Today I received a response from Anne Ursu, about how divorce is (and isn’t) a part of her new amazing book, Breadcrumbs, and about how it is (and isn’t) a part of her life.
I am honored by this response– by the thought and honesty it took to write this. I think you should read it. I think you’ll be glad you did:
The first thing I should say is my parents have been happily married for over 40 years. I remember being in elementary school and looking at the school directory and seeing kids who had a different entry for each parent. I didn’t have any friends whose parents were divorced, and it seemed so strange to me. How could two people love each other enough to get married, to have a child, and then break up?
Thirty years later, I still don’t know the answer to this. And I feel odd, reading all of these beautiful stories about children of divorce, because I never was one. But my little boy is.
But I should start with the book. Breadcrumbs is a contemporary retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen.” It takes place in Minneapolis and is the story of eleven-year-old Hazel whose very best friend in the world is her next-door neighbor Jack. One day, Jack changes and is cruel to her. Soon afterwards, he disappears—taken into the woods by a mysterious woman in white. And Hazel decides to go after him.
When I first started writing, Hazel had two parents, but somehow over the course of writing the first chapter, I realized the father had left a few months before. Hazel’s newly-single mother was harried and needed her daughter to be a little more grown-up than Hazel was ready to be. Meanwhile Hazel had just learned that the ground beneath her feet could shift at any time, and she was still stumbling.
It made sense for the character, as did the fact that she was the adopted Indian child of two white parents. As did her having a single mom typing away at her desk who can’t quite see her girl because her eyes have so much else to take in. I wasn’t setting out to write about divorce—I wanted it to be one of the many factors that informed who Hazel was at the beginning of the book, one of the things that kept her needing her best friend Jack and the space they created together so badly, and one of the things that would cause her to pack up a backpack and head into a fairy-tale woods after him. And one of the things that might tempt her to stay.
That’s the thing about the real kid heroes of fantasies—there’s some reason they need to go on the journey in the first place. There is something broken in their lives. And nothing but magic can fix it.
When I first started writing this book, I was living with my husband and just-three-year-old boy in Cleveland. When I handed in the final draft, I’d just finished setting up a two-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis with my son. His father stayed in Cleveland.
I wrote about a harried single mother, then I became one. I have to tell my boy I can’t play because I need to work, do the dishes, call the insurance company, or because I’m simply too tired. And this will be one of the things that forms his whole life, this living with a single, self-employed mom and all that entails. I made this choice, and when I did I vowed that my life would belong to him. But there are so many things thrust in front of my eyes every day, and I am afraid I will look at him one day and find there are wounds only magic can fix.
I wonder how it will look to my boy when he’s older, what stories he will tell. I wonder how I will explain it to him when he is old enough to ask. It is impossible to do this right, this parenting thing. We make mistakes, every day. We struggle and we fail. A lot. And both the successes and the failures are part of what forms our children as they journey forward. And there’s so much else, too, so much we have no control of—when we’re not looking they could get in a boat and sail off to the wild things, sneak up into the attic and uncover a wish-granting breadbox, head off into an uncaring fairy-tale woods in ill-considered shoes.
Hazel is not much like my four-year-old boy, who thrives around people, whose energy could power a small city, who is filled with so much joy that sometimes it runs over. But I put my love and fears for him into the making of her all the same—the divorce I did not see coming, the way he could not control himself in groups of other kids, and the way some preschools cared for him for who he was and others shamed him for the same thing. I did not know how much more of that there was to come this year, nor that he would be diagnosed with Asperger’s. Still, I felt something. I looked at his path ahead and saw all the broken things there. I couldn’t stop them from breaking, and some of the things would be beyond my power to fix. All I could do is love him, fiercely, so much that it spilled over into this story of a dreamy, awkward eleven-year-old girl. I wrote a book that says that growing up is hard, that it wounds as it pushes us forward. And I tried to say that is hard as it can be, there’s nothing a kid isn’t up to. That he, himself, is magic. And that’s all that matters.