All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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Transcript from an interview with

L.M. Elliott

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with L. M. Elliott, divided into the following sections:

Early Adventures

I am L.M. Elliott, which stands for Laura Malone Elliott. And I've been writing a long time, first with journalism. I wrote all through school. Kids always ask me when did I start, and then I can't truly remember ever not writing little stories down. I discovered in my dad's things after he died that he kept these very badly drawn picture books that I had done, which were — it was so sweet of him to keep them. But I think I amused myself always by telling stories and writing them down and keeping pictures to go along with them.

I always tell children I admit to the fact that I was really more of a tomboy than I was a big reader when I was younger. I did tend to carry books up into the trees with me, and if I fell out of them, I had them with me at that time. So, I didn't — I wouldn't describe myself as somebody who read and read and read and read when I was younger. And yet, I grew up in what I have in my grandfather's house, and there was this incredible library in there. And it had all those wonderful classics, Robert Louis Stevenson, you know, Treasure Island, that real A.A. Milne, The Jungle Book, those kinds of great books, and nobody told me that I shouldn't be reading those, that those were boy books. So, I really grew up with the idea of adventure and quests, Narnia series was something that I really loved. And I was also very lucky to grow up in what was once upon a time, a small town, it's not now, it's been run over by the suburbs of Washington, but I happen to know a lot of people who were consummate and glorious storytellers. And they would often sit under the oak trees with lemonade, and tell these phenomenal stories that were all about people and how people reacted to large historic events. You know, I think I learned right then and there that if you really wanted to appreciate history and what people went through during historical events that you concentrate on how ordinary people could react in extraordinary ways.

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Getting the Story

I always tell students, and teachers too, who are trying to encourage creative writing, I honestly think the best training for writing fiction is doing journalism beforehand, and here's why. If you're writing for journalism, you have to be able to not only write about what you feel internally. I have to be able to look at you and describe how you're feeling depending upon what you're wearing, how you're sitting, how you speak, how you turned your head if you hear something, things that tell me, show me, rather than, you know, being directly written down, how you might be feeling. Journalism teaches you to listen all the time, to watch real life for stories. You go out and report stories, so you learn to interview people and ask a lot of questions, and also write down carefully what they say, hopefully, word for word, but also making note, again, of how they react to certain questions, so that you get the emotional content of the words as well. You learn to write to deadline. You learn to use, hopefully, the pithiest, most meaningful word, because you only have this much space rather than, you know, that much. You also learn to take editing. You know, everybody needs a good editor, they really truly do. And journalism teaches you how valuable that other viewpoint is. You also get the — how you just get the beauty of the human spirit by going out and watching people. I think that Under a War-Torn Sky is a far better book, and all the ones I've done, because I spent so much time at the Washingtonian writing about ordinary people who were struck with difficult circumstances, illness, or say, abuse or divorce or wars.

Those ordinary people can respond in truly extraordinary ways. And I think it really taught me that if you want to write about a generic topic or a big historical event, what you do to make it palpable, to make it really something that we all can care about is you write at how it affects that individual person. So, I think, journalism gave me much better idea of how to focus large topic into a really compelling narrative.

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Research is the fun part? Really?

Research, to me, in all honesty, that's the fun part. That's the treasure hunt. That's the gold. That's where you're like, out there, digging for fossils. I honestly find sitting myself down on my seat, putting my hands on the keyboard, trying to get the words out, that's actually the hard part. That's the part that's glorious, of course, and you think everyone's, "Oh, thank you. That's beautiful." But it's the harder part. The research is the fun part. That's like being a detective, you know. You're out there searching for truth and things that will prove it. And research is what tells me what to write. And I think again, having been a reporter, that's a good thing too, about having been a journalist, is that if you're a good journalist, you go out there and you report the story, and the facts that you gather, the interviews that you do, the things that you witness, the people who are jubilant, the people who are sad, those things tell you what to write. A not very good reporter would sit in a room and say, "I think I'm going to write about this as such." And then sort of fabricate it or go out and look for things that corroborated his preexisting opinion. That's not good reporting. If I've collected all my research, and I walk in with my arm full of details, like you know, having gathered every flower I can find in a wild flower field, I can make arrangement after arrangement after arrangement. I can write 3,000 words in a day, no sweat if I've done my research. I always liken historical fiction, good historical fiction to a Vermeer painting. If you go and you look at that Dutch Master, you see the person in front. But if you look really carefully, in the background, you see bugs and cracks in the walls, and flowers and a dog maybe, half drank glass of milk, or you know, all these details, it's like you can almost smell that room, you know, from his paintings, things so vivid. And good historical fiction will be peppered with things like that that make it — that you won't know as a reader, you're just reading a beautiful little scene that has all those details in there for you.

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Writing Historical Fiction

I really love doing fiction and especially historical fiction. I feel like it's a little bit of a calling for me. History is, you know, history is a human drama. It is something that — I mean, you have these leaders who declare these wars and negotiate these pieces or these new important bills, and then it's you and me who have to actually enact those things or leave through them and try to put them on like a suit of clothes. And historical fiction, I think, is a way of helping young people in particular, come to understand how we got to where we are today. You know, the human being is a fascinating creature, and books really allow us to think through all those conundrums and challenges, and heroisms, and mistakes that we've made to get to here.

You always have to become kind of mini-expert in whatever it is you're writing about to write about it well, and I love that. I love constantly learning. And here's the trick about writing. Once you know how to do it, you can write about anything. You can write in any kind of genre. I might do a biography someday. I haven't ruled that out. I just haven't found a subject matter that actually has caught me that I've wanted to write about. I do love doing the fiction in that you can really dramatize history, and you really can make it in such a way that kids feel it more. If you pull up a child down into somebody's shoes, if they walk the walk with Henry, those 800 miles across France to try to escape, they actually become worried about what's around the next corner, what is he gonna eat tomorrow, is Pierre gonna live. I mean they become very concerned about those characters, which actually replicates to some degree, living through that, you know. It produces an anxiety and an emotional attachment that's very kin to having lived during that time. So, if we want kids to really appreciate what that time of frame is like, historical fiction is a great way to do it.

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Truth vs. Historical Fiction

I'm often asked about how do you negotiate the line and walk the line of fiction and fact within the same narrative. Historical fiction as we know, I'm sure…Typically, you have a protagonist. It mixes fact with the imagination. Of course, all novels do, you know. It's just that with historical fiction, you're dealing with some very important facts, and the facts that people know very well, hopefully, and that you can illuminate within that narrative. So, it's really important that you're careful that the details of day to day life, the leaders who walk in and out of the pages of your novels, the battles that occur, the issues that are being fought out are right, you know, and accurate to history. So, you may have an imagined protagonist as Henry is, and yet, his moral dilemmas, his choices, a lot of the pressures and the things that he worries about are all pretty much dictated by the backdrop of what's happening during World War II. When I try to follow those things, I keep in mind Mark Twain because Mark Twain has this wonderful quote which I love in talking about both fiction and nonfiction, as you were asking me about how I do both. Well, Mark Twain did both, not that I compare myself with Mark Twain, but he did both kinds of writing, and he said that they're really not that dissimilar. It's just that fiction writing is harder because fiction has to stick to possibilities. Fiction has to make sense. And as we know, real life doesn't always, which is easier when you're just reporting it because you can just report what happened. I'm just reporting the facts, ma'am, you know. I don't have to keep it plausible.

It's an interesting issue about the validity of historical fiction. And what I would say to you is, as a mother or an educator, is that you should look at what your children are reading, because there's good historical fiction and there's not so good historical fiction. There's historical fiction that's thin and only researched so well. And then there's, you know, historical fiction that is carefully researched, you know, just stuffed full like a tapestry with good elements that will teach a kid so much about what life was like back then. Take, for instance, something like Killer Angels, you're going to learn. That's historical fiction, but can learn so much about Gettysburg from that. Or, you know, one of the first historical novels was Tale of Two Cities, you go back to Dickens here. But talk about learning a lot about the French Revolution, but not necessarily would say, on thus and such date, so and so did this, and they stormed the Bastille. Instead, what you do is that you find, you see the fallout of those events on Dickens' characters, you know? I mean, that's the kind of thing that brings it to life.

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School Projects that Encourage Historical Research

When I go to schools, often I see projects that they've done using Under a War-Torn Sky or A Troubled Peace or you know, my other books too, as a springboard to their own research. For instance, one of the kind of classic ones that kids tend to do is to track Henry's progress. The flyers would come down wherever it was that they did in France, and their main goal was to get all the way down to the Pyrenees, get over the Pyrenees. The Pyrenees are at the border of France and Spain. The Pyrenees are large mountains. There were a lot of not very friendly people along the borders of the Pyrenees, both the Nazis and people who would happily turn them over to the Nazis. It was a hard go. And walking from where Henry was dropped, near Alsace Lorraine, the most northern — northeastern corner of France. He had almost 800 miles to walk. Okay. So, if you simply take that walk where you follow the places that I do mention where he went, and say for instance, you do things like, okay, let's research what they ate in that area. Let's research what the weather was like, where there's certain — I mean, what's the terrain like, for instance. The — in the Vercor, the area where Pierre lives, for instance, you have mountains that just drop, alright, they are huge, they are — they're scraping the bottom of heaven, so the Prealps.

And these boys would walk along these little narrow paths, for instance, to try to find their way. If you can describe that kind of thing and maybe keep a journal, ask the child to write as if he is Henry, or one of Henry's friends, trying to do that kind of journey. And then look for tangible things, what do they wear? They had to wear wooden shoes, for instance. Okay, what do wooden shoes feel like? Why don't you go to a store where, if they can, and get big old clogs and try walking around and see how quiet they can be.

One of the other things that I've seen kids do a lot of is write another scene, or write what happens to a particular character after the book is over. And they'll need to then research, for instance, if you wanted to write about one of the flyers coming home, or maybe what it was like for Dan's wife to not have Dan come home, trying to find out how much bread costs at that point, or were women allowed to keep their jobs that they had had after the war was over, that they had, you know, Rosie the Riveter kinds of things.

But I'll tell you, one of the things for instance, that might spark some real interest in boys, and you can find this kind of stuff now if you go to for instances, a website, it's usaircorp.com I think is the right thing for it — for the US army air corps because during World War II, for instance, they weren't the air force yet. But you can actually research, for instance, the different names that the crew members gave their planes, which is a lot of fun to actually see "Bouncing Betty" and you know, "Revenge of Mike", or funny things that they would choose for names, things like that.

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Personal Stories Become a Novel

Under a War-Torn Sky actually had its very small genesis in a story that was a factual account of my dad's homecoming from World War II. My father had been missing in action for many months, and he was presumed dead, and he literally showed up in the driveway of his family farm five days before Christmas, 1944. This is what I say about, you know, real life hand you stories that just are more moving than anything I can make up. So when I wrote that fairly short story, it was really just a homecoming story for a December issue. I received so many letters, so many amazing communiqués from veterans and children of and spouses of. I'll share one with you really quickly. It came from a man who was elderly at the time I got it, writing about having been a foreman in a factory during World War II. He had been disabled in such a way that he couldn't fight, so he ran a factory instead. And in that factory was this elderly man who had one child. Everybody else in his family was dead, but he had had a child late in life, and this was his much beloved baby who was over fighting in Europe in World War II. In '44, as a matter of fact, Christmas Eve, the phone rings. They're still working because the munitions factory is going. Christmas Eve, the phone rings, it's the War Department. The War Department often delivered the news of being missing in action or killed in action by phone or by telegraph that would be read over the phone. The man who's sending me this letter in very shaky handwriting in 2000, whatever it was, I guess 1999, anyway, he called over the intercom to this elderly man to come to the office to receive the phone call. The entire plant went silent as this poor man walked the long walk going to the office, everybody assuming, oh, no, his son is missing in action or dead. The telegram was three words; "Safe. Merry Christmas." When I got those kinds of things, I thought, I think I need to write this story. And especially for young people who were beginning to lose the stories of World War II. And part of that came because I have very inquisitive children. I'm very lucky. And my daughter had just read Number the Stars and was quite incensed by who the heck were the Axis, as children are when they first learn of the Holocaust. And we were at the beach at the time, and she wanted to know exactly precisely who the Axis were. And I wasn't answering the question very well. I was actually drawing a map in the sand of Europe trying to explain. And a veteran came up. And then some kids came up. And they began talking. And I really realized that it was so important to tell this story to that younger generation coming up.

I always tell students that if they are lucky enough to have a neighbor or a relative, friend who survived World War II, that they should go and talk to them. Because people who lived through, they're called the greatest generation for a reason, if they lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, they saw, they went from, you know, cars that barely moved to a man walking on the moon and all of these cataclysmic redefinitions of humanity, loss and triumphs. And the world is just a different place now than it was when they were children. They have phenomenal stories, amazing things to tell you. And it's very easy. They're so pleased to be asked, so many of them. It's a really wonderful thing to sit down and talk with these people and get their stories. And, of course, we're losing them. It's important. And they love nothing better than talking to young people. I mean, that's the best. So here is what I've learned through journalism, for instance, when you go and you talk to somebody. Always think about an interview as a conversation, and that this person is doing you a favor to talk to you.

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Practical Advice for Conducting an Oral History Interview

So I always tell kids, there are several things they need to bring to an interview. First thing is bring a tape recorder. Second thing is bring a notebook because your tape recorder may break. Bring a pen. It may run out of ink. Bring a pencil, all right? So have several things in your hands. We don't say, oh, gosh, I don't have anything, can you give me something to write down with? Now, part of the reason why they have the notebook is not only that your tape recorder might break. It also allows you to be writing furiously, supposedly taking notes, but also making notes of that made him uncomfortable, or I can tell there's another story right here, I'm going to come back to it. It allows you to write things down without going, oh, gee, that's really interesting. Because as soon as you put pen to paper in that way, the person's going to stop. You really must always have collected as much information as you can before you go to see the person. In other words, if you can, know where they served, if they had family or friends, you know, overseas that they can tell you about. You want to know about their circumstances. Were they too young to have gone and fought in the war? Did they have or were they old enough to have gone? Know things about their circumstances. I always write down about 10 questions that I would like to get to, knowing full well that you won't be able to go check, check, check, check, you know? Conversations take you in all sorts of wonderful tangents. And you have to follow those tangents. Although, you also have to be brave enough to smile sweetly and say, I'm sorry, could we go back to…? Questions that you can start off with are things like, I know you served as a bombardier in a plane, a B-24. What was one of the hardest things about navigating the B-24 for you? What did you have to remember on those flights? What was the scariest mission you ever had? Who was your best friend in that crew? Who did you write to? That kind of thing. Things that kind of personalize the experience. Try to avoid really wide open-ended questions such as, well, tell me about yourself. Or what do you remember most? Although, after you've had that conversation for a while, you can come to say, well, what do you remember most about that particular mission? What was the most wonderful thing about coming home? What did you do first? What was the best letter you ever received from your girlfriend or your mother? What was the hardest thing? What did you miss most about being home? Those kinds of questions are fairly targeted, but can then open them up to other things.

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Reading from Under a War-Torn Sky

Hello, my name is Laura Elliott, or L.M. Elliott, and this is my first novel, Under a War-Torn Sky, and I'm going to read to you from it on Chapter 8. And if you listen through the whole way, I'd like for you to count how many resistance workers are actually involved in his escape, because it's quite more than you might expect. So Chapter 8.

At this point, Henry has been, his plane has gone down. He's been injured. He's being moved as a prisoner of war from the Swiss, within Switzerland, and they're going to help him escape. Chapter 8.

"Four weeks later, Henry sat, rattling, on a train to Adelboden. The doctors had cut off his cast the previous morning. His ankle was paper white, his calf thin, but his leg had held his weight. He was stiff, but solid.

They had ordered him to internment. Next to Henry sat his escort, an aging Swiss soldier, reading. Had he seemed to Henry to be studiously inattentive? All that identified Henry as a transporting prisoner was a white tag around his wrist. He wore a civilian suit of clothes that had arrived at the hospital for the American consulate.

But Henry hadn't talked again with Uncle Sam about his escape. He had no idea what he was supposed to do. The train had just passed through the city of Thun. Adelboden was only two stops away, at most an hour's worth of travel, maybe two. Henry wiped beads of sweat from his upper lip. A crowd of passengers had boarded at Thun and elbowed their way down the aisle looking for seats. All were already taken. One after another, people lined up, squared their legs to brace against the train swinging, and opened their newspapers.

Henry noticed a delicate pregnant woman enter the car, lugging a hatbox and a small suitcase. She sighed and shielded her round tummy as she tried to slip past the standing passengers, their newspapers and bags. 'What kind of men are they,' thought Henry, 'Who wouldn't give up their seat to this woman?' She obviously didn't feel well.

Henry stood and motioned to her. He looked down at the soldier who assessed the woman and then nodded to Henry. The woman smiled gratefully. It took her a moment to wade through the passengers to him. 'Danke,' she said. As she brushed past him to the seat, she seemed to stagger. She clutched Henry's sleeve and whispered in his ear, "Leave your crutches. Go to the toilet one car back." Then the woman sat down with a plop and 'Tut mir leid,' to the Swiss soldier.

Had Henry heard right? The words had been breathed so quietly. Had he imagined it? He stood, hesitant, swaying with the motion of the train. A small foot began to nudge his. He looked down. It was the woman's. He must have heard right.

He leaned over and said to the soldier, 'Toilet?' He pointed to the back of the car. The soldier grunted, annoyed, and closed his book. As he started to get up, the woman piled her hatbox and suitcase onto her knees. The soldier would practically have to pole vault to get out into the aisle. He scowled and waved Henry on. 'Schnell,' he ordered. Henry nodded. He'd hurry, all right. Henry lurched down the aisle to the back door of the train car. He opened it to wind and racket. He watched trees and scrub whisk past. He'd break his leg all over again if he tried to jump.

He opened the next car door, passed a row of private sleeping compartments, and found a narrow toilet door at the very end of the car. It was open just a crack. As Henry approached, the door swung open. A fat, middle-aged man pressed past. Henry slipped into the tiny bathroom. He only had to wait a moment before an envelope slid under the door.

Hands shaking, Henry opened it. Inside was a ticket to Montreux, plus a note. It read: 'The train will stop in 10 minutes. Remain in the toilet until you feel the brakes. Step off the train quickly. Walk into the station. Cross the street to Cafe Spiez. Destroy this note.'

Henry reread it three times, memorizing the sparse 34 words. He tore the note into bits, ripped off his wrist tag, and flushed them down the toilet. He crammed the ticket into his pants pocket. Squeak! Henry fell against the bathroom wall as the train began to brake. He took a deep breath and walked out.

People were crowding at the back door onto the black steps between train cars. Henry lost himself among them and quickly hopped to the ground as the train stopped moving. Keep your head, now, Henry steadied himself. Don't look around like you're lost. Walk like you know exactly where you're going. He spotted a pair of Swiss soldiers idly propped up against the wall, watching the push and hurry of passengers. Henry stepped beside an older couple to block himself from view. He entered the small station through ornate doors, passed rows of wooden benches, and emerged on the other side.

Across the way was Cafe Spiez, its doors open to the warming spring air. Waiters were setting tables outside for lunch. Henry's heart was pounding in his head, but so far, so good. He checked for traffic and jogged across the street, limping only slightly. Where to now?

A waiter looked up as he smoothed out a tablecloth and fussed at Henry. 'Schon wieder spat! Ab in die Kuche. Schnell!' Henry had no idea what the man was saying, but he could tell it was part of some playacting. He fought the instinct to look back over his shoulder to make sure the waiter wasn't really talking to somebody else.

Henry skittered into the cafe. There was a huge curved bar inside, its wooden grain carefully polished and shining. On the back wall, large beveled mirrors reflected the scene outside. A thick, bald man stood behind the bar. Several people sat at the scattered tables. At the sight of Henry, the bartender slammed his fist to the counter and threw up his hands. He hurled a torrent of angry words at Henry. He came out from behind the bar to hustle Henry through swinging doors to the kitchen.

Hastily, the man yanked off Henry's coat and wrapped a huge white apron around him. 'Off tie,' he whispered in English to Henry. 'Up sleeves.' Henry ripped off his tie and handed it to the man. He rolled up his sleeves. When the man shoved him toward a huge sink full of steaming water, Henry understood. He was to appear as if he were kitchen help, late arriving. He must need to blend in for a while before catching the train to Montreux. Henry nodded. He stuck his arms deep into the soapy water and began scrubbing. 'No speak,' was the man's final gruff instruction before he disappeared. Henry could feel the eyes of two old cooks on him. He tried not to look back.

Waiters began to drift in and out, pinning scraps of paper on a board and barking orders at the cooks. The griddle sizzled with fat sausage. With a heart-stopping thump, the doors into the kitchen flew open and crashed against the walls. The soldiers Henry had seen at the train station entered and slowly scanned the room. His hospital escort accompanied them. Henry stared down into the soapsuds and tried not to panic. Surely the old guard would recognize him.

He stepped away from the sink and rubbed his face with his hands to shield it. Maybe he could slip out the back. Was there a back door? Henry bumped into one of the waiters who shoved him brusquely toward the sink and yelled at him. 'Zuruck zur Arbeit!' Henry gaped at the man. Did he really expect an answer? Henry had no idea what he was saying. The man shook his head and continued angrily, 'Dummkopf!' He shoved Henry's hands back into the water. Every inch of Henry screamed for him to run, to fly. But there was something about the waiter's urgency. It's part of the ruse, Henry. Get a grip.

Henry nodded, trying to look as subservient and stupid as possible. He kept his hands in the water to hide their shaking. The soldiers began to circle the room. They paused by each man, waiting for the hospital escort to look him over and shake his head, no, nein. They were getting closer. Closer. Henry quivered from head to foot. 'Guten Tag.' The soldiers stood beside him. Henry bit his lip to keep from answering. He didn't speak German. He simply bowed his head to these army superiors and continues washing dishes as if his life depended on it, because surely it did.

The waiter who had shoved Henry bellied up again to talk to the soldiers. He pointed to Henry and unleashed another flood of abuse. 'Ein idiot' the man called him. His voice was loud, agitated, dismissive. The soldiers smirked and laughed. They strolled away. Only his train escort lingered beside the sink. Henry couldn't help it. He looked up and caught the old guard's eye. The guard gave a slight nod of his head and then just walked away. 'Nein, nein. Nichts,' he said to the soldiers, holding his arms up in a shrug.

So his train escort had been in on his escape all along! Relief made Henry's vision grow black, speckled with dancing white dots as the soldiers left the room. An arm steadied him. The bartender had appeared with a tray full of dirty dishes. "Wash," he muttered. 'One hour.' The hour felt like a day. Finally, the lunch dishes stopped appearing, and the cooks took a break. Only then did the bartender reappear.

He motioned Henry to follow him to the men's room. Henry was given an elegant double-breasted tweed suit, hat and well-polished shoes. He was also handed a copy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloise.

The bartender opened the book to page 100. False identity papers were tucked between the pages. Henry was to be Gaston, a student of the University of Geneva. A girl awaited Henry in the cafe. When she smiled, Henry recognized her as the pregnant woman, no longer pregnant. She too was clad in a sophisticated suit. 'Viens, cheri,' she continued in French, something about saying goodbye. She slipped her arm through his and sauntered toward the train station.

As a bus blew by on the street, belching smoke and backfiring, she whispered in English, "Board the train. Stay in the aisle where you can move if you need to. You will be met in Montreux. Once there, make sure the book is visible." The very same guards who had searched the cafe loitered by the awaiting train. Surely they would see him.

Now she spoke to Henry in German, something about his journey. They reached the platform. As he pulled out his ticket and papers to show the conductor, the girl embraced him passionately. Her lips caught his for a long kiss. Then, just as abruptly, she shoved him away and slapped him playfully with her white gloves, saying, 'Auf, geh heim.'

She turned to walk toward the soldiers who had begun to approach Henry. Henry hurried up the steps, passed the inspection of the conductor and threw himself into the seat just as the train began to roll away from the station.

Through a window, he could see the girl laughing and talking with the soldiers. Henry felt breathless from the secretive whirlwind of the day's events, the multitude of unannounced players. He'd been handled, just like a hot potato. He was a package no one wanted to be caught holding."

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