My vacation started off with a very brief visit to the Big Apple to see my daughter perform in a new musical at a big musical theatre festival in the city. After a series of travel misfortunes, it didn’t look like the gardener and I were going to make it in time for the show, but a kind Southwest Airlines employee found us the last seats on an American flight. Our luggage went Southwest, and we went American. That was not the last of our travel woes, but we did make it to see daughter perform in a very unique and gorgeous show. Yes, she was amazing; thank you for asking ;).
At the performance, I met two very special audience members–two writers I greatly admire. Almost 2 1/2 years ago, I read Carolyn Quinn’s biography of Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother, Mama Rose’s Turn.
Carolyn has written a new book for middle-grade students about the friendship between two girls – one American, one Japanese – during World War II. I can’t wait to read it. With my interest in children’s literature, my Newbery book collection (mostly books for middle-grade to middle school students), and my interest in WWII memoirs, it ought to be something I will really love.
About a month before my review of Carolyn’s book, I had written a review of a book that has been very special to me for many years. I posted my review in Teaching the Holocaust to Children and Teens. The book is The Upstairs Room by Johanna Reiss. Johanna, a Dutch Jewish child, lived for 2 1/2 years in the home of a non-Jewish Dutch family, hiding in a room upstairs. Johanna’s book was a Newbery Honor book, so it rests on my collection shelf.
Johanna wrote a sequel called The Journey Back, which I have also read. It really works best as a true sequel: read The Upstairs Room first.
It turned out that Carolyn and Johanna are besties, and when she found out I was coming to NYC, Carolyn arranged for the two of them to see my daughter’s show and for us to meet in person. They turned out to be so much as I had imagined them to be by their books. Carolyn is a warm and gracious woman, and Johanna is exactly the sensitive, sweet soul I had envisioned in all my readings of The Upstairs Room. How very special to meet them both and to share in such a special show experience with them.
The lighting was lousy in the tiny lobby of the 42nd street theatre where we met, so I had to really lighten the photo. Sorry it’s not better quality!
Carolyn Quinn, Johanna Reiss, and me
Just before I left for New York, I discovered that Johanna had also written an adult memoir, A Hidden Life, so I ordered it to read when I came home. Now that I’ve finished it, I can tell you that you will want to give yourself some space after reading The Upstairs Room before opening A Hidden Life. I’m not yet prepared to write about this memoir because of its emotional impact, but I will mention that the book is written in a stream of consciousness style that is very difficult to write. Virginia Woolf is the writer who most comes to mind when one thinks of SOC. The style works very well for A Hidden Life because it forces the reader down into the emotional turmoil Johanna experiences after the death of her husband. Read the Amazon blurb to see the heart-breaking situation the story reveals.
For years, Johanna Reiss’ American husband, Jim, encouraged her to return to Holland to chronicle the two years, seven months, and one day she had spent hiding from the Nazis in rural Usselo, Holland. In 1969, she finally made the trip.
Accompanied by Jim and their two young children, Reiss intended to spend seven weeks researching the book that would eventually become The Upstairs Room, her Newbery Honor–winning account of her time hiding in the attic of a farmhouse in which for a time a contingent of Nazi soldiers was billeted.
But unknown to the millions of people who went on to read her beloved classic, behind the dark and painful story of the book was a still darker tale: Reiss’ husband returned to America early and committed suicide at age thirty-seven, leaving no note.
For Reiss, an ongoing reckoning with universal tragedy becomes particular: she is forced to reckon, too, with Jim’s death—and explain it to her children. Subtle and disturbing, the book is a powerful consideration of memory, violence, and loss, told in a stunning and sparse narrative style.
Johanna Reiss is the author of the classic young adult title The Upstairs Room, which Elie Wiesel praised in The New York Times Book Review as an “admirable account . . . as important in every respect as the one bequeathed to us by Anne Frank.” She is the winner of the Newbery Honor, the Jewish Book Council Children’s Book Award, and the Buxtehuder Bulle. She lives in New York City.
Read more about Johanna on her website.
What a wonderful meeting. How blessed I was to meet these two women.