The title of Jeannie Mobley’s exquisite debut novel, Katerina’s Wish, hints tantalizingly at the notion of teenage desires (though teenagers’ desires in a turn-of-the-last-century immigrants’ mining camp were certainly tame by today’s standards, even if girls were betrothed at much younger ages than they are today, thank goodness). I won’t share the thirteen-year-old main character’s wish here. Whether or not she has one, which her younger sister doubts, and whether or not she’ll share it with her family are important parts of the plot and of her personality. No spoilers allowed!
One of the book’s themes, appropriately, is the idea of dreams. Katerina gets two different perspectives from her parents. Do dreams propel us to achieve fantastic goals, such as those of her father, who brought the family from Bohemia to America so he could own his own farm with “acres of green fields?” Or, do dreams “get you hurt,” as Katerina’s mother believes because they’re nearly impossible to achieve, inevitably resulting in disappointment and dead-end detours, like the “dry, barren hills of southern Colorado” where they struggle to live?
This multi-layered book also deals with questions of magic. Does it exist? If so, do we need it to make our wishes come true or can we reach them without magic? And, what is it about that carp that seems to look Katerina directly in the eye just when she most needs help getting past insurmountable hurdles?!
As in other wonderful books for young readers (at least, in those that are not fairy tales), Katerina doesn’t rely solely on wishes, dreams, and magic to reach her goals. She works—hard, by washing and ironing miners’ filthy clothes, and cleverly, by negotiating deals with a tradesman. Nevertheless, she ponders the roles that these forces might play in her life. After all, her hard work takes so much time, it seems to deflect her from her goals, not help her attain them. As a result of Katerina’s curiosity and thoughtfulness about wishes, dreams, and magic, the reader, too, ponders them. And, how clever of Jeannie to wrap these essential conundrums of childhood within such a moving tale!
I don’t know whether or not Jeannie intended to raise semantic issues about the meaning of “wishes” as opposed to that of “dreams.” But, she’s so brilliant and creative that I suspect that every nuance and symbol in Katerina’s Wish was intentional.
The reason I started pondering this theme is that, with her typical insightfulness, Jeannie suggested that I write, during her Launch Week, about another person who had a dream—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered his glorious “I Have a Dream” speech 49 years ago next week. She knew this would be a topic close to my writerly heart since my own debut book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, focuses on civil rights in that city, where Dr. King had rehearsed portions of the speech at mass meetings earlier that spring.
Most of us have listened to it so many times, its refrain echoes in our consciousness. Can’t you hear his resonant voice rising and falling when you read, “I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today”? It is so integral to our memories or, for younger readers, to their knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement that it’s as hard to imagine the Movement without this iconic delivery as it is to imagine it without the popularity of the freedom song “We Shall Overcome.”
But, what if, instead of envisioning his dreams, Dr. King had declared, “I have a wish today?” He might have called out to the 250,000 or so people gathered in front of the Washington Monument on August 28, 1963,
- “I wish that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed ‘…that all men are created equal.’”
- “I wish that one day…the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together…”
- “I wish that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls.”
Somehow, despite the same clarity of the imagery, “I wish” doesn’t ring as resoundingly to me as “I have a dream” does. His dreams were not mere wishing-well tokens. They were fully envisioned scenarios, complete with references to “the red hills of Georgia” and to Mississippi as “a state sweltering with the heat of injustice.” In fact, dreams were the perfect metaphor for Dr. King’s vision because he linked his with “the American dream.”
And, so, without quite explicitly saying it, does Katerina link her wish to the American dream. She lives in a miners’ camp, filled with (though segregated by) an as-yet un-melted pot of Bohemians, Scandinavians, Greeks, and more. Yet, she envisions a place where miners are treated fairly, where they are not taken advantage of at the company store. She turns herself into an entrepreneur. Through both her wishes and her dreams, Katerina embodies the American Dreams of hard work and fair play.
Does she succeed? And, does she need magic? Read the book! Katerina’s story will ring resoundingly, too.