Maryann MacDonald is the author of the newly published Odette’s Secrets (Bloomsbury), the story of a young Jewish girl in France forced into hiding during World War II.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What drove you to write this book in verse?
Maryann MacDonald (MM): When I first sat down to write Odette’s Secrets, I tried to write it as 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 experience in the Vendee. She married the poet Bert Meyers and later in life, wrote poetry herself. So, I began writing her story in first person in free verse, trying to find the childhood voice of Odette, a poet-to-be.
At this point, since I was imagining Odette’s voice, the work became fiction, although I did not make up any of the events mentioned in the book. What I did was add detail, such as giving Odette’s doll a name, and putting into words conversations alluded to in her memoir.
TWM: Did you feel at any time that an editor/publisher might say, “We don’t want any more Holocaust books?”
MM: Of course! But I was convinced this was a Holocaust story with a difference. When I learned the surprising fact that 84 percent of French Jewish children survived the Holocaust, I wanted to know how this had happened. I learned that a majority were hidden, forced as Odette was to reinvent themselves and often “hide in plain sight” in order to survive. How on earth were young children able to do this so successfully, I wondered? And how did they readjust to their true identities after the war was over? This was the Holocaust story I hadn’t heard before, the story of resourceful children displaying resilience and courage in the face of extreme danger. This was the story I wanted to tell.
TWM: How important was it for you to be in France and retrace Odette’s footsteps? How did a knowledge of French help?
MM: I’ve always been a Francophile. Paris is so beautiful, yet has witnessed so much ugliness. Many of its buildings still bear the scars of WWII. I guess I’ve always wanted to understand better and come to terms with the evil things that took place in France during the wartime period. So I did a lot of reading before I began writing this book, and explored the city asking questions. I did the same after I discovered Odette’s memoir, reimagining what had happened in her life, both in Paris and in the countryside. A knowledge of French came in handy for these tasks. My French also helped in my research, especially in the countryside, and in talking to the Raffins, the family that had hidden Odette in the Vendee.
I wanted to see things, as much as I was able to, through Odette’s eyes. I wanted my story to be as true to hers as I could possibly make it. For these reasons, it helped me a great deal to be in the place where the story happened.
TWM: Is this book a departure for you? What obsessed you so much about Odette’s story?
MM: I don’t think of this book so much as a departure as a progression. I have always been interested in children’s responses to their difficulties. A former editor of mine once asked me, jokingly, “Do you specialize in trauma?” But without a problem, it seems to me, you haven’t got a story! So all of my books, although they may perhaps on the surface seem lighthearted, are based on problems.
A few years ago I wrote (with my sister, Ann Ingalls) a book called Little Piano Girl, the story of the childhood of jazz musician Mary Lou Williams. She was a woman who faced poverty and sexual discrimination to become the most respected female instrumentalist ever in jazz. She transcended the pain in her life by “playing it out,” as she put it, on the piano. I loved her response, and Ann and I thought this was a big part of what made her story worth telling.
Odette’s persistent exploration of her identity, intensified by her wartime experiences, was what fascinated me about her story. As young as she was, she observed and took in everything that happened around her, coming to her own individual conclusions. I just fell in love with her developing intellectual and emotional honesty.
TWM: In what ways did working with Odette’s son, Daniel, help you with this book?
MM: I could not have written this book without Daniel. He is a lovely person, a filmmaker. But I didn’t know this when I found his number in the Paris telephone directory. With my heart in my mouth, I dialed and left a message, explaining who I was and that I wanted to use the facts of his mother’s life to create a book for 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. His mother, he said, had often talked in schools and libraries to children about her wartime experiences. He was sure she would want her story to live on. As her literary executor, he gave me permission to write the story of his mother’s childhood. He shared his grandmother’s autobiography (originally written in Yiddish), some of his mother’s poems, and many family photographs with me. I was thrilled!
I also greatly appreciated Daniel’s willingness to read various versions of the manuscript and discuss his concerns with me. In the end, I wanted this book to be one that honored his mother’s memory as accurately as possible. Daniel helped me to do this.
TWM: Do you think it was chance to find Odette’s autobiography in the stacks? Or was it bashert as we say in Yiddish?
MM: The longer I live the more I see something mysterious at work in my life…when I need or am interested in something, that thing often seems to find its way onto my radar screen. Different people might call this chance, serendipity, grace or bashert. No matter what you call it, the results are the same.
TWM: What was your biggest surprise in researching the story?
MM: The most delightful surprise was being invited into the house Odette lived in in the Vendee by Jacques Raffin, one of her long-ago playmates! I expected to find the village, but not the exact house where Odette lived, and I certainly didn’t anticipate meeting anyone she knew. But when my husband and I happened upon the house, Monsieur Raffin saw us from his window. He welcomed us graciously and showed us the kitchen where the soup had simmered and the garden where the pet pigeons had cooed. Once again, I was thrilled!
TWM: What was your biggest surprise in writing the story?
MM: I found that the more I worked on this story, the more I loved it! I never tired of it, even though I reworked the words incessantly right up until the time the final draft had to go to the printer. I was so grateful to my editor, Brett Wright at Bloomsbury, for his unbelievable patience with me in this respect. He is very detail-oriented himself, and this was a great gift.
TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
MM: My greatest satisfaction with Odette’s Secrets has been the wonderful response I have gotten to this book from readers. I have had many great reviews, including a starred one in Kirkus, demonstrating to me that professionals understand and appreciate Odette’s story. But one of the most meaningful responses so far has come from Odette’s sister, Anne-Marie Miller, born after the war and living in California. Ms. Miller wrote to me and told me I had captured Odette’s voice and spirit. Could a writer ask for anything more?
TWM: Did you ever feel at a loss as the book’s author because you aren’t Jewish?
MM: In the first flush of enthusiasm for writing this book, I signed up for the Jewish Children’s Book Writing Conference in New York. When I got there, I discovered myself to be the only shiksa. I did wonder then whether I my passion for this story might be considered inappropriate.
But in the seventies I remember seeing a popular advertising campaign showing people of all kinds – old and young, dark-skinned and light – eating sandwiches made with rye bread. The slogan underneath the posters was, “You Don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” I think this was a successful slogan because people responded to its underlying message: “We are all human; we feel things the same way.” Similarly, I think you don’t have to be Jewish to love Odette and her touching struggle to save herself, body and soul.