Tuesday, December 15, 2009
During their four years in China, Kristin has taught writing, written a blog “My Beautiful Far-flung Life, and attempted to learn Mandarin Chinese(unsuccessfully according to her neighbors). Oh, and written the novel Thirsty. Thirsty opens in 1883 when Klara Bozic arrives in the New World ready to start a new life with her new husband. She quickly learns that her new life in the Pennsylvania steel town of Thirsty is very much like her old life of beatings, isolation, and poverty. For forty years she endures with the help of a few misfit friends she makes: her fun-loving neighbor Katherine Zupanovic; BenJo, the only black man in Thirsty to have his own shop; and Old Man Rupert, the town drunk. Only when her daughter enters a similar marriage punctuated by pain and terror does Klara resolve to free herself, her daughter, and her granddaughters from this life sentence of brutality and find peace.
If she hadn’t become a writer, Kristin suspects that she would have become a ventriloquist, roadie for Meat Loaf, or time traveler. (And yes, she has read The Time Traveler’s Wife.) Among other things, she would use her time traveling powers to frequently return home and enjoy the magic that is the hoagies at Danny’s Pizza.
Because of the Bethel Park Public Library in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, I discovered some of my best childhood pals: Sara Teasdale, Edward Ormondroyd, Bram Stoker, Roald Dahl, Phyllis Whitney, Emily Dickinson, Astrid Lindgren, and dozens of other brilliant writers.
As a kid, I was lucky enough to live within walking distance of the library, and at least once a week, I trotted down the gravel side road near my house with a stack of eight or ten books that I’d read since my last visit and my library card tucked into a pocket or, more often than not, my sock. At the end of the gravel road, I crossed the abandoned railroad tracks (in the summer stopping to gorge myself on the wild blackberries that grew there), continued down the long road that led to what was then Slater Supply, crossed one busy street, a set of trolley tracks, and another busy street, then arrived at the library…always with a deep, red crease in the crook of my left arm where the stack of books had dug in.
I loved this private walk during which no one suggested that I clean out the garage or asked, “What are writing in your diary?” It was just me…me, my books, and my thoughts. On the way to the library, I walked fast, looking forward to a few hours huddled in the quiet stacks, opening this book and that book, letting an author’s name or a book’s cover or a crazy title (like Dracula) grab my attention. I loved sitting cross-legged on the floor reading back covers and first pages, and I loved that the librarian only checked on me when he noticed that I wasn’t totally absorbed in my task.
As a super shy kid, taking my books to the counter to check them out always scared the bejeebies out of me. Honestly, I would have rather walked on hot coals or slept on a bed of nails. To minimize the torture, I’d lurk behind a bookshelf, prematurely organize my books with my library card on top, and wait until there was no one else in line. If, heaven forbid, the checkout librarian asked me who my favorite author was or if I’d read a particular book, I’d turn the color of a ripe cherry, mumble some incoherent reply, try not to burst into tears, and escape as quickly as possible. (Thankfully I grew out of that.)
On the way home, I’d hum with excitement. So much to look forward to! I’d walk with my head down, studying whichever book I’d strategically placed on the top of the stack. “This one first?” I’d ask myself as I retraced my steps: busy road, trolley tracks, busy road, Slater Supply, long road, abandoned railroad tracks, gravel side road. Halfway there I’d shuffle the books. “No, no, this one first.”
Ah, the glory. I’d curl under a tree or on the comfy gold chair in our living room or on my bed and spend as many hours as possible reading…until, of course, the inevitable happened…
“Kristin, can you clean out the garage?”
In Kristin Bair O'Keeffe's debut novel, Klara's life unfolds over forty years as she struggles to find her place in a new country where her survival depends on the friends who nurture her: gutsy, funny Katherine Zupanovic, who isn't afraid of Drago's fist; BenJo, the only black man in Thirsty to have his own shop; and strangely enough, Old Man Rupert, the town drunk.
"Thirsty" follows a chain of unlikely events that keep Klara's spirit aloft: a flock of angelic butterflies descends on Thirsty; Klara gives birth to her first child in Old Man Rupert's pumpkin patch; and BenJo gives her a talking bird. When Klara's daughter marries a man even more brutal than Drago, Klara is forced to act. If she doesn't finally break the cycle of violence in her family, her granddaughters will one day walk the same road, broken and bruised. As the threads that hold her family together fray and come undone, Klara has to decide if she has the courage to carve out a peaceful spot in the world for herself and her girls.
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