Anola Pickett

Each book begins with a specific incident or memory that someone has shared with me,” author Anola Pickett reported in an interview posted on four days after her 80th birthday.

Set in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1918, her newest historical novel is Callahan Crossroads. Its main character, 12-year-old George, must decide how to react when bullies harass his elderly, widowed neighbor whose husband was German. During a KRUU interview, Anola identified how the creative impulse to write this book arose.

In 1918, when her mother was six years old, neighborhood boys made a dummy of Kaiser Wilhelm, attached it to the back of a car, dragged it around, and then burned it. Anola’s mother shared many memories with her about growing up in Kansas City, Missouri during World War I, but, for Anola, this one stood out.

“That gave impetus to exploring the negative attitude towards anyone or anything German during the war,” Anola explained.

During an earlier KRUU interview, Anola revealed the origin of Whisper Island, her second historical novel. Long ago, she and her husband attended a park ranger’s program at North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

“One shipwreck story that happened in 1913 caught my fancy,” Anola explained, “because the first person off the ship was the captain’s wife, who was very large. Instead of being grateful to the men who were rescuing her, she complained all the way off the ship about losing her jewelry, her clothes, and her fine things,” Anola recalled.

“The other thing that caught my fancy was the fact that when the captain came off, he brought his St. Bernard dog with him. Later he gave that dog to the villagers. So that gave me two little things to spring off of and develop a story,” she concluded.

An eight-year-old shepherdess inspired Anola’s first historical novel, Wasatch Summer. Anola heard the shepherdess’s story from a friend of a friend whose ancestor she was. (An Author’s Note explains that Anola made her fictional shepherdess, Hannah, three years older due to her book’s complexity.) Alone, in 1889, the real-life girl took her family’s sheep to a Utah mountain valley, where she stayed to tend them alone all summer. While there, she met  Blackfeet Indians who helped and comforted her.

Octogenarian Anola Pickett spins odd things—Kaiser Wilhelm’s effigy aflame in Kansas City, Missouri; a St. Bernard rescued from a sinking ship near North Carolina’s Outer Banks; an eight-year-old shepherdess sent to tend sheep alone in a Utah mountain valley—into engaging and historically accurate fiction for children. Why? Her curious, caring, and compassionate nature compels her to share people who shaped our past with those who will form our future. Compassion, curiosity, caring—an octogenarian’s values seem oddly quaint in our present day era of hotly contentious division. If we could look at the world through kind, cool eyes like Anola’s, would our creativity flourish? Would we? Would our nation?

NEST by Esther Ehrlich: “I just wrote the book I needed to write.”

Esther Ehrlich, Author of Nest

Esther Ehrlich, Author of Nest

Some things that I read make me long to meet the author. Anyone who can write like this, I think, must be a wise person. B. K. Loren’s novel Theft elicited that reaction. So did Elizabeth McCracken’s story, “Some Have Entertained Angels, Unaware” and “Welding with Children” by Tim Gautreaux.  And now there’s this new book, Esther Ehrlich’s historical novel Nest, which I found myself magically pre-approved to download to my Kindle and read free-of-charge thanks to NetGalley (which provides complimentary e-books to reviewers and media people).

Set in the 1970s, Nest is a children’s book, purportedly for ages 10 and up, but it didn’t surprise me to learn that Esther didn’t plan it that way.

“I did not write the book with any audience in mind,” she told me recently while taping a radio interview for The Studio on KRUU-LP 100.1FM. “I really feel like I just wrote the book I really needed to write,” she explained.

Reading Nest, I wondered, Who could do this? Who could tell a story with so much sadness yet still infuse it with so much hope and joy? Nest’s protagonist, eleven-year-old Naomi (nicknamed Chirp due to her fascination with birds) faces serious problems. Her mom’s longstanding struggle to overcome crippling depression crumbles after troubling symptoms lead to a multiple sclerosis diagnosis and end her dancing career. The insistence of Chirp’s dad (a psychiatrist) on addressing family crises with emotionally insensitive discussions intensifies family members’ isolation. The family’s religion—they’re Jewish in an area where most people aren’t—renders evangelical Christian spiritual advice, offered awkwardly from secondary adults in Chirp’s life, irrelevant. Finally, Chirp’s friend Joey, whose home life includes physical and emotional abuse, develops obsessive compulsions.

Esther tempers all this malaise with graceful strategies that Chirp grasps for psychic survival: dancing indoors and out, tromping to her favorite birding-watching spots, throwing rocks with Joey in his secret, glass-walled hangout. Chirp’s life is filled with hit 1970s records and with the sounds of crickets and songbirds. She exploits all the freedom enjoyed by 1970s-era children, children untethered to technology, children who explore the landscape around them in a very visceral way. Esther plumbs all the richness of children’s lives during this less technological era.

Naomi reads books, and from one, Harriet the Spy, she learns the value of being observant. Nothing escapes this girl, not scents (sweat, lavender, lemon) or tastes (Oreos, Ring Dings, Yodels) or traditions (making menorahs by sticking candles into holes poked in raw potatoes, riding swan boats in the Boston Public Garden).
Enlivened by Chirp’s innocent engagement with the sensory world, readers eventually suspect that, aided by Joey’s friendship, this strong, thoughtful girl—though mightily challenged—will emerge from the blanket nest she’s built on her bedroom floor and navigate her way to a successful and happy adulthood.

Nest by Esther Ehrlich

Nest by Esther Ehrlich