By Leslie Lindsay
Three mothers, one circus, a one-hundred-year wave, a drowned town, coupled with grief, parenting, and the ways women hold each other up through challenging times.
~WEDNESDAYS WITH WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
It’s the summer of 1878 and the Ludwig Zirkus has come to the island of Nordstrand in Germany. Big-bellied girls from the nearby St. Margaret’s Home for Pregnant Girls are thrilled to see the parade and the show as are the Sisters who care for them, so begins THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS by Ursula Hegi (forthcoming from Flatiron Books, August 18 2020). Lotte and her husband, Kalle, a toymaker are near the ocean when a one-hundred-year-wave roars from the Nordsee and claims the lives of three of their young children. Lotte is holding Wilhelm, the baby, and he is spared. Yet, Lotte and Kalle, childhood sweethearts are bereft with grief.
On the beach that day are three mothers: Lotte, whose children are gone except Wilhelm, Tilli, an 11-year old girl who just gave birth at the home and had her baby adopted, and Sabine, a seamstress for the Zirkus, and single mother of Heike, a mentally disabled young woman. Each experiences heartbreak in their own unique ways…which is what I would say is the overarching theme of THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS. Kalle leaves his wife and infant son and joins the Zirkus, Lotte is unable to nurse her remaining child and so Tilli steps in and becomes his wet nurse, but also bonds with him in ways his mother is unable to.
There are some very tough themes in THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS, which is told in a deeply moving, metaphorical manner, with a good many POVs, rich voices, and plot lines in a meandering narrative; vacillating between past and present, various characters and their experiences.
Part folklore, part literary fiction, part historical, THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS is a luminous and powerful story of friendship and heartache.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Ursula Hegi to the author interview series:
Ursula, welcome. It’s such an honor. You are a German-born writing living and working in the U.S. and so it’s no surprise THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS is set in Germany, which I really enjoyed. This tale is so rich, so detailed, and filled with many aspects of parenting, friendship, motherhood, and darker things, too. What inspired this story?
I didn’t plan to set half of my work in Germany and the other half in America, but that’s how the pages have opened for me, reflecting what it’s like to be an immigrant.
Burgdorf is the setting for several of my books. It’s a town I imagined. A town I discovered through my writing. A town loosely based on my hometown, Büderich; a composite of small towns where I’ve lived in Germany and America.
Burgdorf has taken on characteristics beyond what I remembered and invented. It has developed certain neighborhoods. Has become the home of my characters. I’ve made maps to place the school, the synagogue, the church, the market square, the meadow where the Circus sets up once a year. The windows of the church are the ones I used to stare at as a child.
With each novel, I’ve revised this map, adding streets, houses. I know where Trudi Montag cuts through the meadow behind her house when the synagogue is burning; where Emma Blau falls into the brook; where Hanna Malter almost drowns while swimming out to the barges in the Rhein.
“Compassionately observant…The offbeat characters enhance the quasi-dreamlike effect, but the scenarios they face are starkly real…Their emotional hardships are satisfyingly leavened by softer moments of romantic and familial love.”
Parental bonding–or lack thereof–is a theme in THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS, as is childhood incest and pregnancy, shunning, wanderlust, adoption, mentally challenged individuals, single mothers, and more. There’s also a nun who was forced to give up her child 41-years prior. Was there a particular character or storyline you felt a particular affection for? One that might have been more of challenge to write?
Sabine who travels with the Ludwig Zirkus, is a seamstress, and the mother of Heike who looks like a woman but has the mind of a seven year old. To protect Heike, Sabine wants to find a kind husband for her, a husband to protect Heike if Sabine were to die first. The beekeeper from Nordstrand is kind and protective and unsettlingly gorgeous, but he falls in love with Sabine, not Heike.
You mention the nun who was forced to give up her newborn 41 years earlier, Sister Franziska. I didn’t know that she had a son until I was in the final drafts of my novel. Sister Franziska is the midwife at the St. Margaret Home for Pregnant Girls and has great empathy for the pregnant Girls, some as young as eleven. “Each child that passes through her hands becomes her son. She has never spoken of him, not even in confession; yet, she holds him with every newborn who passes through her hands—that swirl of hair on the back of his neck, that tiny pucker of lips, eyes ancient and wise imprinting her on his memory—only to release him anew, with grace. This path toward grace exhilarates Sister Franziska with depths of faith she couldn’t have imagined in her prayers when he was taken from her.”
Regarding structure, THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS is not told in a linear fashion. Instead, it sort of spirals and meanders. What I think this might speak to this style is the cacophony of grief, that there is not one single way to experience it, but ebbs and flows, much like the Nordsee. Can you expand on that a bit, please?
I like what you say here, Leslie, about the cacophony of grief in my novel, that it ebbs and flows, much like the Nordsee. This form offers me different angles of vision, let me and my readers experience one incident through various characters.
To write from any character’s point of view, I have to climb into the character, become the character, feel what s/he is feeling, and be left with the impact of that. It’s like method acting. In STONES FROM THE RIVER, the dwarf girl, Trudi Montag, is raped by four boys by the Rhein river. No, I have never been raped; but I have lived with Trudi through the rape and the impact of the rape through 50 – 100 revisions. And therefore, it has become my experience.
I am so intrigued with the landscape and setting of THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS. Can you tell us a little more about Nordstrand? And also, Rungholt? I understand it is an actual island—and no one can seem to agree on its precise location—but archaeologists believe it once existed, was washed away, and at times, may resurface. This sounds like the things of folklore. Can you tell us more?
I want to answer this with an excerpt from my essay, I’m Searching for a Home for Unwed Girls, published in The New England Review, about researching and writing THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS and my previous book, CHILDREN AND FIRE, both set on Nordstrand by the Nordsee, near the sunken Island, Rungholt, part of myth and history.
I’m searching for a Home for Unwed Girls because Almut is pregnant and unmarried. I must get her far away from Burgdorf, where the neighbors will gossip and cast her out. Already, I can picture her in a Home near the edge of the Nordsee—North Sea—where earth and water have barely separated and are still as they must have been on the third day of Creation.
I take a direct flight from Newark, [New Jersey] to Hamburg, [Germany]. As I drive north, the wind is rough, the sky a deepening gray. Yet, behind me it still holds the light. I’m thinking of Almut watching this sky, this landscape, from the train that carries her across the flat, Frisian landscape in May of 1899. She’s been on trains all day, leaving Burgdorf before dawn.
Our journeys are 111 years apart.
I haven’t made room reservations because I don’t know yet where I want to stay along the way. It’s like that for me with writing—if I already knew the ending, I wouldn’t need to write the story. I take notes, dictate audio notes, take photos.
Though I haven’t found the Home for Unwed Girls yet, I’ve named it after St. Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth. I looked her up in my husband’s book of saints […] You see, St. Margaret was swallowed by a dragon—actually, it was the devil disguised as a dragon—
Whoever chose her as patron saint for pregnant women?
Legends of martyred saints are full of heinous details that I think of as Catholic voodoo. My awe of the mystical. My capacity to believe.
The name for the Home I have. What I find next is the smell. The moment I step into the church in Büsum, I know I can use this smell of cellar, ancient stone floor and walls. Three sections of pews, teal with brown trim, face the altar. Steps lead up to a black and gold pulpit.
The church is empty, and I kneel in a narrow pew right below this pulpit. I’ve knelt in churches like this for countless hours. As a girl, I fantasized about being a nun. We all did, the girls at the Sacré Coeur boarding school where sisters taught us, and we went to Mass with them every morning. Nights we danced in our long nightgowns, holding a transistor radio propped between us.
[…] I feel the pregnant St. Margaret Girls kneeling with me. I take notes. Photos. These pews have hooks. For purses? At the end of each pew is a gate with a latch to keep us separate from the congregation. The priest’s sermon falls on us as though it were the voice of God.
Next door stands the town hall, built of bricks. I can make this the St. Margaret Home, write an alley of birches between the Home and the church, concealing the St. Margaret Girls on their walk to Mass. Birches and more substantial trees. Chestnut trees, yes, that arch above the brick path.
But the location isn’t right yet. I want a place more remote than Büsum. As soon as I get off the highways and head toward the Nordsee, there are hardly any cars. Bike paths parallel the road. I stop at houses with that sign— Zimmer Frei/ Rooms Available— when I’m tired. One woman is in her eighties, pours me coffee in her kitchen, tells me she is limber because she has been working all her life, working very hard. She hasn’t had time off in 276 days. In a row, she says.
I find the location for my novel when I reach Nordstrand, a peninsula where dikes and windmills rise from the flat earth […] It’s heartbreakingly beautiful. So much land and so few houses. Wind ripples the grasses and yellow rapeseed fields, so that they shift and swell like waves in the Nordsee. This landscape, yes.
I relocate the Büsum church and town hall to Nordstrand. When I write fiction, seemingly unrelated details suck themselves onto what I’m working with. A kind nun with wide hands gives each pregnant Girl a gray woolen cape and words of caution about the steep marble stairs between the third and fourth floors where one might take a shallow step and fall and lose one’s baby.
The St. Margaret Home will be the largest industry on Nordstrand, the industry of illegitimacy, providing income and purposeful work for the nuns who tend to the souls and bodies of young women who arrive here frightened but relieved to be far enough from home so people won’t talk.
I was sixteen and terribly shy when I was sent to a home for unwed mothers, an old mansion with beautiful gardens. Baby Mansion, I called it. As I entered the ornate lobby, I was mortified that people would think I was pregnant. But I was here for a practicum and knew that after three weeks I would leave, the same size as when I arrived.
A mansion. Yes. The St. Margaret Home starts as a mansion built by a bishop over two centuries ago. Right out in the open, next to the church. With money stolen from the diaspora fund, the collection basket. Such excesses: marble stairs up three stories to the servants’ quarters; a conservatory with an aviary where peacocks scream the cries of humans. But the church seizes the bishop’s mansion and relocates him to a destitute parish— potato fields and ravens—near the Polish border.
Soon, eight big-bellied Girls move into the St. Margaret Home. Three of them are still so young that they giggle and run from the nuns, or play hide and seek in the chapel. In earlier drafts I called them Unwed Mothers. But given the time period and their ages, they would be called Unwed Girls.
This first crop of St. Margaret Girls helps the nuns to prune the dense growth between the Home and the dike, scrub through layers of scum on the walls and floors, wash and iron piles of musty damask sheets and tablecloths.
Didn’t the nuns at the Baby Mansion notice that I was going maternal on them? I knew I could be a mother to this little boy who was left behind after his mother birthed him. My room at home was big enough for his crib. I would take him for long walks in a stroller, read picture books to him, play with him by the river. When I told my father and the nuns about my plan to adopt Manuel, I was devastated when they dismissed what I believed possible.
When Almut arrives in 1899, the windmills are massive wooden structures […] I established that the making of toys is the second largest industry in Nordstrand. I also researched birth control at the end of the nineteenth century when women resorted to bizarre methods: jumping backward seven times after intercourse to dislodge the seeds, or rotating their hips during intercourse to keep the seeds from attaching, or catching a frog and spitting into the frog’s mouth three times, or tying a pouch with a cat’s liver around one ankle. When I found out that one form of birth control is to insert a little wooden block in front of the cervix, it felt like a gift. It influenced character development.
The midwife at the St. Margaret Home orders wooden blocks from local toymakers by the dozen—smooth and unpainted with rounded edges— allowing the men who sand them to assume they are for the children who’ve been left behind at the St. Margaret Home.
I think there’s something so mysterious and healing and also terrifying about water. It’s purifying and yet it can obliterate. Was this a clear motif in your writing, or does it sort of surface organically?
Some readers ask me about the symbolism of water in my books. For me, water is water is water. I’m drawn to it. Immerse myself. I kayak. Walk along the edges of water. Write about it. And again. It’s my environment. That’s why my characters are drawn to water, too. My mother used to call me—with affection— her Wasser Ratte. Water rat. She, too, was a Wasser Ratte. We couldn’t get enough of it. She taught me to swim in the dangerous currents of the wide Rhein. I felt safe with her as I held on to the sisal webbing she’d tied around my rubber ball.
I now live on a cove. The ocean is only 6 miles away. We have lakes out here. Rivers. One day I swam in four bodies of water: the ocean, a tidal cove, a river, and a pond.
Ursula, this has been so enlightening. Thank you for taking the time. Before we go—one last question: what do you think sharpens you a writer? What one thing would you suggest other writers do at least daily?
To honor your commitment to your writing, to the gift and the practice.
Thank you, Leslie, for your insights and your questions.
Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #alwayswayswithabook for more like this.
For more information, to connect with Ursula Hegi via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS, please visit:
- Excerpt: THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS
- Ursula Hegi’s attention to her secondary characters in this Bookable/LitHub article.
Readers of historical fiction will enjoy this title. I am especially reminded of THE BOOK OF SPECULATION (Erika Swyler) meets WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, THE MAGDALENE GIRLS (V.S. Alexander), INDELIBLE (Adelia Saunders), and the work of Kate Hamer (THE GIRL IN THE RED COAT and THE DOLL FUNERAL). Other books that may resonate: Emma Donoghue’s THE WONDER meets Paula Hawkins’s INTO THE WATER and perhaps the magical realism aspects of Alice Hoffman.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ursula Hegi is the author of over a dozen books, including Stones from the River, Children and Fire, Floating in My Mother’s Palm, and Tearing the Silence, and has received more than thirty grants and awards. She teaches in the Stony Brook MFA program and lives with her family on Long Island.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir. Her writing has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Her cover art was featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; poetry in the Coffin Bell Journal, and CNF in Semicolon Literary Magazine; the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available this fall. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image retrieved from. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #alwayswayswithabook for more like this]