Wolff stirs a rich, unique tale of poverty, triumph

With every award-winning book she writes, the sphere of influence of author Virginia Euwer Wolff gets a little bigger. But she still manages to connect with her roots in the Hood River Valley.

Wolff, who grew up near Parkdale and attended Parkdale Elementary and Wy’east Middle School — and later taught at Hood River Valley High School — will read and sign copies of “True Believer,” which won the 2001 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, at 4 p.m. on Sunday at CAST Performing Arts Center. The reading is sponsored by Waucoma Bookstore.

“True Believer” is the second novel in the “Make Lemonade” trilogy. It picks up where “Make Lemonade” left off, with protagonist LaVaughn, now 15, struggling with the growing pains of adolescence. Along with the daily poverty and violence of her inner city neighborhood and high school, LaVaughn is struggling with losing the companionship of her two closest friends, who have joined a “Cross Your Legs for Jesus” club, and with the confusing emotions of her first crush. On top of everything, her mother has begun dating for the first time since her father’s death.

“True Believer” is told in the same stream-of-consciousness style that made “Make Lemonade” so unique — and makes both stories so authentic. It also continues Wolff’s tradition of being purposely ambiguous when it comes to identifying characters by race, or where they live — “Rooted not in a particular culture, but in the community of poverty,” as Booklist said.

Despite the challenges facing LaVaughn, the story is threaded with optimism and leaves readers with some important lessons about overcoming adversity.

In an interview with the Hood River News last week, Wolff, who lives in Oregon City, talked about the book, her roots in the Hood River Valley, and how she came to write for young people.

HRN: How have you come to speak so authentically in the voice of poverty and inner city youth? Your roots in the Hood River Valley, followed by private high school (in Portland) and college education, seem so far from that.

VEW: Well, I had a lot of time to listen when I was a kid. And while I was listening to the sound of wind through Douglas fir trees, I think I also listened to the way people use language. Even the many different ways people greet each other: The variations on “Hi, how are you?” are vast. I guess I’ve always just liked hearing people speaking. Some are intriguing, some are boring, some are irritating, some are scary, some are delicious. I’m a listener. That’s kind of my orientation to language.

Regarding poverty, my parents and their generation lived through the Great Depression and they never let us forget it. I can’t remember when I didn’t know about poverty; that is, I can’t remember poverty ever surprising me. I’m very interested in people who work hard; I’m interested in the scraping by that most human beings do.

As for inner cities, I’ve lived in cities (New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.), so urban sounds and smells and sights are in my vocabulary, perhaps particularly because they’re in such dramatic contrast with the sounds, smells, and sights of my quiet childhood.

Life is hard. Life doesn’t give us an easy time just because we’re nice people. I get very interested in the problems of the kids I’m writing about. As a kid in the pre-television Hood River Valley, I was privileged to hang around and watch things grow, watch triumph and pathos and loss. Those things turn up in my writing.

HRN: How or why did you arrive at writing books for young people?

VEW: I sort of fell into it, but it turns out that this is probably where I should be anyway. I was looking for a story in the mid-1980s. A brief anecdote happened my way. I wanted to try to make a story of it. And long before that book was finished, another story had begun to come in its slow way to me, and I’ve just kept on following the ideas that whisper their way into my mind.

HRN: You’ve won a succession of awards for your books, and now the National Book Award for this one. Does it make writing easier or harder, or not any different?

VEW: Writing has never been easy for me. It isn’t any easier now than it was nearly 20 years ago, when I began that first book for kids, but now I recognize more of the dangers and pitfalls, so I’m likely not to make exactly the same mistakes I was making then. I still make lots of mistakes every day in writing, but they’re different ones.

HRN: What is it like for you when you come “home” to Hood River these days?

VEW: Well, I’ve still never seen anything quite as lovely as a summer sunrise on Mt. Hood, nor as a summer afternoon on the Columbia, nor as snow squatting on cedars. The Valley in every season is a delight. I think everyone who comes from the Valley feels a deep attachment to it; but it’s important for many (not all) of us to go away so we can get some perspective on our own childhoods there. I still have very dear family in the Valley.

HRN: The style of this book is so unique, with its stream-of-consciousness, journal-like prose. How did you come up with that?

VEW: I began with those funny-shaped lines in the first burst of “Make Lemonade.” It was almost not a conscious decision, and was based in fear: the fear that I didn’t know what I was doing, and short lines were less scary. It was a childlike impulse — but, like many childlike impulses, not all wrong. When I got around to thinking about what I was doing in those first few weeks in 1991, I just decided to keep trying it and see what would happen. As long as nobody knew about it but me, it wasn’t hurting anything, and I wanted to try to sustain it till I got caught by somebody on the outside. And it turned out in the long run to be OK.

HRN: Books like yours can have such an impact and influence on teens (J.D. Salinger’s works come to mind). Do you have a particular hope or desire for this book — this trilogy — in terms of its impact on the lives of young people?

VEW: When we write for kids we seem to have this rescue-squad approach. We seem to set out to save kids in some way. I did hope that “Make Lemonade” would prevent at least one teenage pregnancy, or come to the rescue of one teenage mother who felt that life was overwhelming and desolate. I have no solid evidence that it’s done either, but I still keep hoping.

And I owe a gigantic debt to J.D. Salinger, by the way. A lifelong debt.

HRN: How do you build such real characters without ever describing their race, or where they come from.

VEW: It’s an author’s job to make real characters. As readers, we deserve them. If I can’t do that, I should look for work in another profession.

About race, remember Dr. (Martin Luther) King and his hope? “... When my children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Well, we SAY we want that kind of world, but we are not making very rapid progress toward it. I just decided I would try to do my part by making a raceless book and see what happened. Since I was already writing it in those funny-shaped lines and breaking a couple of other precedents, trying racelessness didn’t seem too much of an additional leap. My hope is that the characters take on the ethnic identity that each reader needs them to have.

The reading on Sunday is free. ‘True Believer’ is on sale at Waucoma Bookstore.

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