By Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli 8/10/09
The Locked Garden
By Gloria Whelan
Harper Collins - $15.99
I met up with writer Gloria Whelan at Horizon Books in Traverse City where she had come to do a book signing for her newest young adult novel, The Locked Garden. Gloria and I have a history that goes back a few years. Id interviewed her often while sitting on the deck of her lovely home overlooking Oxbow Lake in Mancelona, watching deer come to drink on the shore and loons gliding past; and talking of literature, writing and writers through the afternoon hours.
I missed those afternoon teas wed shared and, now thats shes moved to southern Michigan after the death of her husband, Joseph, I couldnt help but ask if she missed Northern Michigan.
I miss Oxbow Lake and the woods every day of my life, she said. Ive never really left it. We travel, you know, with all kinds of worlds in our heads.
One of the worlds inside Whelans head is one other fiction writers might only dream of. A couple of years ago her book, Homeless Bird, won a National Book Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in American Literature. She and her husband were in New York City for the presentations. All the other winners went off for a night of partying and drinking, she said at the time. Joe and I went back to our hotel room.
Evidently, life back in the woods outside of Mancelona doesnt prepare one for dissipation and the high life.
That pinnacle was an extraordinary experience, she recalls of the award. But every year is not that extraordinary. It was a confirming moment -- hard to live up to. All you can do is keep writing and do the best you can.
I write for kids, she went on. That doesnt change. I hear from readers who tell me my books have started them reading -- thats reward enough.
Recently, at a book signing in Petoskey, a young girl came up to her with an essay shed written in school titled My Hero. I was her hero, Whelan marveled. Because, she said, I got her interested in books.
Now, living back near Detroit, where she was born and grew up, Whelan says she has nothing but admiration for the city. Before the current economic downturn, there were a lot of positive things going on -- movements to upgrade education and save Belle Isle.
With the loss of jobs and all of the home foreclosures, the biggest problem is education in the citys schools. Whelan currently works with Loyola High School and helping where she can to promote literacy.
Im working with groups to save Belle Isle, where I used to go with my parents when I was child. There is so much good there in the city -- wonderful art museum, great symphony, a great new mayor. I love places where there is a cross section of people living and sharing an environment.
Her new young adult novel, The Locked Garden, is actually laid on the grounds of Traverse Citys Building 50, when it was a state hospital. I was at a state hospital meeting, back when it was to be torn down, and a young architect said, We cant tear it down. It has to be saved. That architect changed the thinking in the room and the direction for the hospital buildings, now being restored, preserved, and given to new uses.
Right then a group began working to save the buildings and I wanted to use the setting in my book about a doctors family who moves to live outside the state hospital, has one of the patients as household help, and comes to understand not only the young woman, but mental illness -- with the stigma then attached.
The two young girls of The Locked Garden learn a great deal about the hospital and the workings of an asylum -- how the food they consumed was grown on the grounds, how some of the patients found life-long work while confined, how their own lives could be chaotic. They plot to get rid of a mean and jealous aunt, and emphasize with a girl whose life with her father was so cruel and physically abusive that her only escape was an insane asylum.
Whelan has two picture books coming out soon:
The Listeners, a story about child slaves who are sent to listen outside plantation windows, hoping to overhear plans to break up families and sell them off to other places.
Listening for the Owl -- a native Afghan child who is a weaver of rugs also weaves a mind tapestry -- the story of her life. She thinks her world into existence through a loom that is always there. At the end of this 10-year olds long work day comes the call of the owl -- signaling she has finished her weaving. Through this book Whelan hopes to get out word of an organization called the Rug Mark Organization, a group of rug dealers who have pledged never to purchase rugs done by children.
Also in the works is another book set in Northern Michigan. Are You All Right tells the story of a young girl deserted by her artist father. She eventually, on scholarship, goes to a Detroit art school and is reunited with her irascible father -- now a mature artist. It is the story of a generational confrontation of ideas.
Her book signing about to begin, Gloria is called away. Not exactly tea beside a wild Michigan lake, but still talk of ideas and writing and writers enough to last me until her next book tour.
Elizabeth Kane Buzzellis novel, Dead Floating Lovers (Midnight Ink, $14.95) second in a mystery series set in northwest Michigan, in available in book stores now.