Author Interview and Book Giveaway!
A conversation with Mary Rose Kadar-Kallen in this month's Quick Book Notes (#3).
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**Update: the winner of the giveaway is!! Look for an e-mail from me soon, Meredith!**
One of my favorite books to give 10-to-16-year-olds is Mary Rose Kadar-Kallen’s novel about a Pennsylvania Catholic family during World War II, The Cross Our Compass.
One of the things I love about the book is that it follows family members both on the home front *and* on the front front (fighting in Europe), giving both perspectives truthfully and yet in a way appropriate for young teen readers.
There is so much to enjoy in reading about these various perspectives. I value this book so highly that I even gave copies to each of the boys (girls enjoy it, too, though, including my daughter!) in my U.S. history class a couple of years ago. And they raved about it!
As a teenager friend of mine comments, “I think it accurately portrays both sides of the war, as well as the conflict and the struggle we find around us everyday….It's a good read.”
High praise indeed.
I had the pleasure of corresponding with the author recently and am delighted to share our conversation with you today.
[Giveaway closed] ** I will also be GIVING AWAY a copy (signed by the author) of this book to one reader!! **
In order to enter the giveaway, please do two things:
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The winner will be selected at random one week from today and announced here (and by e-mail to the winner).
If you are not the lucky winner, you can still purchase a copy here or a signed copy here or here! (Not affiliate links.)
Without further ado, here is our conversation with the lovely Mary Rose (pictured in period-appropriate dress)!
The Hollow: You are a young woman, yet you possess an impressive set of skills: research, writing, sketching, and more, and have written a book that impresses with its historical sense and accuracy. Please tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be interested in history and in writing.
Miss Mary Rose Kaldar-Kallen: Well, I’ve been making up stories and characters and illustrating them ever since I was small. I wrote my first novel when I was ten, and afterwards began participating in the “write a novel in November” challenge, which I did for a number of years.
My interest in and love of all things WWII was sparked when I first read Enemy Brothers by Constance Savery, a story set in wartime Britain, published 1943. I immediately re-read it and followed it up with every book relating to WWII that I could get my hands on, fiction or nonfiction. If it couldn’t be WWII, then something set in WWI or the ‘50s would have to do. We began going to WWII re-enactments, touring period aircraft, and attending a Roundtable which hosted monthly talks by WWII veterans. Naturally, I decided to set one of my novels during the war, and as the years went by the result gradually became transformed into The Cross Our Compass. The more serious I became about rewriting it, the more detailed became my research; and the more I learned about the historical background, the more I loved it and wanted to continue writing about it.
The Hollow: You mention what “we” did as a result of your interest in World War II: attended re-enactments, went to talks, etc. Your family seems to have been very supportive of your interests and, I presume, of your writing. What role have your siblings, in particular, played in your writing and other creative pursuits?
Miss Kaldar-Kallen: Interests have a way of spreading. I am not the only one in my family who has an intense, long-standing interest in WWII! All of us have our own creative pursuits and encourage each other in them and assist in various endeavors. I certainly could not have published this book without my family’s help. From endless amounts of editorial assistance, to the right remark when I imagine I want to toss a project, all kinds of support has come my way from my family. I realize that’s not something that every budding novelist is blessed to have!
On a funny note, my sibling fans are responsible for several details in the book, including Joe’s mustache, which I strongly opposed—until resistance became useless and I realized that, of course, he had to have one.
The Hollow: How did you settle on the particular topic and storyline of The Cross Our Compass? What audience did you have in mind?
Miss Kaldar-Kallen: My goal was to write the book that I wanted to read when I was thirteen. I always wanted it to be read by kids the age I was when I first ‘discovered’ WWII through the medium of historical fiction.
It was natural to have the story revolve around a large Catholic family. I come from one myself and I’ve been inventing fictional families for a long time! I wanted it to be specifically about American G.I.s on the frontlines because they are (or at least they are seen as) the crux of the war—the thing the future of the world depended on. I don’t think there is enough quality, youngster-friendly fiction about actual soldiers—I certainly would have liked to read much more of it than I could find.
I wanted to focus on G.I.s as people with characters, stories, and backgrounds, rather than concentrating on combat action. It’s often pointed out that the men fighting this war were not career soldiers, but a cross-section of typical Americans. My book came to be a way of showing where they came from: ordinary homes and families. My idea of what they might have thought, felt, and experienced was influenced by hearing real veterans tell their stories. Listening to their memories puts the war within the context of one person’s experience, and you realize that the war years were only a small, though extremely significant, section of people’s lives.
Another point that was on my mind later on in the writing process is that stories involving G.I.s and combat don’t have to include profanity (and other smutty things) in order to be authentic. As a D-Day veteran, whom I was privileged to meet several times, said about certain war movies, “We weren’t angels, but we didn’t talk like that.” These soldiers were men of every stripe—and that included those who, though roughened and coarsened by their circumstances, maintained their personal standards, morals, and even their prayer lives, in the primitive conditions of the frontlines. If they came from strong, devout families, chances were they remained so. I read of one regiment where fourteen groups of G.I.s agreed to make a monthly holy hour “to atone to God for the insults the regiment gives Him.” One group made their holy hour in the latrine building because it was the only lighted place available. Fr. Samson, a chaplain with the 101st Airborne, in his memoirs Look Out Below, gives a glimpse of the many serious Catholics he ministered to in the paratroops. So, I think my book does look at WWII G.I.s in a way that is somewhat unusual.
The Hollow: Another thing that makes your book so appealing is the inclusion of significant characters and storylines on both the home front and the “front” front. How do you think these experiences were different, and how were they similar?
Miss Kaldar-Kallen: Both at home and overseas, the family faced a great trial of separation and fear, and their faith was tried and strengthened. Dave and Joe (and their companions) were, of course, more actively involved in the war. One aspect of this is that they were able to have a sort of relief from the tension, found at the very heart of the thing itself in the chaos of the frontlines. Many veterans attest to this. They could actually forget the real meaning and danger of what they were doing, because they were so involved in the practicalities of doing it. On the flip side, the periods of inactivity between those combat “highs” were very low indeed for them, as when Dave comes off the line in Sicily. The trial of the stay-at-homes, on the other hand, was to endure a great, unbroken tension over an extended period of time. They had no idea of how many years it might continue. Every day their “boys” were gone was a big question-mark, an inescapable weight that had to be carried on top of the daily round of little problems. On both fronts, the family followed the same Compass, and that continued to bind them together across the seas and throughout the war.
The Hollow: I know from my own work with 1940’s primary sources that these two fronts (home and military) were mutually essential to each other’s survival during the war, but that after the war it was often very difficult for soldiers and their families and friends at homes to resume healthy relationships. Although American fertility rates boomed, divorce rates also skyrocketed immediately following the war, as did depression among among American women.
What challenges would you anticipate your characters having experienced in the five or ten years following their reunion?
Miss Kaldar-Kallen: It’s very interesting to speculate like this! Without giving too much away about the ending, I think that, because the family was so close-knit and well-grounded in their faith, they would have dealt with any friction with good sense, understanding, and humor. We leave the family on the cusp of breaking up at the end of the war, as the children head off in different directions. They had only a limited time together, and so it had much of the special bittersweetness of a fleeting furlough. So it is maybe a bit unusual in terms of post-war reunions.
Also, unlike many of his real-life peers, the Szaszak boys do not hurry to marry before leaving for the war at the beginning of the story. Once, looking through a relative’s WWII memorabilia, I found a pamphlet for Catholic soldiers which advised, “better to wait a few years than risk years of separation later on.” I am sure Joe Szaszak, being a wise young man, chose his course from the same prudent motives. The other soldiers in the story who did not have the same firm foundation as the Szaszaks may have had more challenges.
I do touch briefly on the guilt (and grief) that one soldier carried home with him. In his years of formation in seminary after the war, that guilt may have even become a testing-point for his vocation, a temptation to give up. The contrast between his life on the frontlines and the sublimity of his eventual calling was intense. However, the seminary also gave him a great advantage: he would have had the counsel of older, wiser superiors to guide him and help him to learn to carry that particular burden, in a period when, as we know, most veterans did not have much help with postwar trauma. Furthermore, because he was dedicating himself to God and the service of others, he had a purpose and direction that many returning veterans lacked.
Overall, the impression I have of the surviving characters’ postwar years is one of peace. That is where I leave them, and because the story follows a spiritual, more than a temporal struggle, it is a real and abiding interior peace that is the fruit.
The Hollow: What’s next for you? Any writing projects in the works?
Miss Kaldar-Kallen: My next historical fiction novel is nearing completion! Not to give away plot or title, I will hint that it also occurs in a wartime setting and includes a real historical figure.
The Hollow: What final comments do you have for our readers?
Miss Kaldar-Kallen: Thank you for inviting me to write this interview and for the interesting prompts! I greatly appreciate the opportunity to write down and share these thoughts, and I’ve enjoyed thinking about and looking at my novel in new ways.
Mary Rose Kadar-Kallen is a writer and illustrator who spends much time submersed in historical research for her projects. She also enjoys singing (in particular cantoring Byzantine Catholic chant and leading Sacred Harp shape-note Sings), calling dances for weddings and other gatherings, and engaging in long hours of volunteer work. She is the author of The Cross our Compass, a historical fiction novel set in WWII that has won accolades from young and old readers alike (including veterans who profess not to like fiction!). The Cross our Compass may be found at quisutdeuspress.com ; you can also peruse historical trivia and photographs related to the novel here. You may see some of Mary Rose’s artwork, sketches, and research-related thoughts on Instagram @drawerfullofmedics.
Well, that’s it for today. Don’t forget to enter the giveaway to win your own signed copy! And purchase your own signed copy or one to give as a gift here.