By Toni Buzzeo
Published: June 24, 2009
Blog Tour, Day 3: Toni Buzzeo explores historical fiction and its influence on her writing.
As a writer for children, I love to explore historical fiction topics. But when I was a child, history was not the playground that it is for me now. Little wonder. The single fact I remember from my high school World History class is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s middle name: Mikhailovich. Had I but known the answer to that bonus question on the first quarter exam, I’d have passed the test—as my dear friend Mary Benson did. But tell me, who NEEDS to know Dostoevsky’s middle name?
Rather, I believe that what children need to know is how it felt to be alive in another time. They need to know what was the same and what was different, what is timeless and what is mutable. It’s what I care about now, as a writer for children and as a child myself in the long history of the world. Writing historical fiction helps me to live, in my imagination, more fully in those other times.
As I learn about small events in history, my mind begins to wander the lanes of circumstance and the fields of possibility. One small POSSIBLE historical event captured my imagination in the spring of 1998 as I watched Light Spirit, a film about the lighthouses along the coast of Maine. According to narrator Jack Perkins, a miracle had occurred at Hendricks Head Light on Southport Island in the 1870’s when a ship sank off the shore and a bundle of feather mattresses surrounding a leather sea chest washed ashore. Inside, the lighthouse keeper and his wife found a crying baby girl with a note tied to her wrist: We commit this child into the hands of God. May he save her. As I rewound the VHS tape and listened to the story again and again, something captured me completely as questions echoed in my mind.
What was the experience like for the lighthouse keeper, I wondered, to witness this miracle—and to adopt that crying baby girl as his own? What was it like for the child who grew up knowing that her parents loved her so completely that they cast her on the ocean waves with the hope that she might survive as they perished? My mind sang with possibilities.
What I didn’t know then, but understand more completely now, is that the story fascinated me not only for its extraordinary events, but also because it tapped a deep emotional place for me. It was the adoption story that sang to me from within the history. As I struggled to write a manuscript worthy of the story I had heard in the film, I didn’t yet understand what was required. A close writing friend, Jane Kurtz, encouraged me to think of it as a sister story. When I finally introduced a lighthouse keeper’s daughter into the mix—a girl growing up alone and lonely on the island with only her Mama to teacher her reading and only her Papa to spin stories of the world beyond the craggy island—the emotional core of my story came clear.
I created a character not unlike myself, a quiet, lonely only child. My own life changed when I was nine years old and my foster sister Maryanne came to live with us for most of a year. I found in myself a joyful companion to a small stranger who quickly became a beloved family member. I imagined, then, how my character Maita would feel upon opening the sea chest and finding that crying baby girl staring up at her. Wouldn’t she feel just as I had, despite the difference in time and place? Isn’t the emotional response immutable?
As important as historical research and facts are to historical fiction, it is the human emotions underlying the history that are most important to me. Even though further research led me to believe that the baby-in-the-sea-chest tale was a local legend, the emotional truth of my story didn’t change, and so The Sea Chest has remained a beloved picture book to its many readers and is now in its eighth printing.
I continue to watch for historical fiction that touches on emotional truths. In September 2010, I will publish A Lighthouse Christmas, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Dial). This second historical lighthouse book is about the Flying Santa Service, which carried Christmas gifts to isolated lighthouse families along the coast of New England for many years. The story gave me the chance to continue to explore the history of lighthouse living (this time in the 1920’s) and also the spirit of service and giving that imbued those hardy souls who lived on small islands surrounded by sea. In this story as Christmas approaches, Frances and Peter’s cupboards are bare and their hearts are bereft. They must make a decision to leave their lighthouse keeper father alone on the island in order to have a traditional Christmas on the mainland or remain on the island to protect ships on the sea while finding a way to create a new kind of Christmas for their family. Once again, you see, it is the emotional truth within the history that captures me and keeps me writing historical fiction!
The Children’s Book Review invites you to visit Toni at all her tour stops; and to take a look at her first historical lighthouse book, Sea Chest:
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Dial (August 5, 2002)
Publisher’s synopsis: As they wait for the arrival of a new baby, Maita tells her great-grandniece the story of her remarkable childhood. Living sheltered on a lighthouse island with only her parents for company, Maita always longed for a sibling-longed not to be the only child the ragged island knew. And then one icy night, howling winds blew wave after wave against the shore, and from that fearsome storm came a sea chest-a gift that would change Maita’s life forever.
From a beguiling Maine legend, newcomer Toni Buzzeo has fashioned this exquisitely lyrical, intimate tale, illustrated in vibrant oil paintings by Mary GrandPré. Together they have created a book of classic beauty and resonance.
Publishers Weekly review: “… Poignant, poetic and movingly illustrated, this story resonates with sisterly love.”
Add this book to your collection: Sea Chest