Duluth writer Margi Preus has made a name for herself by turning history into award-winning novels for kids.
Only halfway into a full day dedicated to promoting her new book, “West of the Moon,” Duluth writer Margi Preus was undeterred by reports of a pending spring snowstorm threatening to trap her in the Twin Cities area.
“If I get stuck here, I suppose I could do some research,” Preus mused while recovering from a classroom visit in Minneapolis and preparing for an evening appearance at the Dakota County library in Lakeville. “Do you have any idea if there’s a dojo around here?”
That line of inquiry should come as welcome news to fans of “Heart of a Samurai,” her fictionalized 2010 account of a real Japanese boy shipwrecked and rescued by American whalers in 1841. An NPR book club pick, her first novel for young readers also earned a Newbery Honor Medal, starred reviews as a “stunning debut” and a nice bump from President Obama, who bought a copy while Christmas shopping with his daughters in November.
Even so, classroom questions from her target audience of middle-grade readers tell Preus the story may have fallen short in one critical area: “samurais whacking people.”
“Putting the word samurai into a children’s book title and then not delivering? This next book is definitely going to need some sword play,” said Preus, 58, who is at work on another novel set at the end of Japan’s shogun era, a historical period she dove into headfirst when a ski injury confined her to the couch. “Of course, if I’d known anyone from Japan would read it, I’m not sure I’d have had the chutzpah to write it.” The book also won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature.
That her growing profile as a writer is being built on her great eye for historical detail comes as something of a surprise to Margi Preus (pronounced MAR-ghee with a hard g; Preus “like Rolls-Royce”), who admits she never much cared for history as a student. As she told a group of elementary students at Seward Montessori in Minneapolis, she got her start as a playwright, penning her first work in kindergarten after failing to win the lead role in “Sleeping Beauty.”
“I realized that if I wrote the plays, I could star in them, too,” said Preus, who continues to create work for Colder by the Lake, the Duluth comedy theater where she served as artistic director for 25 years.
“It’s always the story of the character that interests me first, and the need to round out the character is what drives the historical research,” she said. “When I get stuck or I don’t know which direction to go, I do research and often something just goes pop. It’s kind of a cure for writer’s block.”
A world of research
To flesh out 14-year-old Espen, the hero of her second novel, “Shadow on the Mountain,” Preus traveled to Norway to meet Erling Storrusten, then in his 90s, who told her about his role in the clandestine resistance movement spying on the Wehrmacht headquarters in Lillehammer.
For her most recent release, “West of the Moon,” she found source material closer to home — a few lines in a published diary written by her great-great-grandmother Linka Preus, a Norwegian immigrant who traveled to America in 1851 on a ship called the Columbus.
“My aunt kept pestering me that I should write a novel about her, so I was dutifully reading the diary,” said Preus, whose Norwegian ancestors helped to found St. Olaf and Luther colleges. When she found a short passage describing a young girl traveling alone, with no prospects in the New World, “I looked up the passenger list from that ship, and sure enough, there was the girl, Margit. I got kind of fascinated with what would propel a girl to make this trip all on her own — and I figured it had to be bad.”
The way Preus imagines it in “West of the Moon,” the girl is escaping treacherous relatives and a lecherous goatherd — a story that springs from fairy tales and Norse mythology, but lands on the cusp of adulthood. “There’s something really wonderful about having one foot in childhood but this awareness that the world is about to get much bigger,” Preus said. “That’s why I love writing for this age group, because they’re right on the cusp, and ready to make that big step into adulthood and all the choices that come with it.”
Looking toward the future
Preus writes in a small outbuilding her husband and two grown sons built for her in the back yard, where she keeps a slip of paper with a quote from Graham Greene within arm’s reach. “It says, ‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.’ I refer to that quote a lot because that’s what I’m going for, that moment when a young person steps into their future — a moment that usually involves a choice about how they’re going to handle what’s being thrown at them.
“The other reason I like to keep it handy is that for lots of kids, that future may come to them in the form of a book,” the way it did for Preus when she read the book that made her want to be a writer, “Harriet the Spy.”
“So I take it seriously what I’m doing. This story could have a big influence on whoever is reading it, and so I want it to be a great experience.”