BARKER, Michelle




Author Tags: Kidlit & Young Adult, Literary Landmarks

LITERARY LOCATION: Bielkowo (formerly the German village of Beelkow), within Koszalin County, West Pomeranian Voivodeship, north-western Poland, near the Baltic Sea.

DIRECTIONS: 151 km (94 mi) north-east of the regional capital Szczecin. 54° 18" 51' N, 16° 18" 16' E

Michelle Barker's A Year of Borrowed Men (Pajama Press 2015) arose from her mother’s childhood experiences on a family farm during World War II in Pomerania when that Polish area of Europe was part of Nazi Germany. Written from the perspective of seven-year-old Gerda, it's the true story of survival after Hitler's army had "borrowed" all the men in her family for warfare. Gerda can't fully grasp why three French prisoners-of-war who have been sent to work on their family farm as labourers cannot be invited inside from the barn for one meal. Kindness overcomes suspicion as Gabriel, Fermaine and Albert gradually gain the trust of the little girl.

With family photos and an author's historical note, A Year of Borrowed Men suggests to young readers that it's not a stretch to change the German word Feinde (enemies) to the German word Freunde (friends). The book is illustrated by Renné Benoit. Following World War II, all native Germans were expelled from the area and their properties were taken by Poles.

"My mother's family had to flee the farm in the spring of 1945," says Barker, "and they never returned. They headed southwest, ending up in a town called Ermsleben, in what became East Germany. My mother escaped in 1953, and immigrated to Canada in 1958 to join one of her sisters who was already living in Nanaimo. My grandmother and the two other sisters remained in East Germany, though they are now deceased. My grandfather and my uncle did not survive the war. I don't know if the farm still exists but I hope to go and find out. My mother told me that her eldest sister did go back once, after the Germans were allowed to travel there. It was still a farm at that point but was quite rundown. That would have been a long time ago."

Michelle Barker was born in Vancouver, BC, and lives in Penticton, where she has worked as an editor and story coach, as well as led workshops in creative writing and taken UBC's optional-residency program in creative writing (MFA). Married with four children, she is the winner of a gold National Magazine Award in personal journalism (2002).

In her fantasy novel for young adults, The Beggar King, Jordan Elliott has a gift. He can disappear…but at what price? Jordan discovers that everything has an underside: even magic, even him. “I have long been intrigued by the notion that what we see around us is not the whole story,” she says. “Why not fashion a world where it is possible to disappear behind the wallpaper – the trees and homes, even the air – and discover the truth about the forces that move behind our walls?”

BOOKS:

Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii - a poetry chapbook (Leaf Press, 2012)

The Beggar King (Thistledown Press, 2013) 978-1-927068-37-3 $15.95

A Year of Borrowed Men (Pajama Press 2015)
978-1-927485-83-5 $21.95 Illustrated by Renné Benoit

[BCBW 2015]



Origins of the Beggar King
Publicity Materials (2013)


from Author's website
My fantasy world of Katir-Cir was already beginning to take shape when I wrote the poem Wallpaper Universe (published in Cicada Magazine). I have long been intrigued by the notion that what we see around us is not the whole story. Why not fashion a world where it is possible to disappear behind the wallpaper – the trees and homes, even the air – and discover the truth about the forces that move behind our walls?

And then… my husband and I once owned a sailboat with the mysterious name of Cir – short for Circle? Circumnavigation? Circumstantial evidence? We never did find out. But it got me thinking: what if Cir was a place – a holy city made entirely of white-washed stone, built on a mountain and crowned with a golden palace, along with one leafless tree pressed into the horizon? What if this mountain was also an island and the only way to access it was to cross one of twelve magical bridges? The catch: only the bridge that best reflects your true intentions will grant you passage.

But what if Cir were a city with a problem – the neighbouring land of Brin, which is situated over an impassable mountain range? The Brinnians have long wanted to control Cir and its provinces, and especially its high priestess who has altogether too much power in this world. Only the mountain range has stopped them up to now. But what if they find a way across? They would time their coup carefully, choosing the one day of the year when Cirrans would not be on their guard – the feast day of the Great Light.

And then… there was this cat we had that seemed almost human – the way cats can, with their chess-master eyebrows and sly independence. It got me thinking: what would a cat be like if it were human-sized and walked on two legs and could talk? Thus was born Sarmillion, the undercat with a penchant for smoking jackets, who longs to write poetry but can’t quite keep from gambling on the snake and mongoose fights at the Pit or stealing jewelry for a fat, greasy barman named Piccolo.

It wasn’t a huge leap from undercats to underrats. In Katir-Cir you might meet Jack-Jack, the hairless underrat who picks pockets and traps mongooses, or Sardine whose teeth are made entirely of gold and who prowls the back alleys in his trench coat, usually drunk. Or Ex, the slow-talking underrat with a black bandana and a bad attitude. Like the undercats, the underrats are two-legged and human-sized. I wouldn’t recommend lending them any money. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend running into them at all.

In an ancient Southlands dialect, the name ‘Katir-Cir’ means ‘land of mystery.’ This is a place where old tales carry force, where mystery is honoured and magic is part of daily life. From the rugged northern hills of Circassic to the vast desert lands of Ut in the south, to the largely unknown provinces of Brin that lie beyond threatening mountains, the lands of Katir-Cir are made for story-telling.

The first book in the Katir-Cir series is called The Beggar King. Written with the help of a Canada Council grant, it comes out in the spring of 2013, published by Thistledown Press. I’m not sure where the hero, Jordan Elliott, came from, but this fifteen-year-old boy who longs to do something wonderful and significant with his life and yet fears he is not good at anything made me sit up and listen. That fear spoke to me, as it speaks to so many people – mostly late at night, when the wind is blowing and you can’t sleep.

When Jordan’s mother is taken prisoner along with many others during an attack by the Brinnians, Jordan’s desperate need to rescue her leads to important ethical questions: can wrong means justify a right end? Just how far will Jordan go to save her? And how far is too far?

Meanwhile, Jordan’s sixteenth birthday is approaching. He will have to choose his robes and declare his gift, according to Cirran tradition. But he doesn’t believe he has a gift for anything other than stealing tomatoes at the marketplace, and he refuses to take a tree-keeper’s robes just to please his father.

Finally, on his sixteenth birthday he risks everything by placing a bouquet of flowers at the holy tree – a tradition which is prohibited by the new emperor. When the guards spot him, he faces death by hanging. Suddenly he hears a voice tell him, “The world is merely wallpaper. Hide behind it. Here is your gift. Take it, and save yourself.” Just like that, he can disappear. Now he has a talent to be reckoned with.

The problem is, people don’t simply disappear – not even those born with a gift for magic. Disappearing is an undermagician’s skill. The man who has given Jordan this gift calls himself the Beggar King. The Beggar King is a figure from one of the Cirran old tales. No one really believes such a person exists. He is merely an idea, a name given to dark corners and bad dreams. But Jordan Elliott is about to learn that everyone is wrong.

The Beggar King has returned to the lands of Katir-Cir, and he is looking for a way to access the undermagic, an ancient and dark source of power which has remained hidden for over a thousand thousand years. The undermagic was locked away for a reason: it is dangerous, unpredictable, and it leaves you wanting more. It could help Jordan rescue his mother, but is it worth the risk? Jordan is about to learn that everything has an underside. Even magic. Even him.



A Year of Borrowed Men (Pajama Press $21.95)
Article (2016)


from BCBW (Spring 2016)
Michelle Barker’s A Year of Borrowed Men (Pajama Press $21.95) arose from her mother’s childhood experiences on a family farm during World War II in Pomerania when that Polish area of Europe was part of Nazi Germany.

Written from the perspective of seven-year-old Gerda, it’s the true story of survival after Hitler’s army “borrowed” all the men in her family for warfare. Gerda can’t fully grasp why three French prisoners-of-war who have been sent to work on their family farm as labourers cannot be invited inside from the barn for just one meal.

Kindness overcomes suspicion as Gabriel, Fermaine and Albert gradually gain the trust of the little girl.

With family photos and an author’s historical note, A Year of Borrowed Men suggests to young readers (ages 6–9) that it’s not a stretch to change the German word Feinde (enemies) to the German word Freunde (friends). The book is illustrated by Renné Benoit.

“My mother’s family had to flee the farm in the spring of 1945,” says Barker, “and they never returned. They headed southwest, ending up in a town called Ermsleben, in what became East Germany. My mother escaped in 1953, and immigrated to Canada in 1958 to join one of her sisters who was already living in Nanaimo. My grandfather and my uncle did not survive the war.”

“I don’t know if the farm still exists but I hope to go and find out. My mother told me that her eldest sister did go back once, after Germans were allowed to travel there. It was still a farm at that point but was somewhat rundown. That would have been quite a long time ago.” 978-1-927485-83-5