INTRO – Today’s most popular young adult novels … think “Divergent” or “the Hunger Games” … set their stories in a dystopian future. A Beaufort author however sets her attempt at young adult fiction in a near-utopian village in the not-too-distant past. George Olsen has more.
You could make the argument that the lead female characters in popular young adult novels “Divergent” and “The Hunger Games” share a trait with Grace, the lead female character in Susan Schmidt’s “Song of Moving Water.”
“This is a moment when values are forming and this is a moment in this young woman’s life when she is making her values.”
But unlike Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games, Grace won’t be shooting her way out of conflict. Schmidt says her novel is more about environmental education... perhaps as a literary method of introducing young adults… and in particular young women… to wild spaces they might not see much anymore.
“When I was a kid I used to play out in the woods. In my back yard in Richmond I had 500 acres of woods, I would hop a creek, I would go through the woods, I would walk along the James River. There’s a scene in the book where Grace is walking along the James River until she gets to a dam and fishes… not to catch a fish but just to be there to see it. It was her place, and I don’t know how many kids have a wild place in their back yard anymore and have parents that let them go outside by themselves into a wild land.”
Much of the book set in the 1970s revolves around Grace’s efforts to stop construction of a dam on her Virginia community’s Jack Creek. The dam would flood the valley they live in as part of a project to generate electricity. Schmidt describes “Song of Moving Water” as a “test case for environmental impact statements…” not the type of thing that plays well in bold type on a motion picture marketing campaign. Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” bursts from obscurity to become the symbol of an oppressed people. Grace McAuley leaves pampered Richmond society to learn to appreciate a region short on money but long on community.
“When Grace first comes back to the mountains, when she’s 17, she worries about what she looks like, she worries about what people will think of her, and she judges the people that she sees, and she says to herself “oh, they must lead boring lives up here without theatre and libraries,” and as she spends a half-year with her Aunt Ruby, she realizes these people have very rich minds and very open hearts and she learns about love. I guess that’s the ultimate lesson as well. She learns how interdependent this tiny community is. They take care of themselves but they also take care of each other.”
Grace develops enough of an appreciation for this community that she determines to try and save it from inevitable destruction if the dam project goes through. Toward that end she develops the Jack Creek Festival as an effort to try and bring people from inside and outside the community together to show them what makes the area special and to join her in trying to stop the project. For a 17-year-old girl, it’s a big project, one made more difficult by a teenage girl’s own self-doubt, as illustrated in this passage from “Song of Moving Water.”
Reads from Page 109 – “Grace did not have enough wisdom…maybe people could see for themselves.”
The passage illustrates a trait that Schmidt has noticed during her near 40 year teaching career … a trait that oftentimes crop up in young girls as compared to their male counterparts.
“It’s true that little girls have competence before they’re confident and boys are confident before they’re competent. That’s part of women’s basis on ways of knowing, but that’s also I’ve observed when I was teaching Outward Bound. You always had to be careful because little boys were more likely to jump off cliffs and little girls want to learn the skill, practice the skill, before they are confident enough. She did not feel herself that she had enough wisdom to tell anybody about anything, particularly all these old people in the valley who had been farming there for so long. She’s just learning what they have depth of centuries from, and she is learning to value other people’s wisdom, because she walked in at the beginning of the book saying what do these people know, they don’t read books, and she’s learning there’s a whole lot more distinction between knowledge … book learning… and wisdom & experience.”
Grace at varying points in the book also learns life lessons beyond the environmental message that Schmidt hopes to spread through “Song of Moving Water.” While making preparations for the Jack Creek Festival Grace is injured. Originally determined to prove her toughness to her new community by putting everything together by herself, now she must delegate and let go of her project to a degree. The book illustrates what Grace needs to do by discussing the actions that another Beaufort environmentalist did many years ago.
“Rachel Carson did field work at Bird Shoal in front of Beaufort in the 1930s and the biography that her illustrator wrote about that said she would work until she was so weak she could barely stand up because she had a week off from working, she had a job in D.C., and he would literally carry her across the marsh at the end of the day. Rachel Carson is my hero, and if I could grow up to be anybody it would be Rachel Carson.”
“Song of Moving Water” is set in the 1970s, a time where Grace’s mother hopes her daughter will marry and become a part of the Richmond society she is a part of, but Grace chooses a different path. “Song of Moving Water” is essentially a push for young women to… if not take that different path… to at least realize they have options. Susan Schmidt is pleased that in the time span between when her novel is set and the present day many women have explored beyond the roles traditionally reserved for them.
“Most of my jobs I was the first professional woman and had to keep up. So if I was one of the first female rock climbing instructors at Outward Bound, that was tough for me because I tried to keep up. About 10 years ago when I was teaching at Brevard College in Asheville I went to a conference of the Association of Experiential Education, I went to a weekend just for women and I was delighted that there are so many young women now. This book takes place in the mid-1970s, that was 40 years ago. Forty years later there are so many young women who are beautiful, spiritual and very competent who are the instructors at Outward Bound and university programs and training other women to be outdoors instructors. And I was so happy.”
Susan Schmidt’s new young adult novel “Song of Moving Water” is published by her own Kakapo Press. She also has just released a new book of poetry “Salt Runs in my Blood.” I’m George Olsen.
More information about the book can be found at the author's website
Book is currently available through Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.
NOTE: Book may appear at those locations under a different title "Black Waters."