At the end of high school I went to France for a few weeks with about 8 girls from my French class. It was my first international flight. I remember the exhilaration of watching the inky blackness turn to aerial dawn high above Europe, a sunrise like I had never seen before with stripes of color stretching out endlessly in front of me like a Monet painting.
I remember thinking about the hundreds of transatlantic voyages my ancestors had taken on rough and bumpy boats from Europe’s shores to the colonies and early United States the four hundred years before. It seemed like no one else on the plane was awake, and I remember feeling this profoundly spiritual moment landing on the European soil for the first time, returning to the homeland. It was a sentiment likely fueled by books like The Witch of Black Bird Pond, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, and innumerable American Girl (Doll) novels with their vivid accounts of sea voyages to America.
By far the most memorable part of the trip was the week home stay with a French family in Nantes, the Antoines. They had three children, a college age son Jean-Charles and two daughters my age, Camille and Eve. My French and their English meant that our conversations often resembled an elaborate daylong game of charades.
Camille and Eve were hospitable in ways that I hadn’t considered, genially offering me hand rolled cigarettes. (D.A.R.E. had not prepared me to turn down drugs from kindly French host-sisters.) But they seemed not too much put out by my “Non, merci.” The exchange program hosted a party for all of us, so that my first underage drinking party was bizarrely school sanctioned. Nor will I ever forget zipping through the back alleys of Nantes with an inebriated teenage driver and not enough French or phone numbers to feel like I could do anything about it. I remember feeling helpless being the stranger in a strange land, especially because I couldn’t use my voice, which had always served me so well.
There is a unique kind of vulnerability and connection that comes with cross-cultural encounters. Stripped of small talk and common ways of doing the simplest tasks—bathing, cooking, going to school—we are left encountering the humanity in each other in the small acts of noticing beauty together or laughing at the humor of everyday life we might not have had time to see normally, but we are also unusually at the hands and mercy of those who are on their home soil.
Caroline Starr Rose’s newest verse novel Blue Birds, coming out in March, captures this beautiful human impulse to connect when language and culture and prejudice try to keep people apart.
Blue Birds tells the story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, and of two lonely girls, one, 12 year old Alis from England, and the other, Kimi a Roanoke Indian girl of the same age. It is exactly the sort of book I would have loved to read as a child, of coming across the sea from England and landing bravely on the new shore. I have always thought that the grey-eyed Roanoke Indians were a mystery that someone needed to write about, and who better than Caroline Starr Rose!
Without a common language, Kimi and Alis, who have both had people close to them die at the hands of the other’s people, forge a friendship based on their love of nature and open-hearted curiosity toward each other. They risk much to meet while tensions between the English and Roanoke rise.
Like her first novel, May B, Caroline Starr Rose has again created protagonists who are deeply and wonderfully brave. They are risk takers and truth speakers.
I marveled at the ability of so few, well-chosen, words to convey such a powerful story. The free-verse format means the story is condensed into something rich and sweet, like caramel from sugar and butter. And it also serves to help us enter into the friendship of Alis and Kimi that has so few words to go on, and yet is so deep and strong.
In looking for photos of my own home stay in France, I ran across a rather detailed and forgotten journal from my time there. I read back through the dramatic, misspelled entries, written in a shaky hand on bumpy bus rides. The amazing thing is that what I remember about the trip now, a decade later, is mostly the fear and loneliness of being stranger, but my 18 year-old self hardly wrote about the fear or loneliness at all. In my journal, I wax on about the beauty of cathedrals, the loudness of other Americans, and the long heart-to-heart talks with my friends.
Two days into my home stay, I wrote:
April 10, 2013
I don’t know when exactly it happened, but I’ve started to become more a part of the family. After Camille and Eve finished their guitar lesson (I was reading Harry Potter) we went out to the garden for Eve and Camille to smoke. Then Camille took a shower, and we played cards afterwards. I taught her “Crazy Eights.” It took me a little while to learn the suit names in French, and Ace sounds a lot like “ass.” I tried to explain why that was funny, and we both laughed.
We are often a lot braver than we remember. And we need stories to help us be bold as we travel with the characters as they stand up for what they love and make hard choices. We need books like Blue Birds and characters like Alis and Kimi to remind us of the power of our words and friendships. We need them to remind us how we can travel and be brave.
These days bravery for me looks like believing in writing a novel; it is an act of faith that is made easier by those who are walking the road in front of me. Caroline is one of the people who has been such a cheerleader and source of encouragement to me. It is such an honor to receive a galley copy of her book and share in the project of letting people know that it is coming out in a bit over a month. One of the bits about the publishing business that I’ve been slowly learning is how important pre-orders are now. It really helps to pre-order books to help the publisher know how many to print. So buy books you love by pre-ordering them! To help encourage people to pre-order, Caroline is offering a beautiful pdf made by the very talented Annie Barnett of Be Small Studios.
This post is part of a week-long celebration in honor of the book Blue Birds. Author Caroline Starr Rose is giving away a downloadable PDF of this beautiful Blue Birds quote (created by Annie Barnett of Be Small Studios) for anyone who pre-orders the book from January 12-19. Simply click through to order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books A Million, IndieBound, or Powell’s, then email a copy of your receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday, January 19. PDFs will be sent out January 20.
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