• Karen Henry Clark

I Knew Nancy Would Find a Way

Nancy Pearl Writes a Novel, Among Other Things

Fair warning: Nancy and I have been friends for 35 years, give or take. If you think that will influence my remarks about George & Lizzie, you’re right. Without a doubt.

In the late 1980s, I worked with Nancy in a Tulsa bookstore. She was the impressive manager who knew each book right down to the cover’s typeface and color. I must have had a job description, but I only remember wandering the store with a feather duster, tidying shelves and table tops.

One afternoon Susie Hinton, as in S.E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders, entered and browsed fiction. We stared, starstruck, imagining what it would be like to be an author.

“I wouldn’t know how,” Nancy whispered, “but you would.”

“Me? No. But you should,” I whispered back.

I knew Nancy would find a way.

Eventually my husband and I moved to Wisconsin. Nancy moved to Washington to begin the Seattle Public Library’s Center for the Book. She admitted to me that she had no idea what to do.

“Maybe you don’t right now, but you will,” I assured her.

I knew Nancy would find a way.

And you don’t have to live in Seattle to understand what she accomplished. She and I once walked through the city and were frequently stopped by people who wanted pictures with her. A young man called her name from a bus window, waving the book he was reading. I accompanied her to a Girl Scout luncheon where she was the keynote speaker. She related the time she accidently locked herself in the bathroom of her hotel room and immediately thought: What would Nancy Drew do? The audience roared and roared again when she explained a handy nail file freed her.

In 2011 she came to St. Paul, where we lived then, to deliver a series of library lectures. As we drove through Minneapolis, she explained her idea for a scene in an airport where a woman heard the name of an old love announced over the loudspeaker and had to decide if she’d go to that gate to see if it was her Jack.

I couldn’t shake that pivotal moment, the kind of character decision to keep a book club talking way past midnight.

In 2012 when I stayed with Nancy for several days, I never got accustomed to the “thud-thump” of boxes being delivered. Everyone connected to publishing wants a tweet, a review, a mention from her, so dozens of books arrived daily. I pestered her again about the airport scene, but she didn’t know the outcome yet. When she asked if I’d like to read other scenes from her possible novel, I couldn’t believe my luck. She apologized, as she stacked random pages beside me. They were so disjointed I couldn’t find a story line, but they were individually wonderful.

I knew Nancy would find a way.

Eventually she emailed the entire first draft to me. I remarked on what I enjoyed or loved or admired, but I didn’t believe that a smart girl like Lizzie would undertake the Great Game.

“Clues are missing,” I insisted. “I couldn’t write an essay to convincingly explain why she sabotages herself.”

Her next draft clarified the horror of a childhood lived on the graph paper of her dispassionate parents.

I’ve avoided reading reviews of George & Lizzie. I already knew some would love it and some wouldn’t. When I attended Nancy’s author event in October at an Ohio library, I was not surprised by the first question. A woman wanted to know about Lizzie’s obsession with Jack and if that applied to Nancy’s life experience, too.

“Doesn’t everyone have a Jack?” Nancy asked.

In a room of attentive listeners, there’s a respectful quiet, and then there’s a bottom-falling-out silence. You heard that tree fall without being in the forest. Two women in front of me gave each other a look. They knew their answers.

That’s the value of certain friends.

And that’s the value of certain novels.

By page 2 of George & Lizzie, we know the significant problem: a broken heart that “still showed no signs of mending, though months had passed.” Years later that crack had only deepened, constantly carved by Lizzie’s own hand. Hardly a romantic light read, we eventually understand how much is at stake as Lizzie either disastrously under thinks or exhaustingly over thinks every moment of her life.

Through wit and wonder, the novel illustrates no dependable map exists for relationships. We arrive fully loaded with blueprints from our parents, whether we recognize it or not. Adjusting those plans is a struggle, as we pivot from one strategy to another. Battles erupt without notice. Every truce is broken. Neutral territories shift. Heaven forbid there’s an elephant in the barracks. With luck, someone waves a white flag, not in surrender, but in acceptance.

And guilt is the deadliest ammunition of all, no matter which way the barrel points.

I’ve read this novel three times, in one form or another. Something new always emerges. Currently, I’m struck by George, the last man standing in the triangle, who “had one seemingly impossible desire, which was to do a standing backflip….He just wanted to be free of gravity for a few short seconds, launching himself into the space behind him and then returning to his normal existence.”

Who doesn’t yearn for a chance to flip free?

For me, steady yet baffling George is the quiet hero. The cemetery scene caught me off guard the first time I read it. I cried. Even though I knew it was coming in subsequent readings, I let myself cry again. I needed to feel the tenderness of that man helping a child flip free, however briefly, of her paralyzing gravity. I wouldn’t skip over it to spare myself.

That is the hallmark of fine writing. Friend or not.

I knew Nancy would find a way.

Karen Henry Clark writes sporadically about life’s resonating moments, however small or large, in “Margin Notes” at karenhenryclark.com. Her picture book Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale was published by Alfred A. Knopf. She lives with her husband and adorable rescue dog in Milan, Ohio.