Patricia MacLachlan sees signs of life wherever she looks
The signs are everywhere, if you know how to read them: fireworks, birds, poppies, music. Signs of joy, remembrance or of something yet to come or could they be merely figments of your imagination?
In award-winning author Patricia MacLachlan's new book for young readers, Edward's Eyes, we meet a young boy with a special ability. His eyes are not only remarkably beautiful, they are so perceptive that they can see the future, appreciate the past and be fully conscious in the moment. Through Edward, we are able to understand a world that is more magical than many of us can ordinarily perceive. MacLachlan, who won the Newbery Medal two decades ago for Sarah, Plain and Tall, came up with her latest story after a conversation with her son, a former photographer who now works in Tanzania with the renowned primatologist Jane Goodall.
"I saw his driver's license and realized he was an organ donor," MacLachlan says. "Since he no longer uses his eyes for photography, we joked about how great it would be if someone else got a chance to use them." That conversation stayed with MacLachlan for several years. She even went so far as to write the beginning of a book with that concept in mind, but it wasn't until Edward introduced himself to her that things really got started.
MacLachlan, an only child who became a voracious reader and often acted out the stories she was reading with her parents, does not simply make up characters, they come to her. "When I was young, I had all these imaginary friends that I had conversations with," she recalls. In fact, her bond with these imaginary friends was so strong that she insisted her parents set a place for them at their dinner table. "They tolerated it with good humor," MacLachlan says, "but I'm sure it was trying."
As an adult, she draws from this wild imagination and meets characters everywhere in her car, in the shower, in bed or whenever she has a quiet moment to think. The inspiration for her characters' personalities or abilities is usually related to what she is experiencing or noticing at the time. "There is something magical about a child's mind," says the author, who is married to a clinical psychologist, "and I began noticing how some children are more tuned into the world around them than others." Thus Edward's character came with a special gift of sight. Although MacLachlan writes about the beauty this ability reveals, Edward's Eyes is not simply a story about magic or spirituality. Instead, it is a story about the relationships of siblings, the fragility of life and the ability to overcome tragedy. MacLachlan handles these difficult themes with empathy, optimism and a clear prose that speaks directly to the reader without being heavy-handed.
The storyline follows Edward, through the eyes of his older brother Jake, as he grows into a young boy and learns how to throw the ever-elusive knuckleball the poetry of which MacLachlan learned from her son. This eccentric young character goes on to predict his new sister's birth going so far as to name her long before her parents even know her sex and then, shockingly and tragically, dies in a bike accident. But this death is not the end of Edward or of the story. In effect, it is just the beginning of Edward's legacy. After the accident, his organs, including his beloved eyes (corneas), are donated to several patients awaiting these precious gifts of life.
"I thought the idea that someone's heart is beating in someone else's body was pretty powerful stuff," MacLachlan says. It is the journey of these eyes, and their effect on their recipient, a minor league baseball player, that brings the story to its heartwarming and poignant climax.
The author admits it is refreshing to get to know a new character after all the incredible years she spent working with Sarah of Sarah, Plain and Tall, including the sequels and the screenplays, for which MacLachlan received an Emmy nomination. "I felt like I took Sarah into menopause," she says. "It was sad, because I knew her so well, but it is a relief to be writing about another family."
MacLachlan plans to focus her next efforts on several picture books that she is writing with her daughter, Emily. The mother-daughter duo has already published one book, Once I Ate a Pie, and is working on their next collaboration. In the meantime, MacLachlan, a Wyoming native who splits her time between a home in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, and a cottage on Cape Cod, will be on a nationwide book tour for the release of Edward's Eyes, including a highly anticipated trip back to her hometown of Cheyenne. After that, it will be up to the characters she encounters in her back seat or in the bathroom to show her the signs to her next book and MacLachlan certainly knows how to read them.
Heidi Henneman writes from New York.