Jennifer Wilson’s memoir Running Away to Home.

The long subtitle pretty much sums up what the book is about: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters. Jennifer, a travel writer and mother of two, was frustrated with her frenzied, materialistic world of work, soccer practices, swimming lessons, and shopping trips to Target all fueled by caffeine from Starbucks. “Is this the American Dream?” she wondered. “Because if it is, it sort of sucks.” Her husband shared her dissatisfaction and her spirit of adventure. So they set off with their two young children, headed for the small Croatian village of Mrkopalj (MER-koe-pie) in search of Jennifer’s family roots and a simpler life.

Surprisingly, Jennifer, who is the most passionate about travel, is the one who had the hardest time adjusting to the unstructured lifestyle and to living on Croatian time where things get done whenever. (The rooms that were supposed to be ready for them when they arrived for their four-month stay were still a work-in-progress.)

Gradually, Jennifer did settle in and became immersed in the daily life of the village. She wrote with humor about the community and the friendships they formed there, and I loved her descriptions of the area. She also did a great job of building tension. At first, there are only roadblocks as she researches her family roots, but the story builds as she uncovers clues and begins to make progress.

I was tempted to skip some of the early sections about Mrkopalj’s history. I didn’t because I sensed it was an important part of the story, and I was right. I got more interested in the history as I learned more about Jennifer’s ancestors and began to see how the past had influenced their lives. I always say that I never cared much about history until I started writing biographies. But putting real people into the history makes it come alive, and that is the case with Jennifer’s story.

The book ends in Mrkopalj, so now I’m looking forward to the final part of the community reads program, Jennifer’s presentation. I’m hoping she’ll talk about what life is like for her family now that they are home again. I’m wondering how, or if, the trip changed them.

As much as I enjoyed Jennifer’s story and admire her spirit of adventure, I know I’ll never have a similar one to tell. I’m too much of a homebody. A week of vacation and I’m good for at least a few months. What about you? Would you leave everything behind to live in another country for a period of time? Would you make a journey like that with children, or would you prefer to travel on your own or as part of a couple? Or maybe you’ve already enjoyed your own adventure. I would love to hear about it.

Writing Advice

“Write what you know” is advice authors often hear, but I’ve been intimidated by it sometimes. It leaves me wondering what I know about that could possibly interest anyone else. So I’ve expanded that idea to: write what you care about. Nancy Furstinger has followed that advice better than anyone I know.

She is a lover of all types of animals and an adoptive mom to both dogs and rabbits. She also specializes in writing about animals. It’s those two loves that have led to her most recent picture books.

5677929[1]The first, Maggie’s Second Chance, is about a pregnant Lab mix who is abandoned in an empty house. The Realtor finds her and takes her to an animal control facility where her puppies are born. They are adopted, but Maggie is not. Jeff, a fourth grader, is upset when he learns from his teacher that if Maggie is not adopted, she will be euthanized. Jeff and his classmates convince the city council to open an animal shelter, and it is through that shelter, that Maggie is given her second chance.The book is based on two true stories. One is about a dog Nancy rescued. She was abandoned in a house after her humans moved. Nancy planned to foster her until a forever home could be found, but as Nancy admits, she flunked Fostering 101. She adopted the dog renaming her Jolly because that best described her personality.

Nancy and Jolly

Nancy and Jolly

The other part of Maggie’s story came together when Nancy read about a fourth grade class in Texas. They were upset when they learned that unwanted dogs in their town were being euthanized. Determined to do something about it, the students and their teacher, Diane Trull, convinced their city council to set up a no-kill shelter. In 2003, the Dalhart Animal Wellness Group and Sanctuary (DAWGS) was founded. Diane and her family work with children ages nine to eighteen to run the shelter. Although their resources are limited, they have rescued more than 7,000 animals.

imageedit_1_8691751036Nancy’s new picture book, to be released April 1, is also based on one of her adopted pets, a large New Zealand white bunny appropriately named Marshmallow. Her first three years were spent in a tiny outdoor cage until Nancy adopted her and she became a house rabbit. It’s something that happens too often when bunnies are given as Easter gifts. Children enjoy them for a short time, but they quickly lose interest and the bunny is soon neglected.

Nancy and Marshmallow

Nancy and Marshmallow

That is the fate of Bella, the bunny narrator of The Forgotten Rabbit. When the children grow tired of their Easter bunny, she is left outside in a cage without enough food or water. Fortunately, another girl, Rosalita, rescues Bella turning her into a house rabbit. Nancy adds fun and tension to the story by having Rosalita set up an obstacle course for Bella and then entering her in a rabbit agility competition.

“Write what you know” is good advice because, as Nancy shows, it works. What do you know? What do you care about? The answers to those questions could lead to some of your best writing so far.

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