Story by Joyce Marcel. Photos by Randolph T Holhut. This story first appeared in Vermont Business Magazine, June 2017.
In a quiet independent living facility in Montpelier, this missionary and daughter of missionaries, this southern belle, this pastor’s wife, this mother of four and grandmother of seven, this gifted writer and this woman of faith is still sending ripples around the world. At 84, children’s and young adult author Katherine Paterson is entitled to step back, rest on her vast accomplishments and bask in the admiration of her multitude of fans. Instead, she’s still following her curiosity. She has a new book coming out in October called “My Brigadista Year,” about a young Cuban girl who joins Fidel Castro’s nationwide literacy campaign in 1961.
Over the years, the awards have been many.
The Newbery Medal is the highest honor awarded specifically to the authors of young adult/children’s books. Paterson has two, one for the immortal “Bridge to Terabithia” and one for “Jacob Have I Loved.” She’s also won a Newbery Honor Award for “The Great Gilly Hopkins.”
The National Book Award is the highest literary award awarded in the United States. Paterson’s won the children’s literature division twice, once for “The Great Gilly Hopkins” and once for “The Master Puppeteer.”
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal is awarded by the American Library Association to writers “whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.” Paterson won it in 2013.
Not only has Paterson won just about every children’s literature prize in the United States, but she’s also won them in Poland, the Netherlands and France, This is not unexpected, since her books have been translated into over 25 languages.
In 1998 she won the Hans Christian Anderson Award, which is called “the Nobel Prize for children’s literature.” And in 2006 she won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award from the Swedish Arts Council, “the biggest monetary prize in children’s literature,” according to Wikipedia.
Paterson has even won an award for not winning an award. Twenty years after its publication, Of Nightingales That Weep, won the 1994 Phoenix Award as the best 1974 children's book that did not win a major award at the time of its publication.
No less an institution than the Library of Congress designated Paterson in 2000 as a “living legend.”
And Luann Toth, the managing editor of SLJ Review, (the School Library Journal, the world’s largest reviewer of books) cannot control her use of the caps-lock on her computer when she emails me that Paterson is “a VERY BIG DEAL in the publishing world and in the international children’s and young adult literature community.”
Toth adores Paterson because “she has been a passionate advocate for children throughout her adult life and takes a genuine interest in fostering their spiritual and emotional well-being as well as their physical needs. She sees no better way to do that than in establishing a lifelong love of reading. She has been a longtime proponent for introducing kids to books that come from other countries. Katherine has rightly been named a Library of Congress Living Legend and I am just one of her legions of fans.”
With all this, the living legend that is Katherine Paterson turned out to be grounded, humble and wickedly funny.
I visited her on the morning after she gave a talk in Plainville, Mass, a tiny town near Providence, RI. It was a daunting three and a half hour drive each way. She got home at 1 am, got to bed at 2 am and was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for our interview at 11.
If you listen to a recording of the interview, you mostly hear laughter. Sitting down with Paterson is like sitting down with your best friend — the one you’ve never met before. For a writer of her stature, this is an odd yet wonderful talent.
There is no hidden steam of competition or jealousy running through Paterson, as you might expect from the queen of children's literature in the age before Harry Potter. None at all.
“We all owe JK Rowling a great debt,” Paterson said. “She got kids reading who never cracked a book, and adults reading to their children, and parents fighting over who got to read aloud that night. I’m very grateful to her.”
Paterson literally doesn’t know how many books she has written. When I emailed to ask her, I thought it would be an easy question to answer.
“Easy you think!” she wrote back. “I never know. Something over 30 but I'm not sure. I co-wrote 4 with my husband, translated 2, 16 novels, 3 Christmas story collections, 4 essay collections but #3 combined 1 & 2, 3 easy to read, 6 miscellaneous. See, I warned you I didn't know how many!”
And a minute later she shot me another email: “Oh, I forgot to add the new one!”
It’s not difficult to find people who will call Paterson a national treasure.
“She’s absolutely a treasure,” said librarian Starr Latronica, who was a youth services librarian for over 30 years and is now the director of the Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro. She has been a judge for both the National Book Awards and the Newbery Awards.
“If I had to pick one word other than treasure, it would be heart,” Latronica said. “How can you not learn and experience empathy when you read about her characters? She has such heart in all her books. And not in a sappy, sentimental way. She has such empathy for her characters. People say you learn empathy by reading fiction. Sometimes with her, they’re characters that you worry about. Sometimes they’re in peril. Sometimes you cry for them when they die. She really makes me care about her characters. That’s why she has all those awards and other writers don’t. She really puts herself into the characters and onto the page and that’s what I love.”
At this point I made the worst mistake a person can make in this field. I suggested that if Paterson was so good, she should be writing for an adult audience. Latronica almost screeched at me.
“It’s a heck of a lot harder to write for young people than it is to write for adults,” she said. “And anybody who’s ever written a picture book will tell you it’s like writing poetry. You have to distill to the very essence. You can’t have an extra word, or anything inauthentic. It’s a lot harder.”
There are other distinctions for authors. For example, “Bridge to Terabithia” ranks eighth on the American Library Association’s list of most commonly challenged books in the United States. That means her books inspire attempts at censorship. It’s a good list to be on; Stephen King, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Judy Blume, Kurt Vonnegut and Jack London, among others, are also on it.
What about a children’s book can attract such censorship? Death, that’s what. For example, one of the two main characters in “Bridge to Terabithia” dies unexpectedly and to the reader, it is quite a shock.
“How could you kill off Leslie?” was practically the first thing out of my mouth after we sat down to talk. For those who haven’t read the book — and since it was published in 1977 and later filmed twice, I don’t think I need a spoiler alert — it tells the story of two rural youngsters, a boy named Jesse and a girl named Leslie, both outsiders at school, who become great friends and create an imaginary and magical world called Terabithia in the forest; it’s on the other side of a small stream that they cross by swinging on a rope, one at a time.
Then, when Jesse is off on a day trip with his teacher, he comes back to learn that the stream has swollen, the rope has broken, and Leslie has fallen and died. Her death leaves the reader unprepared and devastated, just as it leaves Jesse.
It was Paterson’s decision to have one of her main characters die — instead of breaking an arm or leg, for example — that has garnered her the most criticism.
“I get these letters from adults saying death is not an appropriate topic for 10-year-olds,” Paterson said. “But I had two children who lost friends. David was eight and Mary was four when friends died. It’s not appropriate but it happens.”
One problem with “Terabithia” and death is that it might be read to children who are too young — or like myself, too old — to deal with it.
“Teachers who love the book decide to use it with kids who are too young for it,” Paterson said. “There’s a difference between intellectual age and emotional age. Third graders are too young for the book. Fourth graders? Some are OK and some are not. I worry about children who still need a fairy tale. Is there a dividing line between children who need a fairy tale and children who need a book that reflects their life? It differs from child to child. And it’s a book I really hope parents will read with their children. It gives you a safe place to talk about hard topics. I understand it’s more profitable for me to have the book read in classrooms, because they buy all these copies. But my preference is for a child sitting close to a parent.”
Children’s books which feature death run counter to an American squeamishness about the subject.
“Death, a terrible thing for a child,” Paterson said. “Loss is hard. Now people say, ‘I gave the book to this child because they’ve had this terrible loss.’ But it should be a reversal. They should read it before anyone dies. I get a lot of young adults who write to me. One I remember most clearly is a young man in college. He was home for vacation at Christmas time and he found out his best friend had been killed in an automobile accident on the way home for vacation. He went to his childhood room and found ‘Bridge to Terabithia’ and it was such a comfort to him. If he hadn’t had it when he was 10 or 11, he wouldn’t have had it when he was 19.”
This kind of feedback jibes with the Laura Ingalls Wilder folks, who wrote that Paterson’s “unflinching yet redemptive treatment of tragedy and loss helped pave the way for ever more realistic writing for young people."
The character of Leslie is based on a real child, a close friend of Paterson’s second son, David. In her 2014 memoir, “Stories of my Life,” she relates what happened:
“While the family was on vacation at Bethany Beach, on a day when the lifeguards sensed no danger from thunder far off in the distance, a joyful little girl, dancing on a rock above the crowded beach, was felled by a bolt of lightning from the sky. How was I to make sense of this tragedy for my child? I couldn’t make sense of it for myself, so eventually, I began to write a story, because I knew that a story has to make sense.”
So that’s how you dared to kill off Leslie, I said.
“Well, you know,” Paterson said, “it had to be done. But I do apologize. It was one of the hardest things I ever did, and to do it I had to stop writing for a while just to keep her alive.”
If it’s hard for a young person to understand why a beloved children’s book character has to die, imagine how hard it must be for a film executive at Disney?
In 2007, Disney and Walden Media released a film of “Bridge to Terabithia.” The script was written by Paterson’s son, David.
“David was just fighting, fighting, fighting,” Paterson said. “The first fight was to make sure that Leslie Burke dies. They suggested all sorts of things, like broken limbs. He got very dramatic when he told us about it. He said he held up the book and said, ‘You see these last 28 pages? This is why this book is read all over the world by millions of people. You change the last 28 pages and you’ve lost the story.’ As I say, we didn’t win every battle but we won the war. We fought for every page. And in the end, Disney and Walden wouldn’t talk to us because we wouldn’t do ‘Return to Bridge to Terabithia’ or ‘Son of Bridge to Terabithia.’ David refused, so they called me and asked for a sequel. But that’s not the way I work. I would never write a sequel. I told my husband I would never be famous until I wrote a series, and I’m never going to write a series.”
Not all of Paterson’s heroes and heroines die, of course. Some are orphaned and pass, hand over hand, through the foster care system. Some are orphaned and have to take up hard labor. Most of them are lonely outsiders who struggle to find a way — some way, any way — to belong.
Armchair psychologists are quick to point out this is because Paterson, who was born and spent most of her childhood in China, only began living in the United States when she was in grade school, also felt like an outsider who wanted to belong.
In her memoir, Paterson writes about one time, when she was a really shy first-grader, Valentine’s Day came around. Everyone in her class got valentines, except her. When she got home, she realized that even her brother and sister had come home with valentines.
“But mother was outraged,” Paterson writes. “‘How could any teacher let a little girl come home from first grade without a single valentine?’ It was a question she pondered more than once over the years. After I was an established writer she asked me why I didn’t write a story about the day I didn’t get any valentines. ‘Why, mother,’ I said. ‘All my books are about the day I didn’t get any valentines.’”
When I asked Paterson about that comment, she said that many people accuse her of writing sad books.
“Of course, that was what I told my mother,” she said. “But it was true. I felt I was on the outside, and all my books are about kids who are on the outside and long to be normal and long to be accepted and most cases don’t know how because they’re weird and that was me in those days, and in America. I wasn’t weird in China, but I was weird in America.”
So many children’s books are written for outsiders that I wondered if there are any about the cheerleaders and the football stars. In this age of geeks and nerd ascendency, has anybody ever been on the inside?
“Most of us who write for children write because we want the books we needed when we were little,” Paterson said. “If you had a totally happy childhood where everybody loved you I’m sure you can probably write a perfectly good book for children. But I think those of us who were weird and on the outside have a leg up.”
Paterson was born Katherine Womeldorf in Huai’an, China, where her parents were Presbyterian missionaries and her father ran a school and traveled all over China as part of his missionary duties.
Paterson, who remained in Huai’an until she was five and the Japanese invaded, regards the time spent there as “idyllic.”
“Unlike a lot of missionaries of that era, we lived in a compound because my father was principal of a boy’s school,” Paterson said. “He bought this property so the school could be part of the compound. And everyone who lived behind that gate — a good Chinese expression — besides my family was Chinese. For the first almost five years of my life I was totally bilingual and my best friends were all Chinese. I look back on those years as idyllic. Everybody loved me — except my older brother and sister. I was the baby for three and a half years before I rapidly had two younger sisters. And apparently I felt the same way about them as my older siblings felt about me. I wasn’t aware of this growing up. I only learned about it when I wrote “Jacob.” I was writing about a sister who is horribly jealous of her young sister, and found I was so angry I couldn’t write. It was cheaper than psychotherapy.”
When she was five, the Japanese army invaded and Paterson and her family were evacuated.
“We were never able to go back to Huai’an,” she said sadly.
The family was literally war-torn refugees, traveling by boat from Hong Kong to the Philippines, Singapore, Sumatra, Ceylon, and on to the Mediterranean, London and New York.
When they returned home to America they eventually settled in Virginia before returning to China in 1939.
“In 1939, the Japanese occupied all of eastern China and they figured it was safe for us to go back because we were not involved in the war,” she said, “But by 1940, everybody over there knew the United States would be involved in this war. It was a big surprise over on the US side. But friends loaned us a summer house on the beach at Tsingtao, where the beer comes from. And Japanese soldiers were doing maneuvers, including landing on the beach. One of their officers told my father it was practice for San Francisco.”
While her father did dangerous work bringing medical supplies to missionaries — “My father went back, through Japanese-Chinese fighting, bandit country, warlord country and the Chinese Communists,” she said — the family mostly waited for him in the dormitories of the Shanghai American School. One redeeming feature was that American movies were available. Paterson loved “The Wizard of Oz.”
Eventually the family was stationed at Zhenjiang, where the Yangtze River meets the Grand Canal.
At the age of eight, in 1940, the family fled a second time and landed in Richmond, VA, where little Katherine entered first grade. She had traveled the world, was fluent in Chinese and English and could read English fluently, but in grade school she was forced to read from the early “Dick and Jane” readers. She never got over her resentment. In her memoir she writes, “Dick and Jane seemed like a foreign language to me. The books I read at home were stories that made sense. These books at school made no sense whatsoever, and since my classmates were stumbling through them, I imitated their stumbling and was regarded as a slow reader.”
Paterson still remembers the feeling of being bullied at school.
“I recognize now that some of my best writing has its seeds in that awful year, but I can’t remember once saying to my nine-year-old self, ‘Buck up, old girl. Some day you’re going to make a mint out of all this misery.’”
The family eventually settled in Winston-Salem, where Katherine and her siblings helped around the house — “we did a lot of dish drying” — and became more acclimated to their new surroundings.
“My father had no money,” Paterson said. “He said years later there were times when he didn’t have two nickels in his pocket to rub together. So I don’t know where the money came from, but every week he gave us each an allowance. And you could spend it or save it. I would have certain longings I was willing to save for, but very often I would just buy some peanuts.”
Paterson said that her younger sister wouldn’t bring friends from kindergarten over because there was no grass in the front yard.
“So my older brother and sister and I dug up this baked clay in the front yard and planted grass,” she said. “I went back there the year my husband retired from the ministry. And there was grass in that front yard!”
Once she was in high school, Paterson got a job at the local electric company entering amounts of money into a ledger.
“And my father took me to the bank when I got my first paycheck,” she said. “He helped me open an account and taught me how to balance my checkbook. And when I can’t balance my checkbook I think I have failed — which I’ve done lately, a lot. And he also taught me the value of money and how to be careful with it. And one thing he taught me: only rich people can afford cheap things. Which I thought was a great lesson to learn. If you don’t buy quality, you’ve lost. We didn’t go into debt. We saved our money until we were able to buy what we needed. And we didn’t buy cheap stuff. I’m forever grateful to my father.”
Eventually Paterson fit in. She made friends and learned that she was intelligent. She was even elected president of the student body.
A Missionary Life
After high school Paterson got a degree in English literature, summa cum laude, from King College in Bristol, TN. Afterwards she taught English in a small town called Lovettsville, Virginia, which later served as the model for the town in “Bridge to Terabithia.”
But in 1957 she began training to be a Christian missionary.
“It didn’t seem weird to me to be a missionary, as it seems weird to most people,” Paterson said. “My parents were missionaries. They truly loved China and they were very close to the Chinese people because they didn’t live in an enclave of foreigners. And my father’s closest friend was the Chinese pastor with whom he worked and lived next door to. So to me it was a very satisfying way of life. I love God and I love the church and it seemed natural to me.”
As she writes in her memoir, “When I tell people what I was doing... most of them are visibly shocked. It seems in this day and age it would be more forgivable to say you were once a prostitute. I’ve been asked point blank, ‘What right do you have to force other people to accept your religion.’”
When I asked Paterson about it, she smiled to herself.
“It’s as though you had some power that we don’t have, to change somebody’s mind or life,” Paterson said. “One of my very close friends said, ‘You know, I’ve been trying all these other religions and I’ve never tried Christianity. What’s it about? Can I go to church with you?’ And I’m supposed to be the missionary and it never occurred to me to invite her to church. And when she decided she wanted to become a Christian, I was very worried about it. I went to the pastor. I said, ‘I don’t want her to become a Christian because she’s my friend.’ And he was annoyed. He said, I think she’s mature enough to know her own mind.’ And she decided if she was going to follow Jesus she had to help people. She wanted to be a social worker. So she got herself a high school equivalency, made her way through college, went to the leper colony and spent her life working with lepers. So I thought, ‘Well, more of a Christian than I am.’”
Paterson wanted to return to China as a missionary, but by then it was a closed society. Instead she was assigned to Japan. At the time, she hated the Japanese people because of the atrocities they had committed in Asia in World War II.
But her experience was entirely different.
“The whole experience was absolutely wonderful,” she said. “Being loved by people you thought you hated? That’s what changed my life. I thought I hated the Japanese because of what they did in China. And certainly I was terrified of them. Then I went and the people I was with loved me, and it was life-changing.”
First Paterson did two years of immersive language study in Kobe — no English allowed— and then, in 1959, for two years, she was stationed on the island of Shikoku. She studied Bunraku puppetry, tea ceremonies, and the culture. Her first three novels are about Japan and she has translated two Japanese folktales which have won awards.
With all this going on, how did she begin to write? I wondered.
“One of my professors in Richmond, before I went to Japan, asked me if I ever thought about being a writer,” Paterson said. “And I said no because I didn’t want to add another mediocre writer to the world. I knew what good writing was. I’d been a reader — I can’t remember when I couldn’t read. It came as natural as speaking, which obviously comes quite naturally.”
Paterson left Japan to take an advanced degree. She got a fellowship to Union Seminary in New York, where she met her husband, the Rev. John Paterson.
“He always said, ‘I’m Paterson with one T. We’re Scottish. We don’t put two Ts in when one will do,’” she said laughing.
According to her memoir, when her husband proposed, he “said that he knew I was a strong woman with many gifts, and he wanted to promise me that he would never stand in the way of my exercising those gifts... he didn’t know when he said those words that would be creating a Frankenstein monster, but despite the books and awards and notoriety, he’s always been my chief supporter and has never stood in my way.”
She writes that it was not love at first sight. When someone asked Rev Paterson why he picked Katherine, he said, “I wanted to marry a grown-up, not somebody I’d have to raise.”
The marriage, however, was a long and loving one which produced four children — two are adopted — and endured until her husband’s death in 2013.
Once Paterson began having children, she let go of the idea of going back to Japan.
Her professor — the one who asked her if she had ever thought of writing — got her a job writing for the church.
“It was something I could do with all these little children, so I wrote for seven years after the book I wrote for the church was published, I published one short story and the magazine died the next month, And I sold a poem and that magazine died too.”
Then a woman from her church suggested the two of them take an adult education course in writing,
“I thought it was ‘Women’s Night Out’ so of course I went,” Patterson said. “Then she said they’re having a course on writing for children. I actually wrote my first novel in that class.”
Paterson wrote about Japan.
“I loved Japan and this was a way of getting back into Japan by reading Japanese history and culture,” she said. “I didn’t know that nobody in this country would want to publish a novel about a teenager in 12th Century Japan. It was just fortunate that finally a young woman just out of college, who had to read all the slush pile, picked up my manuscript and took it an editor who had just come back from Japan.”
That was “The Sign of the Chrysanthemum,” published in 1973. By 1977, she had won her first National Book Award for “The Master Puppeteer,” based in the world of Bunraku, and her most famous book, “Bridge to Terabithia,” was published. She was well on her way.
“You write what you can,” Paterson said. ‘I began to discover that’s what I could do. And I was asking the same questions that children asked. The vital questions of life: love and hate, life and death. The very, very basic questions. So you write to answer your own questions, don’t you? I get accused of writing books that are too intense for children, and children tell me differently. My favorite story, I was at an adult conference and this woman got up. She obviously had read my books and knew I was speaking, and she was furious with me. She said, ‘Your books are for children and they’re too intense. No child could ever understand them.’ And I said, ‘I would have felt judged, except the week before I had gotten a letter from a teacher who wanted to tell me about a book report that the so-called bad boy in his class had written. He had read ‘The Great Gilly Hopkins,’ and he wrote, ‘This book is a miracle, Mrs Paterson understands exactly how children feel.’ I don’t have a good memory for detail, but I have a good emotional memory. I do remember how it feels. And even tho I’m an elderly person, I still have that nine-year-old and that 14-year old inside of me.”
Readers And Reading
Paterson is passionate about reading, especially about reading aloud to children.
“Kids don’t know what’s in a book unless somebody reads it to them,” she said. “My son-in-law, who is a high school English teacher, read to his wife’s womb. It was mostly Jane Austen, but he raised two very good readers. Reading aloud, you not only develop language but a closeness to the person who’s reading to you. You don’t get that when you’re doing it yourself on a device or watching television. I treasure the parent-child closeness that’s part of the reading experience.”
Paterson told a story about her youngest daughter, to whom she had given a copy of “War and Peace.”
“I had given it to her because of all my four children, I thought she was the one who would really love it,” Paterson said. “But she was furious with me. She was very lonely because her siblings had all gone off, and she said, ‘Besides, you never read aloud to me.’ She could read perfectly well, and remembers better than I do, but it’s that gift you’re giving. It’s a sign of love and giving.”
According to studies, many children stop reading for pleasure around Grade 4, which is the age that parents stop reading to them.
“The parents feel, ‘You can read perfectly well by yourself, so why should I read to you anymore?’, she said. “So the pleasure of being read to stops. It doesn’t mean that, for many children, they’ll go ahead and read for themselves. But it’s not just the reading the words. It’s the emotional connection. People see the literacy part but not the emotional part.”
Paterson told me about “the most moving letter” she had received from a 16-year-old girl.
“She wrote, ‘Now that I’m older, I want to tell you how much your books meant to me since I was 10. I knew I was weird, and I didn’t fit in. My parents painted my bedroom pink. I didn’t want a pink bedroom. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and then I read ‘Bridge to Terabithia’ and I saw a girl doing boy things and a boy doing girl things and I thought, ‘Oh! It’s alright to be me.’ And she goes on for two pages and ends, ‘You probably didn’t want to hear all of this from a weird kid in California, but I needed to tell you how much you meant to me.’ And I wrote her and told her, ‘This is why I love to be a writer. Readers complete my books. They’re my co-authors. And you’ve taken from my book things I never dreamed of putting in, but I’m so glad that you did.’”
My Brigadista Year
Paterson has good friends in Cuba and has visited the country twice. But how did she happen to chose as a heroine for her latest book a 13-year-old girl who joins a literacy campaign instigated by Fidel Castro in 1961?
For one thing, we’re back on Paterson’s home turf, aren’t we? A coming-of-age story about a young woman who is a stranger in a strange land, but this time with a salsa beat.
This is how Publisher’s Weekly describes the book: “When thirteen year old Lora tells her parents that she wants to join Premier Castro’s army of young literacy teachers, her mother screeches to high heaven and her father roars like a lion. Lora has barely been outside of Havana — why would she throw away her life in a remote shack with no electricity, sleeping on a hammock in somebody’s kitchen?”
Paterson filled me in on the back story.
“In the Fall of 1960, Fidel told the United Nations that in one year, Cuba would be a literate nation,” she said. “Of course everyone guffawed. He called for volunteers and he got 250,000 Cubans who could read and write. He said, ‘If you can read and write, you should be teaching someone who can’t read and write.’ And of the 250,000 volunteers more than half were female and about 108,000 were between the ages of eight and 18.”
The volunteers were organized like a military regiment, but their weapons were books.
“This story is about one girl, Lora,” Paterson said. “She’s fictional, but the things that happened to her happened to actual girls. None of the main characters die. People die, but none of the main characters. But it’s the year of the Bay of Pigs. People were terrified. Parents came to take the volunteers home because they were so terrified. But the young teachers said ‘No!’ They wanted to stay. ‘I volunteered to teach people how to read and write, and I’ll teach people how to read and write. These were sheltered city girls who were just being prepared for marriage. That’s all they had to look forward to. All the education was to teach you how to be a proper wife. And they went out and ‘I found out what I could do.’”
Paterson’s Cuban friend is a college professor and writer who runs a literary conference for Central and South America every two years. She was one of those young volunteers.
“She’s highly outspoken,” Paterson said. “I keep asking, ‘Why isn’t Amelia in jail?’ Well, she was one of these teenagers. And if you do the research, you find out that all these very strong women, in many different fields in Cuba, spent a year teaching people in the mountains and the countryside how to read and write. The quotation I love from one of these women many years later — I use it in the book— is this: ‘I taught the campesinos how to read and write and they taught me how to be a person.’”
Shades of an earlier time, Paterson’s publisher is already getting letters from people lecturing her on the evils of Communism and the Castro regime.
“I’m not arguing that he was a great or a great good man,” she said. “But he did some good things for Cuba, and at the end of that year, UN observers announced that Cuba was the first fully literate country in the Western Hemisphere. They have medical care for everyone and universal education for everyone. They don’t have a lot of personal freedom and they don’t have a good economy, but they have the things we don’t have. And they have great music. That was the thing that thrilled me most. Everywhere there was music and dancing. And the people I was with were college professors and teachers who were really hurting because of the economy, yet every time we’d have a break in anything, there was music and dancing. There was a joyfulness. I think people expect Red China when they go to Cuba but you don’t get it. It’s not the grim gray clothes and sad faces.”
In 1986, Rev John Paterson was assigned to a church in Barre and the family moved to Vermont.
“My husband came to be the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Barre,” Paterson said.”He was from Connecticut and he always wanted to come back to New England.”
The Patersons were particularly impressed by Vermont’s Congressional delegation. It seems that early on, Rev Paterson happened to be on a plane with US Senator Patrick Leahy.
“So John introduced himself, and told his senator that he’d just moved into the district and told him all the things he was concerned that Congress do,” Paterson said. “And Leahy listened very intently. The next week John got a letter from Leahy’s office that said. ‘This is your concern and this is what’s happening.’ About all the concerns! And when I do something in Washington, Leahy shows up and people are so impressed. He’s just so dear. And when my husband died, he called me up. He said. ‘I’m in Washington and I can’t come, but I wanted to tell you how much I thought of John.’ And he went on and on about the great contribution he made to the community. And then he said, ‘Was that your son who answered the phone?’ And I said yes, and he said, ‘Let me speak to him.’ And he proceeded to tell my son what a great man his father was. And my son was overcome. I know no place else where that would happen.”
Politically, Paterson is a Democrat who believes Vermont is doing a lot of things that the rest of the country should be doing.
“When I first realized I was in the right place, it was early on,” Paterson said. “We went to register to vote, which we always do right away. And they asked me to sign the Freeman’s Oath. I realized that it was saying that no matter what, I had to vote my conscience. Not vote for party, not vote for personal gain, but vote as my conscience dictated. And I thought, over the years that oath has made a different breed of politician in this state. That’s the basis of how you’re supposed to be a citizen. So obeying that, I voted for Jeffords when he was a Republican and Sanders when he was a socialist.”
Now that she’s older, people ask Paterson if she’s going to stay in Vermont.
“They ask, ‘Do you like the winters?’” she said. “And I say ‘No.’ But like everybody else, I have a Subaru. It’s the state car.”
People respect each other’s work in Vermont, Paterson said.
“If you write for children, you’re quite accustomed, if you go places where writers gather, to being sneered at because you merely write for children,” she said. “They say, or at least they think, ‘If you were a good writer you’d write for real people.’ That doesn’t happen here. I don’t have to apologize to anybody for writing for kids. And everywhere else I go, I don’t apologize. But I know what they think.”
After Paterson published “Stories from My Life,” which she wrote while her husband was dying, she thought she might be done with writing.
“I was kind of brain dead,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’ll never have another idea worth pursuing,’ My children just roll their eyes when I say things like that. But I thought. ‘I’ve had a good run, and I’m past 80, and even Philip Roth has retired. And I don’t want to write the book that makes people think I should have stopped several books ago.’ And then I got excited about this idea and thought, ‘OK.’ I was so thrilled to be writing again. I didn’t realize how much I missed it. It was a delight.” VBM vermontbiz.com
Joyce Marcel is a journalist who lives in southern Vermont. She is currently writing a memoir covering six generations of her family caught in the sweep of history across the 20th Century. She is writing another book about Vermont businesses. More of her work appears at her website, joycemarcel.com.