This article was originally published in the July 2017 Princeton Echo.
Powers of intuition
Princeton-based novelist and Echo columnist Pia de Jong’s newest book deals with a parent’s worst fear: the imminent death of a new born child to a ruthless disease. Yet “Saving Charlotte: A Mother and the Power of Intuition” is more than one woman’s painful journey to save her daughter. It is also a writer’s discovery that hope is a human impulse and a powerful force.
Already a best-seller in her native Netherlands, de Jong’s story casts a type of spell on the reader through her fusion of objective details and lyrical riffs, as illustrated in the following excerpt when she and her husband, Institute of Advance Study director Robbert Dijkgraaf, arrive at a Dutch hospital to learn the significance of the blue spots appearing on their new-born daughter’s skin:
The table in the doctor’s office is littered with dirty coffee cups and torn sugar packets. The pediatrician, a woman with laced-up shoes below her white smock, wipes grains of sugar off her sleeve. Then she offers us a firm handshake. She waits on the edge of her chair as we sit down.
“I have bad news,” she begins. “We now know that the spots on her skin are tumors.” She pauses as she looks at each of us. “Your child was born with a very dangerous form of leukemia. Congenital myeloid leukemia, to be precise.” She pronounces each word separately, the way a stonemason places stones, one after another.
She takes a sip from a glass of water and looks around. More sugar grains fall off her sleeve into the spilled coffee on the table. I know why she does this. It’s in the playbook for delivering bad news. For years I taught courses on it. Hand out the bad news right away, clear and direct, then wait patiently for the emotions to come up.
But the only things getting through to me are the hum of the air conditioning, the wispy clouds in the sky outside the window behind her, the paleness of the air. Charlotte makes smacking sounds. She’s hungry and will soon be nuzzling for my breast.
“How dangerous is it?” asks Robbert. “I mean, isn’t leukemia in children rather easily treatable?”
“Yes,” she says, “generally it is. But the kind your daughter has is the most dangerous I’m sorry, but you should prepare yourself for the worst. Charlotte may have little time left. Very little time.”
I put my hand on Charlotte’s head to protect her from the curse of this evil fairly. I want to sing for her through it, loud enough to drown out all other sounds. A children’s song, like mothers all over the world sing to reassure their children.
“Saving Charlotte: A Mother and the Power of Intuition,” by Pia de Jong and translated from her Dutch best seller by de Jong and Landon Jones, is published by Norton and will be released in the United States on July 11.
A rare crime
Novelist John Grisham is known for setting his best-selling thrillers in the south. In his latest, “Camino Island,” much of the action takes place in the Florida resort town named in the title.
But “Camino Island,” published in June by Doubleday, starts much closer to home: in the Department of Rare Books & Special Collections at Princeton University’s Firestone Library, home to a priceless collection of original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts. The theft of those papers in the novel’s opening chapter sets the stage. An excerpt:
The imposter borrowed the name of Neville Manchin, an actual professor of American literature at Portland State and soon-to-be doctoral student at Stanford. In his letter, on perfectly forged college stationery, “Professor Manchin” claimed to be a budding scholar of F. Scott Fitzgerald and was keen to see the great writer’s “manuscripts and papers” during a forthcoming trip to the East Coast. The letter was addressed to Dr. Jeffrey Brown, Director of Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Firestone Library, Princeton University. It arrived with a few others, was duly sorted and passed along, and eventually landed on the desk of Ed Folk, a career junior librarian whose task . . . was to verify the credentials of the person who wrote the letter.
In his thirty-four years at the same desk, Ed had processed all of them. And, they were not going away. In the previous calendar year, Ed had cleared and logged in 190 of these people through the library. They came from all over the world and arrive wide-eyed and humbled, like pilgrims before a shrine. Ed received several of these letters each week, all in many ways the same, all from self-proclaimed Fitzgerald buffs and experts, and even from the occasional true scholar.
F. Scott Fitzgerald continued to fascinate. The traffic was as heavy now as it had been three decades earlier. These days, though, Ed was wondering what could possibly be left of the great writer’s life that had not been pored over, studied at great length, and written about. Not long ago, a true scholar told Ed that there were now at least a hundred books and over ten thousand published academic articles on Fitzgerald the man, the writer, his works, and his crazy wife.
And he drank himself to death at forty-four! What if he’d lived into old age and kept writing? Ed would need an assistant, maybe two, perhaps even an entire staff. But then Ed knew that an early death was often the key to later acclaim (not to mention greater royalties). …
In 1950, Scottie, [Fitzgerald’s] daughter and only child, gave his original manuscripts, notes, and letters — his “papers” — to the Firestone Library at Princeton. His five novels were handwritten on inexpensive paper that did not age well. The library quickly realized that it would be unwise to allow researchers to physically handle them. High-quality copies were made, and the originals were locked away in a secured basement vault where the air, light, and temperature were carefully controlled. Over the years, they had been removed only a handful of times.
In Grisham’s fictional world, that was about to change.
A diamond setting
Princeton resident Peter Brav is not much of a baseball player, but he’s written three novels where the diamond provides a setting for triumph over adversity in one way or another.
The latest, “331 Innings,” is set in a small Nebraska town, and is narrated by elderly man, Jack Schram, who is concerned about the bullying encountered by his nephew’s son John, born with physical limitations and learning disabilities.
Brav, who has lived in Princeton since 1995 with his wife, Janet, has previously published “Sneaking In,” set during the 1999 Yankees championship season and “The Other Side of Losing,” set during a Chicago Cubs championship season, as well as “Zappy I’m Not,” a memoir of a cranky middle-aged man reincarnated as a small dog.
The Cornell University and Harvard Law School alumnus has also written several plays including “South Beach,” “African Violet,” “Later,” “The Rub,” “Good Till Canceled,” and “Trump Burger,” that have been performed in staged readings.
“331 Innings” was published in May and is available on Amazon for $7.25.