The Stars in April by Peggy Wirgau
Featured on the podcast, The Word With An Inquisitive Booknerd
The Stars in April by Peggy Wirgau
Genre: Historical fiction
Release date: March 27, 2021
The Word With An Inquisitive Booknerd
In her new young adult book, The Stars in April, author Peggy Wirgau skillfully uses words to paint her imagination around historic facts of the notoriously tragic Titanic event. The debut novel seamlessly stitches together fiction and history as the author perceives the infamous voyage through the eyes of real-life passenger Ruth Becker, who was just 12 years old when she boarded the ship in April 1912. Ruth is a dreamer and a stargazer, but she doesn’t exactly perceive her upcoming trip on the big ship as a thrill ride.
The girl is traveling from her home in India, where she is somberly leaving behind a best friend and her Papa, who is not going with his family to America. Ruth’s adventures begin by train before she, her mother, and two younger siblings board the British ocean liner—the grand and “unsinkable” Titanic. Ruth displays her encyclopedic knowledge of astronomy throughout the book, skillfully connecting the dots to identify starry patterns such as Argo Navis, the “ship constellation.” But most significantly, the stars provide for Ruth a connection to her father: Papa told me we would see the same stars even though I was far from home, because I would still be in the northern latitudes.
Timeless coming-of-age elements carry the story as Ruth juggles a flurry of juvenile emotions—that dreaded feeling of homesickness, the invisible bonds of friendship, an uncertain excitement over a new crush. Ruth’s adolescent ups and downs move artfully through the narrative along with the young girl’s purview of the scenery, happenings, and people around her. Vicariously through Ruth, the reader gets to experience the nuances of early 20th-century transportation, subtle but rich hints of Indian culture (I can practically smell the curry), and even a traveling circus replete with swinging trapezists and performing monkeys!
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In my podcast interview with author Peggy Wirgau, she and I discuss the challenges the editorial process serves up in drafting a full-length manuscript such as hers, in particular the many rounds of editing required before The Stars in April was deemed print-worthy. (And, here, I offer full disclosure: I am a contributing editor on this project, so I executed some of those rounds.) And this, friends, is what makes all of that editing worthwhile:
This is a well-researched and well-paced title. Back matter includes a bibliography, family photos of the Becker family, and additional information about the Titanic survivors. Verdict: This historical novel moves quickly and shares a little slice of the ever-fascinating subject of the Titanic. A winner. —excerpted from School Library Journal
The book’s back matter also includes a section that outlines the constellations of North America. Intermittent chapters in The Stars in April each end with a note in Ruth’s “handwriting”—fictional diary entries, letters to India, and detailed “Sky Reports.” The brief but often florid reports record in detail Ruth’s astronomical (literally) observations of the lights that lyrically dapple the night: Tonight, a gigantic black canopy hangs high above me, covered in stars. The stars are like a full orchestra. Each instrument, no matter how insignificant it may appear, plays a role in the production of a great symphony. Each star over my head forms part of a constellation, telling a story against a black velvet canvas.
And on that note, I end here with my own Sky Report: The Lyrid meteor shower is expected to climax late night/early morning of April 21–22, 2021, as shooting stars will spray their sparkling dust across the sky. I imagine it will be quite the display (up to 18 meteors per hour, so they say), and I’ll be watching—not from a city rooftop, where I like to climb out sometimes to bathe in the rays of a pink moon in spring. Instead, I’ll likely embark on a short trek just to the edge of Maryland’s Eastern Shore to a favorite cornfield, where the sky isn’t littered with artificial light pollution, so I can secure a clearer view of the stars in April.