This post is part 1 of our 4-part series on this year’s finalists for the annual Children’s History Book Prize. Join us here on our History Detectives blog over the next few weeks as we interview the authors to learn more about their amazing books. We invite you to read all four finalists then help us choose the prizewinner by voting for your favorite in our online poll! Polls open the week of April 30th and the winning author receives a $10,000 prize!
This week, we’re chatting with author Ruth Behar about her book Lucky Broken Girl. Behar’s book is set in the 1960s and tells the story of Ruthie Mizrahi, a young Jewish Cuban immigrant in New York City. After severely breaking her leg in a car accident, Ruthie is put in a body cast. Confined to her bed for an entire year in order to heal, Ruthie hears stories from her grandparents, caregivers, and neighbors as they visit her bedroom—and these stories become her lifeline to the world outside.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: In your author’s note, you share with readers that the fictional story of Ruthie Mizrahi being in a body cast and confined to bed for a year is based on your real-life experiences after a childhood accident. What it was like to revisit that part of your childhood as an adult? Why did you feel it was important to write about it?
Ruth Behar: I believe we all have pivotal experiences in our childhood where one door closes and another opens. For me, that experience was being ten and stuck in a body cast. It changed my life and made me the person I am today. I became a reader, a thinker, a traveler, and a writer. Even though I created a life for myself as an adult woman that entailed constant movement, I never forgot what it was like to be unable to move, or after the cast came off, what it was like to move awkwardly and be stared at by others. As a cultural anthropologist, I basked in the freedom of traveling constantly to do research in Spain, Mexico, and Cuba. Whenever I thought back to little Ruthie in bed, I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I wished I’d been braver. I wished I could have healed faster so my mother didn’t have to be so burdened with my care. I wished I’d have sprung out of bed and returned to the world without fear. The accident was a childhood experience I wanted to put behind me, like a bad dream.
How do we heal? How do we become whole again after we’ve been broken? How does a young person find courage under difficult circumstances?
Then one day, for mysterious reasons, that time in my life came back to me very vividly. I began to write brief vignettes of what I remembered. I have always loved fairytales and books told from the perspective of children. And so, 50 years later, I decided it was to time to tell the story of the girl in the cast from Ruthie’s perspective. As I wrote, I realized that in revisiting my childhood I had to open my heart to Ruthie and dig deep into her experience. I needed to be in the body of that girl again, to feel what she felt. I wanted that girl to have a voice, to be heard and to be loved, and, most of all—for that girl to love herself.
Ruth went in search of Ruthie. This involved looking back at my girlhood and seeing whom I’d been, how I’d grown up, what the neighborhood had been like where we lived in Queens, New York, after arriving from Cuba. I needed to reconstruct the stories and lessons I had learned from my family and from friends, neighbors, and caretakers, and I had to conjure the historical moment of the 1960s when the story took place.
I had mixed emotions as I wrote. It was painful to remember the fear and solitude and terrible uncertainty of that seemingly endless time when I waited to heal. But I also felt joy remembering the happy moments with my family, the stories my grandmother told me, and those little triumphs as my body slowly came out of its shell and I could move again and appreciate the beauty of life.
I wrote the book not only for myself—for the young girl inside me—but because I believed that Ruthie’s story could say something about how all of us are broken in one way or another and how we struggle to find ways to be strong, to have hope, and to heal. Every young person has suffered an injury—whether by being physically hurt or from cruel words. How do we heal? How do we become whole again after we’ve been broken? How does a young person find courage under difficult circumstances?
DCHM: Many people come into Ruthie’s life while she is trapped in her bedroom for months on end. Were any of those characters based on real people in your life?
RB: Many of the characters portrayed in Lucky Broken Girl are based on real people in my life. The family members, including my parents and younger brother and my grandparents and my aunt and uncle and cousins, were all very close to me. I saw them every day as we, in fact, lived in the same building in Queens. After arriving from Cuba, we created a kind of vertical family compound, and we moved between the different apartments as if they were part of one household. I show that in the book by describing how Ruthie’s younger brother, Izzie, rushes between floors sharing news with the family.
Other characters beyond the family were also based on real people. Danielle is based on my best friend, Dinah, who took care of me after I went back to school and whose mother made delicious cream puffs. Other characters—such as Dr. Friendlich, the physical therapist Amara, the tutor Joy, and neighbors like Chicho and Ramu—were loosely based on real people but they are more embellished for the purposes of the story.
Most of all, I wanted to represent as vibrantly as I could the mixing of cultures and immigrant experiences that was so much a part of growing up in Queens, New York. Although most Cuban immigrants resettled in Miami, there were many Cubans who chose to become New Yorkers. While they hung together, they also rubbed shoulders with other immigrant groups in the city, and it was that combination of being unique but also part of a larger cultural mosaic that I wanted to represent through my varied characters.
DCHM: Go-go boots make appearances throughout the book and play a significant role in Ruthie’s story. Do go-go boots also hold a special significance for you too?
RB: Go-go boots were a big part of my life as a young girl. The song, “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” was a hit in 1966 when the car accident took place. I’m sure I didn’t fully understand the lyrics back then, but it was clear the words alluded to a desire for women’s freedom. It was the start of the feminist movement, and the catchy tune encouraged even young girls to stand up for ourselves. I remember how fervently I wanted go-go boots, not just so I could be glamorous and grown-up but so I could feel strong and independent. When I finally got go-go boots, I was thrilled. In the book, I played on the significance of the go-go boots, showing Ruthie longing for them and getting them and losing them in the car accident, and then Danielle’s go-go boots becoming magical boots at the end of the story.
DCHM: What kind of research did you do for this book? Were there any primary sources that inspired you?
RB: When I started writing, I wanted to see how much I remembered of the 1960s when the story took place and so I drew on memories. But as the story unfolded, I did research to be more accurate about the historical period. I traveled to Cuba to learn about the tropical island my family left behind and to understand their feelings of loss and their desire to begin anew as immigrants. I had already done a lot of research on Jewish immigration to Cuba in the 1920s, and I wanted to be sure that this earlier diaspora story was included, so I had Ruthie’s grandmother, Baba, tell the story of her migration from Poland to Cuba in the 1920s and then her migration from Cuba to New York in the 1960s.
I chose not to go back to the neighborhood in Queens where the story takes place until after the book was done, but I did examine carefully all our old black-and-white and faded color photographs from that era, which my mother had kept, and that was how I conjured the time and place in my mind like a sepia-toned image. I found newspaper articles from 1966 reporting about our terrible car accident, and I loosely used some of that information, but I was more interested to see what was generally in the news back then and read accounts from the era, especially those concerning the civil rights struggle. Music flows through the book, there is the cha-cha and the tango, as well as “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” and so I researched the music of the 1960s. Since my story is multicultural, this involved meshing together a mix of popular music that included American, Cuban, Mexican, Yiddish, French, Argentine, Indian, and African American songs. I created a playlist (which is on my website) that is the soundtrack for the book.
DCHM: Why should young people read historical fiction?
RB: Historical fiction shines a light on the lives of those who came before us and helps us realize we are part of one big human community striving to hold on to our memories while moving forward into an unknown future. Young people need to read historical fiction to get out of their comfort zones and see that things weren’t always the way they are now. Human beings lived without cell phones once upon a time, it wasn’t always possible to fly from London to New York, refrigerators didn’t always exist, and a hundred years ago women couldn’t yet vote in the United States. How did we get to where we are today? How did people live in different times and places? What struggles and battles had to be waged to change ideas and practices that seemed unchangeable? What dreams of a better tomorrow had to be imagined? Answers to all these important questions and much more can be found in historical fiction.
DCHM: What three words best describe Lucky Broken Girl?
RB: Waiting. Hope. Gratitude.
–Shana Fung, DiMenna Children’s History Museum