Housecleaning often results in unpleasant surprises—astonishingly large dust bunnies, lower back pain and the like. For Kathryn Fitzmaurice, however, a tidying session led to something else entirely: a decision to leave her teaching career and focus on writing full time.
In an interview from her Southern California home, where she lives with her husband and two sons, the author tells BookPage that her grandmother, science fiction writer Eleanor Robinson, "passed away 21 years ago and left me a huge box of unfinished work. She wrote on the box, 'Give these to Kathy—she'll know what to do with them.'Â "
For many years, Fitzmaurice says, "I'd go by it and think about trying to follow in her footsteps. I kept putting it off because I was afraid to really see if I could it." Then, three years ago, "I was cleaning out the house and, looking at that box, I thought, I want to try it!"
Although quitting her teaching job was "a really scary decision," it was a sound one: Fitzmaurice soon signed a two-book deal, and her first novel for young readers, The Year the Swallows Came Early, lands in bookstores this month.
A few weeks after the book's release—March 19, St. Joseph's Day, to be exact—hundreds of cliff swallows will arrive at the San Juan Capistrano Mission from Goya, Argentina; they will remain in California until their October return flight.
"That's 7,500 miles one way," Fitzmaurice marvels. "They've been doing it for centuries, fulfilling their inner biological destiny. It's one thing that's always the same, a promise that will never be broken."
Unbroken promises are something that Eleanor "Groovy" Robinson (named for the author's grandmother) longs for as The Year the Swallows Came Early begins. The seventh-grader witnesses her father's arrest, only to learn that her mother called the police. Although Groovy's small family is a loving one, her father's carefree yet unreliable nature has finally led him to do something that could jeopardize Groovy's future.
Groovy is a thoughtful child who dreams of attending culinary school. She practices cooking at home and at the nearby Swallow restaurant, where she joins her schoolmate Frankie in working for his stepbrother Luis.
Fitzmaurice skillfully captures the sound and feel of children's conversations—the banter between Groovy and the brothers, with its underlying fondness, feels genuine and sweet. So, too, do Groovy's interactions with the sassy Marisol, a neighbor girl who is determined to become a famous artist and is supportive of Groovy's dreams of a life filled with creative pursuits.
That sense of possibility, of a world wide open, infuses the book; even as the characters are hurt or confused by the strange, sometimes incomprehensible turns their lives are taking, they cook and draw and look forward to the swallows' arrival.
The author says she enjoys writing for the middle-grade age group (8 to 12) because of that sense of wonder. "I love it, because children that age still believe things can really happen. They have hope and faith built into them .Â .Â . not that you necessarily lose that after age 12, but I love the spark at that age where everything is possible, still."
One possibility that's central to The Year the Swallows Came Early is that of forgiveness. As Fitzmaurice notes, "Forgiveness is hard, and sometimes you have to do it again and again. It can slip away."
She adds, "I would hate to sound didactic. But maybe, if someone could see it's possible to make the choice to forgive someone vs. to keep on being angry—it's so exhausting, and it takes away from the good things in your life even if you're not aware of it."
With forgiveness, as with writing, Fitzmaurice says, "You can't push it—you have to wait until it's there." She writes between 4 p.m. and 1 a.m., in an office that has on its shelves volumes by or from her grandmother, including a book of Emily Dickinson's poems.
"In the front cover, she wrote, 'Dearest Katherine, Emily Dickinson is a revered poet. Perhaps one day the same will be said of you. Love, Grandmother Eleanor.' I made a copy and framed it," Fitzmaurice says. "It shines from the wall, giving me hope and a map toward someone I can maybe become someday."
Linda M. Castellitto housecleans and writes in North Carolina. Copyright 2009 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2009 January #1
Eleven-year-old Eleanor "Groovy" Robinson is a girl with a dream. Fascinated by food and blessed with a culinary knack, Groovy plans to use the money left by her great-grandmother to go to cooking school, until she discovers that her father has gambled this money--her money--away. What's worse, her own mother has had him arrested for it. Groovy is by turns hurt, angry and lonely, but underneath all that she is confused. Her friend Frankie faces a similar situation: His mother vanished, leaving him in the care of his stepbrother, only to return years later hoping for a blissful reunion. In this daring, emotionally complex story, both Groovy and Frankie try to figure out how to accept people, especially parents, for who they are without abandoning their own needs and their own developing notions of right and wrong. As in real life, not everything is resolved in the end, and many questions remain, but things have achieved a fragile balance, rather like the ingredients in a delicate sauce. (Fiction. 10-14) Copyright Kirkus 2009 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection Reviews 2009 August/September
When 11-year-old Groovy?s father is sent to jail, she is upset and feels betrayed. As her life gets more complicated, she practices her culinary skills while helping out at a taco stand where she confides in the owner. She needs to learn to forgive others and realize her dream might still be possible, as the swallows return to her hometown, culminating in the bringing together of everyone she loves. Female readers will find the characters appealing and easy to relate to. The recipe for chocolate dipped strawberries in the back is an added bonus. Additional Selection. Lisa Wright, Library Media Specialist, West Yadkin Elementary, Hamptonville, North Carolina Â¬ 2009 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2009 January #2
With her passion for cooking, 11-year-old Eleanor, aka Groovy, dreams of becoming a professional chef. But her father, a compulsive gambler, bets away her inheritance from her great-grandmother, money she had planned to use for culinary school. At first Groovy is as angry as her mother, who has Groovy's father arrested, yet during the next several weeks she learns that broken dreams, and broken families, can be rebuilt. Debut novelist Fitzmaurice creates a sympathetic heroine in Groovy and an interesting sidekick in Frankie, whose estranged mother makes a sudden appearance shortly after Groovy's father is jailed. Although nature metaphors (a surprise earthquake, birds returning early, dandelion seeds blowing in the wind) are overdrawn, the author's use of food motifs (particularly Groovy's ability to associate different dishes with specific events and moods) appears more relevant and smoothly integrated. Fitzmaurice does not completely resolve the family conflicts, but she provides hints that love will conquer old resentments. Ages 9-12. (Feb.)[Page 47]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
Gr 4-7--Watching helplessly as her father is taken off to jail, Groovy Robinson, 11, is convinced that there has been a terrible mistake. When her mom admits that she turned him in because he gambled away the $25,000 savings account that Groovy's great-grandmother left her, the child shrinks into herself-disappointed, hurt, not caring about anything. Not until Groovy-now wanting to be known as Eleanor-heeds the advice of the homeless old sailor Mr. Tom does she grasp that people we love can hurt us, but that only through forgiveness can we become whole again. This first novel is peopled with three-dimensional characters whose imperfections make them believable and interesting. Groovy's big-talking, ne'er-do-well dad donates a trailer to Mr. Tom. Her beautician mom is guided by astrology, but her boundless love for Eleanor is totally grounded. And Groovy's perceptive friend Frankie is unable to grasp the real reasons that his immigrant mother left him in his stepbrother's care. The well-structured plot is underscored by clear writing and authentic dialogue, and short chapters keep the story moving. The book draws a parallel with the birds of Capistrano, and a novel that encourages understanding, tolerance, and forgiveness is as welcome as the returning swallows.--Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan, formerly at LaSalle Academy, Providence, RI[Page 98]. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.