Telling tales of bravery in dark times

Author gets award at UN for children's book on courage amid strife

Carmen Agra Deedy is so full of stories that at times they seem to just spill out of her.

There is the story of her family's dramatic flight from Cuba when she was a girl. That leads into the tale of what happened to her doll en route.

Then there is the saga of how a completed manuscript was stolen. That branches off into an account of how a sympathetic desk clerk offered her a luxury hotel suite at a discount so she could have a quiet place to re-compose the missing work.

"Oh, I've got to stop this!" she apologizes, hand flying over mouth during an interview. "Look at how long this is taking. I just keep telling stories!"

Given her natural bent as a shaper of tales, it's not surprising that Ms. Deedy looks to stories as a healing force. And although she wrote her award-winning children's book "The Yellow Star" well before the events of Sept. 11, Deedy has been deeply gratified that readers have found solace in the work at this time.

The connection to the events in New York was especially on Deedy's mind earlier this month when she visited the city to accept the Jane Addams Peace Association Honor Book Award from Nane Annan, the wife of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, at a UN ceremony.

"The Yellow Star" recounts the legend of the bravery of King Christian X of Denmark in the face of the Nazi occupation of his country. Among other acts of courage, King Christian is credited with having begun to display a yellow star on his own clothing as soon as the German occupation troops ordered all Danish Jews to do so.

A source of inspiration

Deedy notes that although this tale is often told, historians have never been able to verify it. However, she says, many Danes hold to it fiercely. "It's a story that people find necessary to believe," she says. "There's a need in all of us to believe that there are people who at the darkest times will stand up and fight."

That's why, she adds, the entire world was transfixed by the actions of New York City policemen and firefighters during and after the attack on the World Trade Center. At difficult moments, she says, examples of courage are most badly needed.

It's also helpful right now, she adds, to look back and remember that this is not the first time in history when entire populations have been gripped by fear and horror. The Nazi occupation of Europe, she says, "was one of the darkest times in human history," and yet, she points out, in the end "good prevailed."

"There are constant cycles in history," she says. "There is loss, but it is always followed by regeneration. The tales of our elders who remember such cycles are very important to us now."

The stories of her own parents have long been a source of inspiration to Deedy. When Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, her mother and father made the difficult decision to offer shelter to those attempting to flee the country, despite concerns about the safety of their own two children.

"They were not people who could stand by and do nothing," she says.

Eventually they too needed to leave Cuba, and the family of four boarded a plane to the United States, carrying nothing with them but Deedy's beloved cloth doll. When an official first strip-searched the family and then slit the doll open with a knife to see if anything was concealed within, the already frightened three-year-old Deedy screamed and dissolved into hysterical tears.

It wasn't until she was actually en route to the US that she recovered her doll and made an astonishing discovery. The official, evidently moved by the tears of the child, had taken the time to crudely pin back together and reshape the torn doll.

For Deedy, that incident in early life has come to exemplify the type of story she's most apt to seek out: moments of kindness in unexpected places.

That's why, she says, the story of King Christian jumped out at her when she first heard it recounted at a story-telling festival in Tennessee. It wasn't told by a professional storyteller, but rather was casually mentioned by a listener. Deedy, however, was immediately captivated.

She spent more than a year gathering information about that period of Danish history over the Internet and in libraries. She wrote the book by hand on yellow legal pads, as she did all six children's books she has authored. Most often, her desk was a table in a diner or a waffle house. As the mother of five daughters, she says, escaping the house is the only way to focus on her work.

But once completed, the only copies of the book disappeared when her house was broken into. For a year, she tried to rewrite it but could not succeed.

The kindness of strangers

Finally, one night, desperate to find a quiet spot to work and think, she drove to a resort in the mountains, only to discover she couldn't afford the expensive rooms there. But a desk clerk, moved by her story, offered her a lovely suite at a deep discount.

There, in one night, she rewrote "The Yellow Star."

"Once again," she points out, "the kindness of a stranger."

At the moment, Deedy feels far from composed when she thinks about current events. The mere mention of the terrorist attacks on the US causes her dark eyes to fill with tears.

She is also candid about expressing fear of what lies ahead. "It's autumn," she predicts. "We haven't come to full winter yet."

But what she clings to - and what she hopes "The Yellow Star" will communicate to all readers who pick it up - is a certainty that "whatever we perceive as good in the world has always endured, and it always will."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

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