Interview with Sandy Brehl, Author of Bjorn’s Gift

by Stephanie Golightly Lowden

I recently interviewed Sandy Brehl, the author of Bjorn’s Gift (Crispin Books, a sibling imprint of Crickhollow Books, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2016). Bjorn’s Gift is a sequel to Odin’s Promise, winner of the 2014 Midwest Book Award for Children’s Fiction. The interview was done via email.

THE INTERVIEW

Stephanie: Readers of your first book, Odin’s Promise, may already know the story of how that book came to be. (For more on that, here’s an earlier interview with Sandy about her first book.) For newcomers to your books, could you recap your writing journey to Odin’s Promise and how you became interested in wartime Norway?

Bjorn's Gift, by Sandy Brehl

Sandy: I’ll begin with a disclaimer: I’m not Norwegian. I visited Norway twice with a friend whose extensive family still lived in Norway. During both trips we enjoyed hours of conversations about her family’s history as we visited a small town called Ytre Arna, in western Norway near the city of Bergen.

The topic often returned to the German occupation years, during which my friend’s aunts and uncles were young adults and teens. Their memories were vivid, their anecdotes funny, harrowing, and inspiring. Norway’s occupation history was entirely unknown to me, and I was determined to write about it.

In the course of many years, extensive research, and numerous revisions, I became more convinced that I needed to write their stories. But I couldn’t find a main character as eager to tell them. Eventually, I discovered actual journal entries written by young Norwegians during the war years. This led me to imagine young Mari, a fictional character who could tell those stories from a new angle.

Stephanie: I was fascinated at how the people of Norway resisted in such unique ways, for example using the German’s ignorance of Norwegian folklore. This was all new to me. You said that during revisions on your first novel you came across Kathleen Stokker’s dissertation, “How Folklore Fought the Nazis.” Tell us a little about that and how it influenced your writing of both books.

Sandy: Stokker’s thesis was that humor provided loyal Norwegians a way to sustain their national identity, to deny the validity of German claims to “Viking brotherhood,” and to keep up morale. In the process they sought to distract and divert the overwhelming number of occupying troops from their military purposes, finding clever approaches to getting under their skin in ways that wouldn’t provoke arrests, or worse.

After the first year of German occupation the façade of “friendly protectors” slipped away and increasingly severe rules were imposed, so subtly “laughing behind their backs” provided unity and emotional release during the hardest times.

Stokker’s book is filled with support of her thesis of how the Norwegians used humor, in artifacts, first-person accounts, newspaper clippings, photographs, and journal entries. She included examples of word play, sly wit, anecdotes, and determination to survive, all of which mirrored the conversations and laughter I had witnessed during my visits in Ytre Arna, Norway.

Stephanie: Why the sequel?

Sandy Brehl, Author of Bjorn's Gift

Sandy: A sequel was never part of the plan. Ever! Odin’s Promise encompasses the first year of German occupation, and was intended as a complete story. That time period provided a natural story arc for my main character, Mari, and included many of the original stories I heard from my friends in Norway.

But from the earliest days after its release, readers of Odin’s Promise were asking, “When does the sequel come out?”

That question was both thrilling and terrifying. Thrilling, because the character and story I had worked so hard to find and write had apparently connected deeply with readers, so much so that they insisted a sequel was necessary.

It was also terrifying because I had no plans to write a sequel, and didn’t really know how to go about that. Nor did I have decades to do research or travel to Norway.

The least I could do was try. With the constructive support of my writing partners and editor, I tackled the challenge, and readers will have their sequel. In fact, I realized that to properly show Mari growing up from a child into young womanhood, I would have to split my sequel into two parts. So there is a third installment in the series, to be published next year.

Stephanie: In Bjorn’s Gift, Mari is a little older and is dealing with many issues. When a boy she knows, whom I thought may have a little crush on her, joins the young Nazi organization, she is horrified. When her father offers their home to house a group of German soldiers, she is conflicted. Could you talk about the issue in your book of how things are not always black and white? I found that to be such an important theme.

Sandy: The reason this became a two-part sequel is that a young person doesn’t grow from 12 years old to 16-plus in one phase. In this middle book, as Mari moves from 12 to nearly 14, she faces what every early adolescent faces: a growing awareness of the complexity of individuals, even those she felt she understood completely, inside and out. In Mari’s situation this was magnified by her dangerous circumstances and the need for secrecy and hidden agendas.

Even so, young people in every situation are faced with increasingly complex decisions as they grow in independence, move into changing social circles, and seek to establish an identity separate from their parents. The “need to please.” to gain privilege, and to avoid bullying are powerful pressures every young person faces, in every time and place.

In dealing with those conflicting pressures and decisions they, like Mari, begin to shape themselves into the adults they will become. The process can be very uncomfortable and confusing, but it is a necessary part of growing up.

Stephanie: The suspense in this novel went up several notches from Odin’s Promise. Mari doesn’t know who to trust, food and other provisions are becoming scarce, and her town is now flooded with soldiers. Her family is quietly resisting in ways that could get them into deep trouble. Without giving too much away, how did you get the idea of the journal she decides to keep?

And Mari hiding the journal in a very specific place?

Sandy: Stokker’s inclusion of diary excerpts added details about the great risk involved in writing and keeping a journal throughout those years. Some who took those risks were adults, but many were young people. Some occupation journals remained family secrets for years and didn’t resurface until decades later when they were shared with the Resistance Museum. As I spoke to groups about finding Mari’s voice for Odin’s Promise, I often mentioned that the journal entries were windows into the minds and emotions of young people during the occupation, inviting Mari to enter my story and pick up all my earlier attempts to make them her own.

When I decided to make a stab at writing a sequel, I began by rereading those journal entries. Mari needed to face that struggle herself: preserving the details of what was happening to her family and her country. In doing so she risked not only her own life but that of her family and many others.

As for how and where Mari hid her journal, let’s just say the cutting-room floor is strewn with outtakes of my attempts before finally settling on details that worked organically with the story as a whole. Many of my other approaches were equally detailed (and fun to write!), but contained logic flaws that might distract readers from the story as a whole. By the way. I hope soon to add a link on my website to feature some of those scenes from the “cutting-room floor.”

Stephanie: Talk a little about how school changes for Mari in this book – suddenly she is required to study German language and German history. Norway culture is being erased. And what is the significance of the red knit caps?

Sandy: Within a year of occupation, the invading Germans recognized that Norwegians were not embracing their propaganda, not buying into becoming the “German Fortress in the North” that Hitler expected and demanded. Changes in classroom education were just one step to enforce implementation of that plan. School buildings were used to house German troops, reducing class schedules, eliminating traditional subjects, and mandating the teaching of German language, culture, and Nazi party beliefs.

In the first year, in Odin’s Promise, this approach was still more subtle, but no less insulting. Traditional clothing (bunad), holiday traditions, the Norway flag, and other national symbols were forbidden from the start. Within that policy, knitted red caps were outlawed because they were seen as a cultural symbol (think of the little gnome figures with pointed red caps).

For nearly a year children wore red caps anyway, because it was believed that Germans “claiming to be friends” wouldn’t try to prevent children from wearing whatever cap they wished. But when Germany invaded Russia in 1941, that became an excuse to crack down on the red caps. Russia’s communist government symbol was a red flag, so Norway’s occupiers threatened to arrest anyone wearing a red cap as being a Russian Communist sympathizer.

Stephanie: Your books deal with very serious issues. When you visit schools, how do you talk to kids about the themes in your books? How does a typical school visit play out? What age groups do you offer presentations for?

Sandy: In my long teaching career, I worked with learners from ages three through middle school. The best part of making school visits is spending time with kids again, especially in sharing big ideas, books, and writing. Naturally, the reading level and subject matter of these Mari books are ideal for fourth graders and older, but I love working with all ages using a variety of materials. I prepare for visits by asking about students’ background and explore parallel experiences in everyday life in which hard choices must be made.

My visits have ranged from a single classroom with twelve students to whole-school programs about writing and reading lives, to targeted grade levels and specific book studies, mine or others.

Study guides for both books in the Odin Promise series are available on my website, with a link to download descriptions of school visits. I’m eager to provide programs that best support the goals of each classroom or school and I can suggest ways to customize programs to meet their needs. I welcome inquiries and questions. Check out the “FOR TEACHERS” tab on my website for details.

Ytre Arne, Norway

Ytre Arne, Norway

Stephanie: Can you give us a hint about the third book in this series? When will it be released?

Sandy: In book three, Mari’s Hope, the story spans from 1943 to the end of the war in 1945 and a few months beyond. During those years, Mari’s challenges take her beyond her little village of Ytre Arna. The hardships and threats from the occupation continue to escalate, and one troublesome German soldier, Goatman, plays a role in those threats. It’s no spoiler to say that Hitler loses the war, but there are surprises, based on history, in the way that outcome plays out within Norway and Mari’s life. Mari’s Hope will release in 2017.

Stephanie: Do you have any appearances coming up?

Sandy:  I’m go glad you asked, because I love to meet and talk with readers: young ones, and older ones who may have some family connections with Norway or with similar resistance movements in other countries.

Here’s a list of coming events: http://www.sandybrehl.com/author-events/

Highlights in Fall 2016 include:

Scandinavian Festival, New Berlin, Wisconsin
Saturday, Oct. 8, 10:00-5:00
Ron Reagan Elementary School,

Books & Company, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin
Saturday, Nov. 19, 1:00
“Norway’s Trolls and Troublemakers”
(A joint appearance with artist Ingrid Kallick,
illustrator of TWO TROLL TALES FROM NORWAY.)

Victorian Holiday Weekend
Nordic Nook, Stoughton, Wisconsin
Saturday, Dec. 3, 11:00–1:00
Book sales and signing
(with Ingrid Kallick following from 1:00–3:00)

 

Stephanie: Thanks so much for your time, Sandy! I look forward to more readers discovering this series featuring Mari and her story of personal growth and family togetherness in occupied World War II Norway.

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Bjorn’s Gift, by Sandy Brehl
Crispin Books (October 2016)
Softcover, 272 pages
Historical Fiction /
Middle Grade (8–12)

Readers who want to know more about Sandy, her books, appearances, and future publications can learn more at her website:
http://www.sandybrehl.com

or follow her on Twitter @SandyBrehl

Reviewer Stephanie Golightly Lowden is author of Jingo Fever, a middle-grade historical novel is set in 1918 during World War I in Ashland, Wisconsin, and Time of the Eagle, a fictional account of a winter survival trek by two young Native American (Ojibwe) siblings in the 1700s near Lake Superior. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing your journey with us, Sandy. Fascinating.

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