Heather Bouwman, Ph.D., an English professor at the University of St. Thomas, lives and breathes her belief that we never outgrow children’s literature. Her devotion can be measured in the thousands of hours she has spent reading aloud nightly with her two sons, now teenagers. Over the years, they’ve read together the entire Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series four times a piece, the earlier Harry Potter books even more.
As with her debut novel, The Remarkable and Very True Story of Lucy and Snowcap, Bouwman spins her story around brave children who must use their wits and good hearts (and a little magic) to free themselves from morally questionable entanglements (specifically refugeeism and forced immigration) spawned by vice-plagued grown-ups.
Her latest novel takes its lead from a slave narrative of the infamous Zong slave ship. The vessel became the source of a famous case that went down in history for helping to popularize the abolitionist movement in England.
English merchants purchased the ship in Africa in 1781 to shuttle slaves to Jamaica, cramming more than 400 slaves onto a vessel that was built to hold no more than 100 or so passengers. En route, most of the crew and slaves became seriously ill. The captain, perhaps overtaken by delirium, overshot Jamaica and the ship wandered at sea for an extra month.
The merchants believed themselves in a predicament. There was not enough potable water on the ship for the slaves and crew. Slaves who died from illness – in this case, dehydration – were not covered by insurance. Slaves deliberately killed in order to avoid an insurrection, however, were. This cruel reasoning was used to justify throwing 133 slaves overboard to their deaths in order to apply for insurance money.
“The case really grabbed me, and I started thinking about it and reading about it not really knowing how or if or why,” Bouwman said. “But when I’m grabbed by stuff like that I know it’s something I want to learn about.”
Her fond tendency to let herself drift with the tides of her passions is a trait not unfamiliar to adults but more prominent and natural in children. It speaks somewhat to her philosophy on storytelling – how the creation of a story is an act of discovery similar to a child gleefully embarking on an field trip to an archaeological dig.
“[Children’s/young adult writer] Philip Pullman talks about this really well,” she said. “I’m going to misquote him but he said something like, ‘I know that writing stories isn’t really this way but what it feels like is you’re discovering this wholly written story that’s already out there and it’s as if you’re the first person to find it.'”
In the spirit of Pullman, who wrote the bestselling trilogy His Dark Materials, Bouwman slowly discovered in her imagination three distinct stories that eventually would intersect in plot as well as theme.
“At some point I also got to thinking about the fall of Saigon, and then came the question, ‘What is it like to be forced to leave your home?’ That turned out to be the guiding question in this book the more I thought about it,” she said.
Inspired by similar struggles faced by the individuals in both historical events, Bouwman wove real stories from both events into the fantasy world of her novel. A world in which a happier ending was possible via a time portal (the eponymous crack in the sea) to shepherd to safety all of her young protagonists: jettisoned Zong ship slaves Venus and Swimmer in 1781; siblings Thanh and Sang, who, in 1978, are seeking sanctuary from post-war Vietnam, a massive storm and pirates; and otherworldly siblings Pip and Kinchen, who dream of returning home while on the run from an evil king intent on kidnapping Pip for his unique ability to speak to fish.
A scholar in postcolonial literature, Bouwman said her bent for writing children’s fiction took her by surprise.
“[For my dissertation] I was writing about how English colonists wrote about Native Americans … so much of what I was reading was incredibly racist and hard to have in my head all the time, so my first draft to that book was really just an escape from my dissertation,” she said. “I was writing [Lucy and Snowcap] for fun and not thinking about an audience or market. It wasn’t until finishing the first draft, which was a long time ago, that it dawned on me, ‘Oh, it’s a children’s book!’”
Bouwman is scheduled to read from and sign copies of A Crack in the Sea on Friday, Feb. 24, from 3-4 p.m. in the O-Shaughnessy-Frey Library, Room 108 (O’Shaughnessy Room).