Here are some things to keep in mind about the author Julie Berry of Maynard, Massachusetts – suburban Boston — whose debut novel The Amaranth Enchantment was released this week by Bloomsbury, USA.
“You asked how I do it all,” she asks with an ironic, rhetorical wince. ‘The fact is, I don’t. Remember the children’s game: Here’s the church/here’s the steeple…? Well, open the doors and you’ll see a whole church full of people who have helped our family along the way.”
Berry insists her thanks to the church family is not your typical saccharinely-precious overstatement. “It’s very much for real.come to any sacrament meeting and see for yourself.”
Here’s the church scene in the Weston First Ward on any given Sunday afternoon. There are the Berrys — Julie and her husband Phil and the four “Berry Boys” splayed across a second row pew, directly beneath the podium. If tradition holds, sooner or later one or several of them will launch a paper airplane beneath the speaker’s nose, or send another projectile whistling over the pews. Another one will clock a sibling on the head over a crayon dispute.
A highlight of a recent Sunday meeting was hearing a cranky and sleepy Berry Boy’s audible postscript pronouncement to a lengthy speech and its long awaited “amen.” “Amen, amen and amen,” the Berry boy muttered guilelessly to those within earshot.
Monday to Saturday they can be found “doing a lot of stuff. But, there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything that needs to be done. ‘Something has to give,” she says with a sigh, “and what gives is housework. If the house looks like it has been cleaned by a bunch of children, that’s because it has been cleaned by a bunch easily distracted children. Hey, it teaches them responsibility.”
Because the church full of people is actively engaged minding the Berry Boys (especially when Phil was in the bishopric and Julie was up there leading the music) practically everyone knew she had won a writing competition, which brought with it a contract with a real agent, a find slightly more miraculous than making it through church without having one or more of the boys disappear under the benches or run windsprints up the aisles.
Within no time, it brought a contract for The Amaranth Enchantment.
Julie’s literary fantasies coming to life are the makings of a pretty good fairytale in and of themselves. Here’s the cryptic -dramatic in a startling sort of way — Berry ‘s self-effacing biography in, in her own words:
“Grew up in ramshackle farmhouse on a 50-acre farm in Medina , New York . We didn’t farm the land, we leased it to my dad’s cousin, a farmer. But, we gardened like crazy, had pigs, chickens, turkeys, rabbits. Dad ran a gas station. Mom stayed home and gardened, sewed, did seventeen Church callings, fed us, and counted all the gas station totals each day and deposited them in the bank. This was before everyone used credit cards so there was a boodle of singles and quarters (from the car wash) to sift through and sort and deposit each day. I often did the money tallies myself. We had a system. It’s a wonder we were never robbed at home.
“I never felt we were “poor,” but we never had health insurance, new cars, or even, for much of my childhood, new clothes. Mom shopped at Catholic Charities.
“As I got older my dad’s gas station business began to prosper more. That’s when we got a VCR, a CD player. Big luxuries. There was never a time when there weren’t holes in the carpet. We took hot soapstones heated on the woodstove to bed at night to keep warm.
“All that said, we were better off than many in the rural areas around us. When I was a teenager, we sold the farm and moved into a neat old antique house in town, and lived there until Dad’s sudden onset of rheumatoid arthritis forced him to retire and sell the gas station.
“My mom had a college education in phys-ed. Dad never went to college because he had a bad heart, and couldn’t see wasting his parents’ money on an education for a kid likely to die. He died at 72. Would’ve been a great engineer. A very smart man, math- and science-wired. Mom loved books and poetry.
“All my siblings were good students, great readers, very creative and quick. Every one of us graduated early from high school. All of us were eager to shake small town dust off our feet and see the big world. All six of the older ones went to BYU. I broke the trend and went to RPI -Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – the MIT of upstate New York -finally finished up a communications B.S. in 1995.
“Met Phil at RPI-he was a freshman and I was a senior. We married right before I graduated, and then we got him through college by fits and starts, sort of, between kids and work.
“Not long after the fourth and final son was born, a friend and I challenged each other to start writing humorous essays about our lives with children, Erma Bombeck style. I took the dare and started writing little essays. Shared them with some friends, revised, selected a few and slapped them up on a little website. Started calling editors.
“Rick Holmes at MetroWest Daily News (a suburban Boston newspaper) called me back. I was stunned. He read the columns and bought one. At one point I was selling a column a week, placed a few other pieces with small-fry magazines.
Got bold, dreamed of children’s books. Got a fat job offer out of the clear blue with a Cambridge tech start-up. Was torn. Do I take the big job? Phil, my patient and long-suffering husband, said to me, “Is this job what you really want? What would you do if you could do anything you want?” I said, ‘Go back to school and get an MFA in creative writing.’ He said, ‘Do that instead.’
“So I applied to Simmons College , was accepted, enrolled there in September 2005. Spent a fabulous year there, attending classes twice a week. I also applied to the Vermont College program, though, and after a year at Simmons I transferred in favor of the low-residency format, going for 10 days at a time to the Montpelier campus, and doing my work by correspondence for the next six months. After 2 Simmons semesters and 3 Vermont semesters, I graduated with an MFA in writing for children and young adults in January 2008. Along the way I finished The Amaranth Enchantment , found an agent who sold the book to Bloomsbury .”
After reading the book themselves, my wife and teenage daughters (15-year-old Bailey’s review of Amaranth is WHERE/LINK.LOCATION ). So, I had no choice but to read. It was time well spent and then some.
Berry ‘s first-person-told tale is an engaging new spin, with a few surprising twists, on the time-tested Cinderella fantasy. I was locked-in by the opening paragraphs. Lucinda, the protagonist, watches as her regal mother prepares for a royal ball. She straps on a particularly dazzling necklace and coos:
Her blithe phrases are conversational and smart, youthful, savvy almost edgy: a fast read because the prose is so perfectly paced.
As she spins a story of reclamation from life under the thumb of a cruel aunt, who tosses her out into the streets with no home and loved ones, Berry skillfully eases in plenty of irony, logically expanding the definition fun words and introducing vocabulary-expanding words and metaphors that will be instantly grasped by young readers, no need to turn to Webster’s
And, given her age, the six books she’s got to produce soon, a couple more that are rattling around in her brain, you’ll be hearing a lot from Julie Berry in the years ahead. “There’s nothing I love more than writing, well perhaps eating. And Phil and the boys” She pauses. “I guess that about sums it up.
“Any gaps there?,” she asks before rattling on. Though it’s email, Julie’s breathlessness rings loud and fun. “Frantically housecleaning today. Having a little get-together at the house after tonight’s book launch party. Soooo not ready for this. Plus NPR radio interview at noon.”
Once the house is tided up a bit (or not), the first round of book tours behind her, Julie Berry will continue writing her story. So, pay attention!
Amen, amen and amen!