Friday, 20 June 2014
Review of Until the Robin Walks on Snow and Interview with author, Bernice L. Rocque
For this month's Triskele Bookclub, I'd like to welcome Bernice L. Rocque, author of Until the Robin Walks on Snow, inspired by a true family story.
Bernice L. Rocque is a writer, educator, family historian, and avid gardener. She grew up in Norwich, Connecticut in the surroundings described in her novella, Until the Robin Walks on Snow. She has authored numerous business articles associated with her work in libraries, training and development, and project management. Articles she has written about her family have appeared in the Norwich Bulletin, Good Old Days magazine, and Family Chronicle. Ms. Rocque lives in Connecticut, USA.
Firstly, a few words about this charming book:
Until the Robin Walks on Snow is a Mom's Choice Award (MCA) Gold Recipient for YA HISTORICAL FICTION. MCA recognizes the best in family-friendly media, products, and services. -- Mom's Choice Awards.
Until the Robin Walks on Snow was named a Finalist in the National Indie Excellence Awards in the category, FACTION (fiction based on fact). -- 2013 National Indie Excellence Awards.
From the Author:
Imagine that you are the parent of a newborn weighing one-and-a-half pounds. Now imagine that it is 1922. You have just moved - from a city with some conveniences to a farm with no electricity or running water.
This work of fiction is based on actual events. The mother in the story was my Lithuanian grandmother. My uncle and aunt, who grew up in the 1920s, served as advisers for me. We like to say that this is the story that "might have happened." I wrote it so that most members of a family would be able to read it. It is suitable for ages 10 and up.
From the moment I opened my copy of Until the Robin Walks on Snow I was hooked by the author’s eloquent prose, as she creatively marries fact and fiction. The story follows the birth of a premature baby, Antoni in the early twentieth century, “the smallest baby the doctor has ever seen––dead or alive”, and continues with the family's struggle to save this 1.5lb child during an extremely cold winter.
As well as precise details of how the family battles to save the baby, we also learn much about the culture, religion and celebrations of the author’s Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian ancestors, allowing the reader to truly feel a part of this 1920s community. And for me, this family’s long battle to save their child symbolises that same long struggle many immigrants face when they arrive in a new country.
Great storytelling, coupled with impressive genealogical research, family stories and local history, I would highly recommend this captivating story about love, hope and faith, and the unwavering determination of a family to sustain one fragile life.
Interview with Bernice L. Rocque:
Firstly, the most obvious question: what made you decide to write about this subject?
Thank you for inviting me for this interview, Liza.
This story idea surfaced during a conversation with my uncle. We were talking about the 1.5-pound preemie born to his parents in 1922—the tiny baby my grandparents were determined to save. My uncle knew I had been writing memoir-type vignettes. As we yakked, we became more and more intrigued. Could we reconstruct the story about the tiny baby?
We definitely had questions. And, in my father’s family, questions and curiosity seem to drive us. It did seem there were too few facts to tell the story as nonfiction.
Between us, my uncle and I had known most of the characters. With a bit of trepidation, I suggested we might try historical fiction. Perhaps build the core from the facts, the characters, the family history, and research—and then fictionalize the rest to reflect the most logical story? At that moment, I wondered if he would have reservations about fictionalizing a story about his parents. But, he was comfortable with the approach. So, I asked if he would serve as my advisor. His 87-year-old face beamed with the enthusiasm of a youthful entrepreneur. “Let’s do it,” he said.
You tell us that the mother in the story was your Lithuanian grandmother. Did you actually know her, and/or have any contact with her?
Yes, I knew her well. My parents built their house on a lot adjacent to the farmhouse where my book, Until the Robin Walks on Snow, takes place. (In the story, my father is the 2-year-old Michal, the older brother of the newborn, Antoni.)
Almost every day of my childhood, I would run over to visit my grandmother, Marianna. She so loved visits by her grandchildren! Her greeting started with a big smile and an effusive verbal endearment. Then, with arms outstretched she’d cup her hands around my shoulders and plant a double kiss (one on each cheek). Next, she would offer some food she was cooking or chewing gum. I’m recalling how much she loved Chicklets!
I haven’t thought about the Chicklets in years. This is a good example of how recall occurs when you are basing a book on family history. It is fascinating how remembrances surface when you are talking, writing, revising, and interviewing. Sometimes, it is little details like these Chicklets, and other times it is major memory visuals that reveal insights about a person, character, or event that occurred.
When I began to write creatively in 2004, my goal was to preserve the “essence” of those who came before me, so that descendents could know more than what a stack of facts and a few photos offered. For more about this, take a look at:
Back in 2010, during the review of the very first (12-page) draft of the story, a person in my writers group commented, “That generation knew how to do so many things, didn’t they?” We all nodded, feeling a bit short of these “life” skills, in agriculture, animal husbandry, and the trades. One of the best decisions my grandparents made was to buy the Norwichtown, CT farm in 1922. My aunt, born in 1925, told me that during the Great Depression her mother, Marianna, fed an endless stream of people. Relatives, friends, and friends of ... would visit for a few days, help out on the farm, and enjoy the hearty Lithuanian and Polish food my grandmother cooked. A hundred years ago, workers compensation, social security, and other safety nets did not exist.
Yes, my grandmother, Marianna, was a force—of productivity, problem solving, generosity, and curiosity, just like her father, Nikodimas. Family stories of their experiments abound: crops, herbs, flowers, recipes, technology. In Until the Robin Walks on Snow, we learn that Marianna loved to crochet. She also thrived on figuring out the crochet patterns. In the next book, Marianna will grow flax, so that she can learn how to weave linen fabric. Today in Lithuania, linen goods are still prevalent.
Liza, I am pleased that you asked this question about my grandmother. It has been rewarding to acquaint readers with Marianna. Even though the book fictionalized this intense story about the efforts of my family and their friends to save my extremely premature uncle, the characterization of Marianna as a person of courage, determination, and grit is not exaggerated. She was someone worth knowing, then and now. My grandmother spoke five languages and read at least three. In her youth, she attended a domestic school in Lithuania and was homeschooled by her father, Nikodimas, with banned books. She could kill a chicken without hesitation, but she also loved poetry!
My aunt told me that poetry was like song to my grandmother. Lithuania, her home country, is still a nation of song. When Lithuania and other Baltic nations broke away from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, there were numerous demonstrations of solidarity, in which masses of people, including children, gathered and sang. At the time, the media dubbed it the “Singing Revolution.” For more on the history of this nonviolent form of protest and resistance, see: http://www.artsci.washington.edu/newsletter/Dec13/Baltics.asp
As described in Until the Robin Walks on Snow, Marianna was steadfast in her challenge and clear about her priorities. During her life, though, she did take time to just enjoy small moments. When I was a child, if I happened to be visiting with her during the start of a summer thunderstorm, we would sit out on the open front porch and watch the lightning streaks. It was thrilling! I always felt safe with her.
Did the premature baby actually exist? Which parts of the story are factual?
Oh yes, the baby existed... I knew that younger members of my family would ask which story parts were based on fact and which were fiction, so I appended Author’s Notes. That other readers have enjoyed the notes, too, has been a nice surprise!
The facts include documented items such as the birth and baptism dates, the names of the godparents, the land records, etc. There are also physical artifacts such as the house, the land, the crocheted bureau scarves and other creations from my grandmother’s hands, the irons that kept the children’s feet warm at night, etc. Then, there is a layer of family remembrances, such as the stories of my grandfather saving our cousin, Anna, what the health department doctor said when he first saw baby Antoni, etc.
An iterative approach in the writing and researching turned out to be quite helpful in this book, as did not having a super detailed outline. I didn’t anticipate that the research would bestow a few “gifts” on me, the writer. One example was the discovery that the events in Until the Robin Walks on Snow took place during one of the most severe winters of the last century in New England—lots of snow and very cold. Besides lending accuracy to what my characters might have experienced, this find fed the literary structure of the story, and helped me to realize what the story climax needed to be. That was fiction, but who knows, maybe not! The research “gifts” were a reminder of the value of serendipity!
In your Author Notes, you provide some interesting anecdotal information. Do you have a particular interest in history and genealogy in general?
History was my undergraduate minor, but the history of everyday life in other times is my favourite type of history. And, like many readers, I gravitate to stories in which ordinary people directly influence their own lives and the lives of others in ways that are extraordinary.
I became hooked on genealogy in 5th grade, when my teacher gave us an assignment to talk with our parents and grandparents and fill out our family tree. I can still see the moment in my grandmother’s kitchen when I realized that I descended from an endless line of people, and largely people I did not know. I was astounded and curious at the same time!
In high school, my world history teacher, Mr. Jacobs, opened a new lens for me by introducing context about the times and insight into the motivation of rulers. He was so dramatic, but more importantly, held our attention and incited our interest in knowing more. Then, in college—well how many readers, age 20, savor every page of Boswell’s London Journal or have a U.S. history professor who dresses like a bootlegger for his lecture about Prohibition and the 1920s. By the time I was in my early twenties, I had interviewed numerous relatives on both sides of my family, collecting data and stories.
Can you tell us a bit about the publication of Until the Robin Walks on Snow? Did you take care of all the publishing aspects yourself?
I subcontracted the editing and the book cover. My skill portfolio has benefited me directly in both the writing and book publishing/marketing. The undergrad major in English, a masters in library science with experience as a YA/Reference Librarian, 20 years of eclectic experience in a global business, and certification in project management have all helped me in assembling this first book. Teaching, writing, and public speaking along that career journey have been assets as I acclimated to the publishing industry.
When I made the decision to publish Until the Robin Walks on Snow via my small business, it seemed a good idea to separate the publishing arm from my other small business activities. Establishing the DBA (Doing Business As), 3Houses, cost me $8.00 and an hour of my time to fill out a form in my town and then ensure that my bank would accept new transactions in my business account based on the DBA name.
My business qualified me as a small publisher with LSI/Ingram. In 2012, there appeared to be some static in their supplier relationship to Amazon, so I decided to print my book as well via Createspace. By the way, the same digital file worked technically for both printers! In general, I like having two printers.
Any plans for future books? And will you continue writing in the historical “Faction” genre?
The research and plan for Book 2 (a continuation of the family story) are underway, and will be written in a similar approach. My current thinking is that the main plot line will feature Nikodimas, the grandfather, and his bootlegging business activities. Book 3 would deal with the years of the Great Depression.
Like Until the Robin Walks on Snow, future books will continue to give readers a glimpse into what life was like for an immigrant family. Some of the reviewers of “Robin” stated that they wished the story had gone on longer. They wanted to know more. I hope they will welcome the next installment which will be released in 2015, if the muses cooperate!
Thanks so much for answering my questions, Bernice. I wish you all the best with Until the Robin Walks on Snow, and I look forward to reading the next installments!
Retail links for Until the Robin Walks on Snow:
Contact details for Bernice L. Rocque: