When tragedy or loss shatters our heart, we have moments when it's difficult, even impossible, to imagine putting all the pieces back together. They don't teach that in school.
So when I meet someone who's done it, someone who has made their way through sorrow and pain to find joy and fullness of life, I want to know how they did it.
Amber J. Keyser’s debut novel THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl thrown together by tragedy who find hope and healing in the Canadian wilderness.
There is an intensely personal story behind this book, and I'm honored and grateful the author has agreed to post today and share her story. Amber...
I have always used writing to sort through my experiences, my deepest thoughts, and my hidden fears. There is a box of journals in my attic begun in high school and continued sporadically for all these years into which I penciled my troubles and my victories. For me, words were a way to both exorcise the demons that haunted me and to make sense of my life and relationships.
When I was expecting my first child, a little girl named Esther Rose, my journal entries turned into letters. I chronicled her first movements, my dreams of her, and my hopes for our life together. I wrote to a person that I knew more intimately than anyone else in the world. I wrote from a deep sense that she was the child I had been waiting for my whole life. Together we were forging a new future.
And then she died, this baby girl of mine. This heart of my heart. A cord accident during labor ended her life before it even had a chance to begin. For a long time I thought it had ended mine as well. But I kept writing letters to my daughter. I poured my grief onto the page.
This was fifteen years ago, and the words I wrote were nowhere close to a novel. It took ten years walking the paths of grief, and the safe births of two more children, before I felt ready to write about my loss for others to read.
When I began, one of the women in my critique group asked me if I was ready, really ready, to go back into the shadows. She reminded me of how long it would take, how many times I would have to revise, and how it might feel to receive feedback on such personal material. And yet I forged ahead, crafting characters, who were partly me but also not me, to carry a story that was partly mine but also not mine.
"I had to return
Later on, when I was bringing pages to our group, another member had to gently, so gently, remind me not to let the mother take over the story. This was indeed the challenge of writing THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN. A challenge I faced again and again and again.
To write a novel that would be both honest and true, I had to return to very painful places, but I also had to find a way to peel the emotional truth from my experience and transfer it into the story. It is hard to describe how this worked, harder still to explain how it felt.
The words that capture it best are from THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER by CS Lewis. When Eustace describes how Aslan changed him from a dragon back into a boy, he says:
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.~C.S. Lewis
It was like that for me—eviscerating and freeing at the same time. There were many times that I wept, and afterwards I would experience a strange lightness as if transferring suffering to the page had unburdened me. To my surprise, this sensation of having released my pain has continued.
Over time, my letter writing to my baby has diminished until for the past ten years or so I have only written her letters on her birthday. This year was the first one in which I didn’t even do that. I didn’t forget. I just didn’t need to. THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN is my love song to the daughter I didn’t get to raise, and it says exactly what I needed it to say.
And here's what Booklist is saying in its starred review, “Keyser’s debut novel is an exquisite and enthralling exploration of loss, love, and healing.”
Thanks so much for sharing, Amber.
For more about Amber J. Keyser, her books and her upcoming appearances check out her website here: www.amberjkeyser.com.
More about THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN:
Rakmen Cannon’s life is turning out to be one sucker punch after another. His baby sister died in his arms, his parents are on the verge of divorce, and he’s flunking out of high school. The only place he fits in is with the other art therapy kids stuck in the basement of Promise House, otherwise known as support group central. Not that he wants to be there. Talking doesn’t bring back the dead.
When he’s shipped off to the Canadian wilderness with ten-year-old Jacey, another member of the support group, and her mom, his summer goes from bad to worse. He can’t imagine how eight weeks of canoeing and camping could be anything but awful.
Yet despite his expectations, the vast and unforgiving backcountry just might give Rakmen a chance to find the way back from broken . . . if he’s brave enough to grab it.
To buy the book click here...
I read the The White Rose when I was eleven or twelve years old. Ten days ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the title or name of the protagonist. But then I stumbled upon the story, a story I had not heard in more than 40-years, a story that often came to mind, but blurry in my memory.
I stumbled upon a live wire stretching back to my childhood and the shock and horror of that particular story surged up to the present, as fresh as the day I first felt it.
For many, it's The Diary of Anne Frank that brings Nazi Germany up close and personal for the first time. For me, it was The White Rose and Sophie Scholl. Sophie set the standard for courage, both consciously and unconsciously throughout my life.
read practically a book a day in my pre- and early-teen years, and I liked nothing more than a chilling adventure story that kept me reading well past my bedtime.
The White Rose was such a story, though it was not fiction, as were most books I read. When I reached the last chapter and young Sophie and her brother Hans were executed, I was caught by complete surprise. Nothing in my short life had prepared me for Hitler.
The siblings, 21-yr-old Sophie and 24-year-old Hans printed and distributed literature denouncing Hitler and the Nazi government. The pamphlets called on Germans to "cast off the cloak of indifference" and engage in passive resistance to topple the regime.
Hans and his friends went out at night and painted slogans on buildings at the university they attended: Hitler the Mass Murderer and Freedom!
This photo shows the group at the Munich railway station in 1942, the summer before they were arrested and put to death. Sophie is behind the fence, Hans in the center facing the camera, Christoph Probst to the fore, and Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf to the right.
Since I rediscovered Sophie's story in the book Women Heroes of World War II, by Kathryn J. Atwood, I've had a sick-to-my-stomach feeling of fear and dread off and on, as well as finding myself close to tears in unguarded moments.
As my childhood experience of this story revisited me, I realized I had often measured myself against Sophie. Holding my whiny self up to her light, I always fell short. Below, Sophie Scholl's mug shots.
When I first came across Fannie Sellins’ story, (which is now my forthcoming book) the title of the article was In the Midst of Terror, She Went Out to Her Work. I pursued details as if they were an antidote to my fatal condition. How had Fannie found the courage to go out on the picket line day after day when violent men had threatened to kill her?
When I discovered the American military nurses that had been captured POW by the Japanese in WWII, (the subject of Pure Grit) I went on a mad search of the internet for details. I ordered every book I could find that had been written about them. How had these women survived starvation, sickness, isolation for three long years in captivity? How had they kept courage when day 930 in prison camp turned into day 931.
As a girl, I could imagine myself bravely printing forbidden pamphlets to protest an unfair government. But I only identified with Sophie to a point. I did not have the courage to risk my life as she did.
Sophie’s conviction never left her. She and Hans were executed three hours after their sentencing for treason. The prison guards reported: “They were led off, the girl first, she went without the flicker of an eyelash. None of us understood how this was possible. The executioner said he had never seen anyone meet his end as she did."
Sophie told her cell mate the day before her death, "It is such a splendid, sunny day, and I have to go. But how many have to die on the battlefield in these days, how many young promising lives... What does my death matter if by our acts thousands of people are warned and alerted."
Today, I am not measuring myself against Sophie's courage. I'm accepting myself for who I am, and I'm freer to see Sophie more clearly, too.
When her story is no longer tinged with my self-judgement, I have greater capacity to be inspired by her integrity, to marvel at her valor, and to believe in our human ability to act with virtue in depraved and brutal circumstances.
Any thoughts? I'd love to hear from you. Leave your comment below.
I'm fascinated to discover little-known stories from history. Stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
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