Regional authors look to the past to write novels for young readers

Two regionally based authors have taken cues from the past to write novels for young readers with September release dates. For Mary Casanova, it was a reference to the ignominious death of a prostitute in the early 1900s in Koochiching County; fo...

Mary Casanova

Two regionally based authors have taken cues from the past to write novels for young readers with September release dates.

For Mary Casanova, it was a reference to the ignominious death of a prostitute in the early 1900s in Koochiching County; for Margi Preus, it was her mother's wedding dress.

The writers, who are friends, will share a book launch at 7 p.m. today at Norway Hall. The party includes a performance by professional soprano Sarah Lawrence. The event is free and open to the public.

'Frozen' by Mary Casanova

Casanova has been wrestling with a piece of information she encountered in Hiram Drache's book "Koochiching" for the past two decades. In the early 1900s, a prostitute was found frozen in the snow and an anonymous prankster took the body and propped it up at the start of a council meeting.


"In the historical account, it says it 'caused a great stir,' " said Casanova, who lives in Ranier, Minn. "It haunted me and haunted me. I thought, 'I just have to write it and see where the story will go.' "

This led her to Sadie Rose, the teenage girl at the center of "Frozen," a young-adult novel published by University of Minnesota Press. Young Sadie Rose was there on the night her mother died and followed the man who removed the body from the brothel. While her mother became the subject of the prank, Sadie Rose was found barely alive and nursed back to health. She was raised, but not-quite-adopted by the Worthingtons, movers in the state political sphere.

Sadie Rose almost completely recovered -- except for her voice. Twelve years later, she still is unable to speak.

She's in the care of the family's Norwegian help when the Worthingtons leave town for a few days. Sadie Rose finds photographs of her mother posed suggestively, and this piece from the past shakes something loose. Her voice returns, and with her voice come questions about what happened that night.

"Frozen" has a smart heroine in Sadie Rose, who suspects there is more than one way to live. It's also a portrait of politics, the battle between environmentalists and developers, Prohibition and the changing climate for women. Along the way, Sadie Rose encounters an intriguing artist who isn't confined by the rules of being a proper young lady, a young man who is challenging the influential and rich owner of the paper mill and an independent peer with a few entrepreneurial secrets.

"What I didn't expect was for the whole backdrop of what was happening in the area to start to come forth in the novel," Casanova said. "My challenge was to not let these (other) characters take over the story. I had to keep pushing the other characters into the background."

Casanova has written 30 books ranging from picture books to chapter books to stories from the American Girl series and historical fiction. She currently is working on a story set during the Civil War. "Frozen," Casanova's first for readers in this age demographic, is set in her neighborhood, and the Worthingtons' summer home is modeled after her own.

"It's a personal story because I'm drawing on my love of history and Rainy Lake and the places I've explored and the region itself," she said. "The beauty is in the present and the story is in the past, and this is a way for me to bring it all together."


With "Frozen," Casanova said she was able to exorcise the story that haunted her for years.

"I feel that the story was a way to vindicate this woman's life and senseless death," she said.

'Shadow on the Mountain' by Margi Preus

Preus found, among the photographs and correspondences her parents left behind, the story of her mother's trip to pick up her traditional Norwegian wedding dress from a friend -- who ended up becoming a minister in the Nazi government.

She said she knew she wanted to write an adventure story about the Resistance movement in Norway during Germany's occupation. Her father had plenty of stories from this period, and it was the sort of material her oldest son liked to read about when he was a young reader.

Preus' research led her to Erling Storrusten, whose story she drew from to create "Shadow on the Mountain," published by Amulet Books.

"I made the same mistake with 'Heart of the Samurai,' thinking this was going to be so easy," Preus said of her previous book. "These guys have had such amazing experiences. All I have to do is write it down and it will be good. Then I looked at it and said, 'That's not really a novel, is it?' You have to find a way to have an arc and a story that is going to pull you through."

The novel, geared for children ages 10 and older, is about Espen, a teenaged soccer player who itches to work as part of the Resistance. He gets his start delivering underground newspapers, earns a code name and dupes the soldiers who intercept him. He and his teammates build a super-secret hideout and transport goods and messages and eventually he earns a promotion to full-fledged spy.


Not everyone is fighting for the same cause, though. Both Espen's best friend and a former teammate have voluntarily sided with Germany and are involved with enforcing Nazi rule. The story is exciting with its close calls and chase scenes and includes a subtle love story and a smart younger sister who is keeping a journal and sneaking food to prisoners.

"Shadow on the Mountain" already has one big order: Storrusten wants a copy for each of his grandchildren, Preus said.

"Heart of the Samurai" received a Newbery Honor award, which means "Shadow" will attract immediate attention. It already has been written about in the Wall Street Journal.

"You have to not think about that," Preus said. "For me, I looked at that as kind of a fluke or lucky break. It just happened, and I don't expect it again. I just wanted to try to do the best job I could with my material."

Claire Kirch, the Midwest correspondent for Publisher's Weekly, said Preus' book was getting good chatter at a recent bookseller convention in Denver and she expects to hear similar things at the Heartland Fall Forum. Kirch said it is standing out at a time when so many other new releases in the same category are knockoffs from "The Hunger Game" trilogy.

"Margi has that reputation earned from the Newbery Award runner-up," Kirch said. "She's got a good name and a good reputation. The eyes will be on her."

Christa Lawler is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
What To Read Next
Get Local