Friday, April 18, 2008

Welcome M.P. Barker!

Today and next Tuesday, Marissa and I are thrilled to welcome a sister classmate from the Class of 2k8, M.P. Barker. Her YA novel, A Difficult Boy, is available NOW! I’ve had the pleasure of reading it. If you like characters you can’t forget, a setting that scoops you up and makes you feel at home some place and time you’ve never been, and a story that tugs at your heart, you’ll love this book! But why am I talking? Let’s let M.P. tell you all about it.

Nineteen Teen (NT): What inspired you to write this story?

MP: The story was inspired by an 18th-century bill that I was cataloging at the archives where I work. It was sent by a runaway indentured boy’s master to the boy’s mother, charging the mother for the cost of chasing the kid down, court costs, and the value of the boy’s lost work time. I started wondering—what made the boy run away? What kind of a nasty guy might the master be? Why was he so set on getting the kid back that he hired people to help him? How was the mom going to pay that bill? The boy turned into Ethan and the master turned into Mr. Lyman, and the situation in the document became the scenario for the story. (Oddly enough, though, in the final version of the book, nobody actually ended up running away.)

NT: You're amazingly qualified to have written this book. Tell us something about your experience as a history professional.

MP: Amazing? Thanks! I majored in English and History in college — those two great “do-you-want-fries-with-that” majors, then I got an MS in Historic Preservation, which combined architectural history and social history. When I was in grad school, we had a running joke that any building that was such a jumble of styles that you couldn't figure it out was in the "eclectic vernacular" style. That’s the perfect description of my work experience.

The job I loved the most was at Old Sturbridge Village, a re-created 1830s New England town with people in costumes demonstrating daily life from that era. I got to dress in funny clothes, play in the mud, set things on fire, learn obsolete crafts, cook and eat weird food, play with animals, sing, dance, ride in carriages, and pretty much live in this whole fantasy world of 19th-century New England — except with behind-the-scenes flush toilets. While I was there, I worked on a research project to create a Yankee peddler character who would wander around the Village telling stories and showing off his wares — that research inspired the character of Jonathan Stocking in A Difficult Boy.

NT: We write about girls in the English upper classes, and you've written about boys in working class America...very different places and social classes despite the era we share. Are there any common threads you can pick out about teen life between them?

MP: One common thread would be limitations — although limitations of a vastly different sort. Ethan and Daniel are confined by legal agreements and debt. Because they’re indentured, they’re stuck working for a harsh master with little chance to appeal their situation. Your upper-class English girls are constrained in a different way by expectations of class and propriety. One of the biggest differences is that if Ethan and Daniel can stick it out to the end of their terms of indenture, they’ll have more freedom as young men in America than a nineteenth century woman would have.

NT: How do you think teens then and teens now differ or resemble each other?
MP: I think that 19th-century teens—at least those not of the upper class--were expected to be more self-reliant than teens now, because they were forced to take on a lot of responsibility at a fairly early age. Rural kids started working as young as five, helping out on their family’s farms, and kids that young were often apprenticed or hired out to work for neighbors or in shops. Girls would work alongside their mothers, learning how to manage a household and how to supplement their family’s income by sewing shoe uppers or braiding straw for hats or knitting clothes or doing all sorts of little jobs that might bring in money to the family (contrary to popular myth, men weren’t the only breadwinners back then!).

But like teens today, 19th-century teens liked to hang out with their friends, go to parties and dances, and shock their parents with sexy new dances like the waltz. Most dances of the time involved couples dancing in squares or lines, much like contradances and square dances today. You might start and end with the same partner, but you’d dance with many other gentlemen and ladies as well, so it was really a group social activity—you could flirt, but there wasn’t much opportunity for prolonged contact. In the waltz, the man held the woman shockingly close, and didn’t release her until the end of the song, so the social element of the dance was replaced with something more personal and sexually charged. In a 19th century etiquette book, Madame Celnart warned that "the waltz is a dance of quite too loose a character, and unmarried ladies should refrain from it altogether.” Just like today, parental disapproval was guaranteed to make a song or dance wildly popular with teens.

NT: How can readers learn more about your books?
MP: They can go to my website at, where they can find the first chapter, FAQs, a discussion guide, and more.

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