A(lexandria R. T.) Lafaye (1970-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1970, in Hudson, WI; Education: University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, B.A. (summa cum laude); Mankato State University, M.A. (creative writing and multicultural literature); University of Memphis, M.F.A.; Hollins College, M.A. (Politics: "Democratic Socialist." Religion: "Non-denominational Christian." Hobbies and other interests: Movies, storytelling, fine arts.
Agent—Marcia Wernick, Sheldon Fogelman Agency, 10 East 40th St., New York, NY 10016.
Writer and educator. Roanoke College, Salem, VA, instructor in English, 1997-98; visiting professor, Plattsburgh State University, NY, beginning 1998.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
Books in the Middle: Outstanding Titles of 1998, Voice of Youth Advocates, 1999, for The Year of the Sawdust Man.
The Year of the Sawdust Man, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.
Edith Shay, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1998.
Strawberry Hill, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1999.
Nissa's Place, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1999.
Dad, in Spirit, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2001.
The Strength of Saints, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2002.
Worth, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.
A. LaFaye is the author of a number of highly praised works of historical fiction that focus on young people's efforts to navigate inter-familial relationships and the desire to gain their independence. She often casts these issues in a new light by setting them in the past. In a trilogy of novels that include The Year of the Sawdust Man, Nissa's Place, and The Strength of Saints, she follows several young women as they attempt to make it on their own during the difficult days of the Great Depression. In Edith Shay readers are carried back in time to the Chicago of the mid-1800s, as a country girl attempts to make her way in the fast-paced city. Moving forward to the 1970s, Strawberry Hill finds a young teen longing for the simpler life of half a century earlier, an age that the memories of an elderly friend vividly bring to life for her. Praising The Year of the Sawdust Man in a Publishers Weekly review, a contributor called LaFaye's debut "beautifully written" and added that the novel "reveals a writer capable of plumbing the depths of a painful situation to surface triumphantly with compassion and humor."
LaFaye first began to contemplate writing as a channel for her natural curiosity because, as she once recalled to Something about the Author (SATA) she was "obsessed with learning from a young age, often hunting down odd little historical facts, like what exactly is a 'coffin corner'?," and "forever inventing stories in my head." Her talent for writing down those stories was encouraged by LaFaye's sixth-grade teacher, "who said I had the talent to become a writer." While she continued creative writing into high school, she ended up majoring in history in college because it seemed more practical; however, "my love for writing won out before I graduated from the University of Minnesota." Pursuing literature in graduate school, she studied literature from the writer's perspective. "An avid fan of writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Robert Cormier, and Patricia MacLachlan, I aspired to create realistic stories about everyday life in the past," LaFaye added. "Frustrated by pejorative attitudes toward the literary quality of books for child readers, I strive to create tales with literary and psychological depth." LaFaye's well-received debut novel, The Year of the Sawdust Man, was inspired by a television documentary about the Great Depression. "I wondered what would happen if a parent told a child that they had to leave home and could only take one suitcase," LaFaye told Cindi Di Marzo in a Publishers Weekly interview. "And then I wondered how a child might feel if her mother left home with one suitcase." Set in Louisiana during the 1930s, LaFaye's story explores the plight of young Nissa Bergen, who comes home from school one afternoon to find that her free-spirited mother, Heirah Rae, has departed, leaving the distraught eleven-year-old narrator in the care of her father. "The author creates a believable set of characters and a realistic environment, and sustains them well with a lyrical and leisurely use of language," maintained School Library Journal contributor Darcy Schild. Calling The Year of the Sawdust Man a "searching, character-driven debut," a Kirkus Reviews critic asserted: "LaFaye depicts complex, profoundly disturbed characters with a sure hand." A Publishers Weekly commentator noted that LaFaye's novel "is filled with poignant insights into a hurt child's fragile psyche and resilient spirit."
In Nissa's Place LaFaye's protagonist gains the same self-awareness and independence that Heirah Rae acquires in The Sawdust Man. Now thirteen years old, Nissa needs to learn to live for herself and not her mother, and also has to make room in her life for her father's new wife, Lara. Visiting her mother in Chicago, she gains a new perspective on not only Heirah Rae and the bohemian life she has chosen, but also on her family back in Harper and the divisions that racism have created within her home town. Calling Nissa's Place a "fine, upstanding sequel to The Year of the Sawdust Man," Booklist contributor GraceAnne A. DeCandido praised LaFaye's treatment of her characters as "full-hearted." Equally enthusiastic, a Publishers Weekly contributor added that in Nissa's Place the author "surpasses the lyricism and emotional depth of her sparkling debut."
Nissa's story continues in The Strength of Saints. It is now 1936, and the treatment of blacks has begun to violently divide the population of Harper, Louisiana. With leverage gained as the daughter of the editor of the town's main newspaper, Nissa decides to help balance the racial equation by founding two equal libraries, one for blacks and one for whites, but both with the same book collection. She is supported in her endeavor by her mother, who returns for a visit and to offer moral support for Nissa's venture, which ultimately sparks a violent denouement due to the passions of people on both sides of the race issue. LaFaye's novel Edith Shay is a character study set in post-Civil War America that blends travel and adventure with the coming-of-age of young Katherine Lunden. Assuming the name she has found on an abandoned suitcase, sixteen-year-old Katherine leaves her home in a small Wisconsin town and travels by train to Chicago, where she takes a job as a seamstress. Katherine later determines to find the real Edith Shay and return her suitcase, a mission that takes her to Richmond, Virginia, by way of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. "While Katherine does travel far and have many adventures, there is more introspection than action," maintained School Library Journal contributor Bruce Anne Shook, who added: "The book's main appeal will be to readers who can identify with her independent spirit." A Publishers Weekly critic asserted that in Edith Shay "LaFaye offers a multidimensional portrait of a young woman in transition, one capable of seeing her flaws and rising above them, revealed in poetic and poignant language." Strawberry Hill focuses on Raleia Pendle, who is spending the summer in Tidal, Maine—the ideal antidote to the turbulent, free-spirited 1970s lifestyle she has been raised in by her hippy parents. Tidal looks almost exactly as it did in 1911, when a tidal wave crushed the town and killed more than one hundred people. It is the ideal place for Raleia to live out her daydreams about life at the turn of the twentieth century and to avoid her cranky pregnant mother and her self-absorbed father. In Tidal, Raleia believes she has found her living link to the past in Ian Rutherford, the reclusive old man on the hill who has hardly left home since the tidal wave hit. As their friendship grows, Raleia discovers that the past was not the golden time she imagined. Of the book, LaFaye said that she was inspired by the age-old question, "What if?" During the Vietnam War, her father served in the navy as a mechanic on an aircraft carrier, and her mother worked as a clerk in a county auditor's office. As a child, LaFaye wondered what it would be like to be raised by hippies, and Strawberry Hill is one possible answer to that question.
Dad, in Spirit is a departure for LaFaye in that it takes place during the present and includes elements of the otherworldly. Described by a Publishers Weekly reviewer as "far-fetched yet engaging," the novel finds nine-year-old Ebon Jones feeling like an outcast in his family; everyone else is highly creative, while Ebon provides them an audience. Only after tragedy strikes in the form of an accident that puts his father in a coma does Ebon's talent come to the fore: he alone is able to make contact with his unconscious father and help in his father's eventual recovery. Miriam Lang Budin noted in a School Library Journal review that Dad, in Spirit requires some leeway on the part of rational-minded readers, the novel is "original, provocative, and ultimately joyous." Booklist reviewer Kay Weisman dubbed the novel an "introspective fantasy" and added that its greatest strength is in LaFaye's "believable depiction of strong family bonds."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, October 15, 1999, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Nissa's Place, p. 444; July, 2001, Kay Weisman, review of Dad, in Spirit, p. 2006.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December, 1998, p. 137.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1998, review of The Year of the Sawdust Man, p. 740; October 1, 1998, pp. 1460-1461.
Publishers Weekly, June 1, 1998, review of The Year of the Sawdust Man, p. 63; June 29, 1998, Cindi Di Marzo, interview with LaFaye, p. 28; October 12, 1998, review of Edith Shay, p. 78; October 18, 1999, review of Nissa's Place, p. 83; June 4, 2001, review of Dad, in Spirit, p. 81.
School Library Journal, July, 1998, Darcy Schild, review of The Year of the Sawdust Man, p. 97; October, 1998, Bruce Anne Shook, review of Edith Shay, p. 138; June, 2001, Miriam Lang Budin, review of Dad, in Spirit, p. 152; June, 2002, Susan Cooley, review of The Strength of Saints, p. 140.
Alexandra LaFaye Web site, http://www.alafaye.com/ (December 2, 2004).*