Story Behind the Story #16:
The Fighting Ground


At the time I was living in Lambertville, New Jersey, so it was easy for me to catch a bus and get into NYC for a meeting with my editor. We were going to discuss the new novel manuscript I had sent her.

I did indeed meet with her and learn that she was rejecting my book. Long ago I had learned that you didn’t argue about such a thing, you just accepted it, and moved on. Indeed, while taking the bus back home my primary thought was, “What am I going to write now?”

I stared out the window.

I was just about a mile from home when I noticed a road marker, one of those signs that tell the passer-by about something that happened at that spot years ago. I had never really paid attention to it before.

The Fighting GroundThe bus was going full speed, but I caught enough of the sign to want to come back and read it more closely. I did so the next day.

The tale the sign told was about a small Revolutionary War skirmish fought between a few New Jersey militia and a small troop of Hessian soldiers. The numbers involved were small. “Only a few deaths,” read the sign. The last line of the sign read: “The import of this skirmish was small.”

But I thought, “It wasn’t small for those who died, or the families from which they came.”

That was the beginning of my thinking for The Fighting Ground about a boy who is caught up in just such a small skirmish The most interesting part of the book—in my view—is that the boy, when captured, hears only the German (and doesn’t understand) his captives speak. A friend translated my English into German.

Hessian soldiersMy protagonist guesses what these Germans are saying and acts accordingly, with fatal consequences.

At the back of the book I translated the German passages into English. For the reader, it completely changes the story.

It’s a curious case of what is not actually part of the story being an essential part of the story.

The Fighting Ground won the Scott O’Dell award for best historical fiction that year.

Staring out of windows can be productive.

Story Behind the Story #6:
Night Journeys

Night JourneyI spent the summer of my 16th year at a work camp run by the Society of Friends (Quakers) on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina. There, with other teenagers, I labored with the local people, doing farm work, helping to clear wooded areas to bring in electricity, rebuilding homes, plus a great variety of useful community tasks. I also had many talks with the camp head, who provided me with an introduction to the Quaker faith, which made a strong impression on me, and about which I would subsequently read a great deal.

Years later, I was living in Lambertville, New Jersey, on the banks of the Delaware River, right across the way from Pennsylvania. My boys came to attend the Buckingham Friends elementary school, a Pennsylvania Quaker school, which had a number of quite beautiful 18th Century structures. By way of coincidence, the headmaster of the school was the same individual who ran that work camp to which I had gone.

It was a combination of my interest in Pennsylvania Quakers, colonial American history, and the place where I was living, that led me to write the historical novel, Night Journeys.

The Quaker religion, like all religions, is complex and, again, like all religions, theory and practice is full of contradictions. I recall reading about the wealthy Pennsylvania Quaker farmer who, being opposed to war, refused to pay a tax levied for what we call The French and Indian War. But, not wishing to go against the law, he left the right amount of tax money on a log where the tax collector could “find” it.

It is just this kind of moral predicament which lies at the heart of Night Journeys, when Peter York, an orphan boy, is taken into the home of Everett Shinn, a deeply religious Quaker. What law (sacred or secular) should be followed when two local indentured servants run away to seek their freedom? In the book I wrote one of my favorite sentences, the one from which the title of the book derives: “Roads at night are always new.”

Story Behind the Story #3
No More Magic

No More MagicMy first novel, No More Magic, had its origins in my son’s eighth birthday party. At the time, I was living in Lambertville, New Jersey, a charming old 19th century town, the birthplace of James Marshall, the man who, in 1848, first discovered gold on Sutter’s Ranch in California. Situated on the Delaware River, Lambertville was where the iron rims for gun carriage wheels were manufactured for the Union forces during the Civil War. The point is the typography of No More Magic is Lambertville. Indeed, there is a fair amount of my family life that appears in the book.

My son Shaun was fascinated—as were his friends—with superheroes. For his July birthday that year, we decided to have a superhero party. The eight or so kids would dress up as their own favorite super-hero, and then we would film (borrowed 8 mm camera) a story of Shaun’s invention.

Lambertville, New Jersey, photo by Graham Bush |

Lambertville, New Jersey, photo by Graham Bush |

We would do this in a local park.

So it was that the kids assembled that birthday afternoon in a variety of hodge-podge costumes, mostly masked, mostly caped, all excited. For reasons never explained, one was dressed as Snoopy.

Mikey—one of the boys—came dressed as the Green Lantern—complete with a green ring, the Green Lantern’s magic ring.

The usual congenial chaos ensued, until at some point Mikey approached me. “Avi, I lost my ring,” said he.

I, assuming it was a piece of dime-store costume jewelry said, “Is that a big problem?”

jade ring“It was my mother’s jade ring.”

The filming ended. The superheroes—and their guardians—now searched the thick green grass for a green ring. It was never found.

But a plot for a book—No More Magic—was found. The book went on to be nominated for an Edgar, which is to say the best juvenile mystery of the year. I did not win, but there it was, my first novel had an award nomination. In short, despite the title, a lot of magic.