Margi Preus

Acceptance Speech

I’d like to start by telling you how happy I am to be here. You might not understand how happy I am. I live in Duluth, Minnesota, in the same state as Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. Lake Wobegon is where all the men are strong, all the women are good looking and all the children are above average. Well, I’m from farther north, where the men are men and so are the women. It’s a tough place to live—temps this second week of June have been in the 40’s—and those are the highs. Mark Twain spent some time in Duluth, after which he said, “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in Duluth.”

So that’s one reason I’m happy to be here. I am also extremely happy to receive this honor for Shadow on the Mountain from the L.A. chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. Thank you.

There is a story, a version of which I tell in Shadow on the Mountain (and which I first read in John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction)—a story from Norse mythology, of how Odin, the most powerful of the gods, lost his left eye.

It was said that every year Thor made a circle around Middle-Earth, using his hammer to beat back the trolls and the enemies of order. But Thor got older every year and the circle occupied by gods and men grew smaller.

Odin, the all-knowing god, went out to the king of the trolls and demanded to know how order might triumph over chaos.

“Give me your left eye,” said the troll king, “and I’ll tell you.”

Without hesitation, Odin plucked out his left eye and said, “Now tell me.”

The troll said, “The secret is, watch with both eyes!

I’m hoping to make a point with that story, probably at the risk of overdoing the metaphors, but we’ll see. You might have to keep both eyes open.

The Judy Lopez Memorial Book selections this year are wonderful stories told with grace and compassion. They are stories of forgiveness, endurance, resilience and courage. Lots of courage.

In all of them, the protagonists bravely set off into the unknown—and into their futures.

In Diamond in the Desert, Tetsu sets off into the desert in search of his missing sister, and begins to mature into the man he will become.

Rendi, in Starry River of the Sky, sets off across the big stone “pancake” (plateau) in search of the missing moon, and in doing so, finds a path for himself into the future.

And Augie, in Wonder, who looks worse than whatever you’re thinking—as he puts it—sets off to school every day with courage, grace and and humor, winning over his schoolmates in the process. Finally, we watch as Augie and his peers open the door to a hopeful future for us all.

Espen, in my book Shadow on the Mountain, sets off on his bicycle or skis to deliver illegal underground newspapers in Norway while it is occupied by Nazi Germany. The penalty for what he’s doing? Death. For possessing anti-German literature? Death. The penalty for listening to or owning a radio? Death. Even little things—wearing a red hat (like the alarmingly accurate “nisselue” Gail Kim hand-knitted for this occasion), a paper clip on your lapel, a watch on the underside of the wrist, pulling your collar through your button hole. . . any of these things could get you arrested, beaten up, fined, or imprisoned—or all three. If you want to know why, read my book.

A lot of people don’t know what happened in Norway during WWII, when Nazi Germany invaded and occupied the country from 1940-1945. Up to 400,000 German troops were stationed in a country of under three million people—that’s one German soldier for every eight Norwegians.

But many Norwegians refused to be subdued—many resisted in any way they could, large and small, and often with humor.

The Nazis put up posters all over the place telling people all the things that were forbidden. One of them read: “Every civilian caught with weapon in hand will be SHOT. . . Anyone destroying constructions serving the traffic and military (and so on) will be SHOT . . . Anyone using weapons contrary to international law will be SHOT.”

On the bottom of the poster someone had hand written, “Anyone who has not already been shot will be SHOT.”

The humor could get a little dark. For instance: A knock comes in the middle of the night. “Who is it?” asks the Norwegian. “Death,” comes the ominous reply. “Thank goodness,” says the Norwegian, “I thought it was the Gestapo.”

This is the state of affairs for my character as he begins to get involved in the resistance, first by delivering underground newspapers, then as a courier, delivering coded messages on bicycle or skis, then he becomes a spy, and finally has to escape to Sweden over the mountains on skis, the Gestapo on his heels the whole way.

I am often asked: Why did I want to write about this subject?

After Heart of a Samurai, I knew I wanted to write another boy friendly, adventure tale with lots of action, possibly based on a true story. I knew this because my editor told me that was what I wanted to do. As usual, he was right.

So I started thinking.

  1. I remembered a beloved elementary school librarian giving me the book, Snow Treasure, about the smuggling of the gold out of Norway by children on sleds. (This is not, as advertised, a true story.)
  2. I remembered my son loving Skis Against the Atom (those of you familiar with Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb will recognize the story of the heavy water plant sabotage in Norway.)
  3. And I remembered my father’s stories of his friends and our relatives in Norway who got involved in the resistance. There was one friend who went quite the other direction, and since my father was now gone from this world, and I had not been wise enough to ask him about that when he was alive, this book was a way for me to explore what that would be like—losing a friend to a different ideological path.
  4. Okay, I also wanted to go skiing in Norway.

I found Erling Storrusten through a wonderful website, wwiinorge.com, where many Norwegians have documented their experiences during the occupation.

His story in particular really stuck with me, and in a series of serendipitous happenings which included the involvement of a Norwegian exchange student who had lived with us some years ago, I found myself on the phone with Mr. Storrusten. After speaking briefly with him, I hung up the phone, looked at my husband and said, “Guess where we’re going.”

When we got to Norway, it was serendipitous moment after another: People told us stories, took us to see things, told us where to go. One young man got off work, pulled on his boots, and took us on tiny windy paths back in the woods to see some German bunkers he had discovered when he was a kid.

It was most wonderful to interview Erling—to hear his stories, but also to see what kind of a person he turned out to be. He is one of those truly great spirits in the world—big hearted and forgiving and courageous.

So I knew that much about him when I started writing, and as I wrote, I kept a sticky note on my computer (I keep a lot of them there, most of them say things like, “get bread” or “take dog to vet”) but the one I’m thinking of is quote by Graham Greene that goes, “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

As a writer, I want to write that moment—the moment when that door opens and lets the future in. But, as a reader, I am also aware that for some young people, the door that lets the future in is a book.

“A book is a door,” the poet Jeanette Winterson has said, “You open it; you step through.”

There are stories after stories of people whose lives have been changed by the books they read as kids (I read these stories in a wonderful book edited by Anita Silvey called Everything I Know I Learned from a Children’s Book)

Robert Ballard who discovered the Titanic—his favorite childhood book? 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The physics professor at the University of Connecticut who is studying Time Travel? The Time Machine.

The cardiothoracic surgeon who performed the first heart transplant? (No, not Frankenstein. Good guess, guy at the back table.). It’s The Wizard of Oz. His favorite character? The Tin Man. The line that stays with him every day as he goes about his work? “I would bear it all w/o a murmur if I only had a heart.”

We writers would love to write a book that influences some famous person, and later in life that person would credit us for changing his or her life. But, really, most of us would be happy if we can open the door just a little crack to show the way to a future that includes empathy, optimism, compassion, gratitude, and courage.

As writers we bang away at our keyboards as if wielding Thor’s hammer (Ha! I got back to it!) We sling ink, trying every day to keep the trolls at bay, to preserve that bright circle within which dwell men and gods. But really, we’re just clumsy oafs, doing our best with the primitive tools at our disposal.

But YOU. . . you, the women of WNBA, are wise like Odin (smarter, because you still have both your eyes) and you use that vision for the benefit of us all. You understand the crucial role that books play in our lives, and in the lives of young people. You understand that books open the door to an informed and compassionate future.

I want to thank you for selecting Shadow on the Mountain as a Judy Lopez Honor Book, but even more, I want to thank you for the critical work you do in promoting books and encouraging young readers, and in so doing, helping to build an informed and compassionate world.