Today we have an interview with Maryann Macdonald, author of Odette's Secrets. Her latest book features a young girl living in France in order to escape the Holocaust. Told in verse and based on a real life figure, this story examines the meaning of identity and growing up in a different culture to survive.
What made you decide to focus on Odette Meyers and tell a fictionalized version of her childhood life?
One late August afternoon a few years ago, I was walking around the old Jewish neighborhood of the Marais in Paris with my husband. We passed an elementary school with a bronze plaque. The plaque honored the memory of the Jewish children, students at the school, who had been deported from France during WWII. I kept thinking about those children…who were they? What were their lives like in France during the war?
I began reading about life in Paris during World War II, especially about the life of French Jews. I learned that 11,400 children were deported. Most of these died. But more children survived in France than in any other European country….84%. They were hidden in homes, convents, monasteries, farms and schools all over the country. To stay successfully hidden, these children had to “reinvent” themselves, to become French Christian children. How in the world had they been able to do this, I wondered? And what was it like for them to readjust to reality after the war?
In October, I was still thinking over these questions when I was invited to the American Library in Paris to read my book, The Costume Copycat, at the library’s annual Halloween party. After all the pirates and princesses went home, I went upstairs to browse in the stacks. And there, by chance, I found Doors to Madame Marie, the autobiography of Odette Meyers, a woman who had been one of those hidden French children during the war.
I became deeply fascinated by the story of Odette’s remarkable childhood and decided I just had to write it down in a form that could be read by today’s children.
The novel was written entirely in verse. What were some of the advantages and disadvantages of writing in this format?
Originally, I tried to write Odette’s story in prose, as a straight biography. This seemed too dry. Then I remembered that Odette loved poetry. She believed the beauty of poetry was one of the things that helped her to survive her experiences in the Vendee. When she moved to the United States with her family after the war, she married the poet Bert Meyers, taught literature and wrote poetry herself. So I began to think it might be a good idea to try to write her story in first person, in free verse, imagining insofar as I was able, the childhood voice of Odette, a poet-to-be.
The disadvantage of my chosen approach seems to be that some people don’t like novels in verse. And even though others might have read Odette’s Secrets sympathetically, they still don’t seem to understand the reason why it was written in verse. But I accept as true what Abraham Lincoln famously said, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
In your research for Odette’s Secrets, what was one thing that really stood out to you?
Probably what I mentioned above, that despite the fact that 11,400 French Jewish children perished in the Holocaust, about 84% of them survived. And they did it by successfully reinventing themselves, something that seems to me to require a high degree of resilience and courage.
What was your process for writing this book?
My goal in writing Odette’s Secrets was to paint as true a picture of Odette’s life as possible. When I first discovered Odette’s memoir, Doors to Madame Marie, I read and reread her adventures, especially the passages where she described what it was like to switch selves, not once but twice, both in the remote countryside of the Vendee where she hid and then back in Paris again after the war. In Paris, I visited the street where Odette’s family lived, and sat in the square opposite studying the door and their apartment window. I searched for her school. I explored the alleyway where her dear cousins lived, the cousins who left France weeks after their arrest and never returned. I strolled in the park where Odette played, and in the cemetery where she went with her mother to honor the Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust.
Later, I found the telephone number of Daniel, Odette’s son, in the Paris telephone directory. With my heart in my mouth, I dialed the number. I left a message, explaining who I was and that I hoped to gain permission to write the story of Odette Meyers’ childhood life for modern children. Then I waited. A few days later, Daniel called me back and invited me to lunch in his sunny apartment on the rue Rambuteau. He listened to my request and made his decision almost immediately. He was sure his mother would want her story to live on. As her literary executor, he gave me permission to use the facts of her life as the basis of a book for children. He also shared more family writings, photographs and film clips with me.
Then I decided I needed to visit the Vendee. I took the train to Nantes, as Odette did at the time of her escape from Paris. All the way I studied the farmhouses, the villages and the train stations passing by. What was there in 1941? Did Odette see it as I did? I drove with my husband to Chavagne-en-Paillers, the first village where Odette was hidden in plain sight during the war. We were standing outside the house she lived in when a kindly old man appeared at the upstairs window and invited us in. He was Jaques Raffin, one of the children in the family who had taken Odette in. He showed me the garden where they played together on the swing and fed the doves. Afterwards, we visited the school Odette attended with her friends Cecile and Paulette, and the church where she went to Mass every Sunday. Finally, we went to the hamlet where Odette and her mother lived together under assumed names. We saw the forest and the square where she played hide and seek and hopscotch, the pathway she took walking to school in the town of St. Fulgent. The fields, the cows, and the cottages were all still there. Now that I had seen as much of Odette’s wartime world as I could, I was ready to write, ready to bring Odette’s childhood to life, as best I could.
What is the one thing you’d like people to take away from Odette’s Secrets?
I hope readers will remember and appreciate Odette’s struggle to save herself, body and soul.
As a child, I was fascinated with historical fiction novels and I loved reading anything about children who lived vastly different lives from my own. What were some of your favorite childhood books?
I loved historical fiction, too! I read nearly every single book in our local library on pioneers…I loved their dangerous adventures and tried to imagine what it would be like to live the way they did. I fell in love with the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. On the Banks of Plum Creek was one of the first books I ever owned. I also loved books set in England, like Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Secret Garden. Later, I could never get enough of Nancy Drew.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you choose and why?
I grew up in the Midwest, and spent most of my adult life living in England and in France. Now I live in New York City. I have enjoyed all these places, but have found that for me so far, there is something everywhere, and everything nowhere. I don’t harbor a secret desire to live anywhere in particular. But I guess if I spoke Italian and I had the opportunity to live there for a while, I’d find it hard to say no.
I really appreciate Maryann Macdonald taking the time to answer my questions and I hope you'll check out Odette's Secrets.