Told sensitively and with personal insight, Ruth Eastham’s debut children’s novel, The Memory Cage, explores both the loss of memories through Alzheimer’s disease and the conflict of identity as a result of expatriation and adoption. Alex is a thirteen-year-old boy brought to England by his adoptive family during the Yugoslav Wars. Suppressing his internal conflict, Alex creates a ‘memory cage’ scrapbook to help his grandad recover the memories he’s lost to Alzheimer’s. Now the book is available as a brand-new edition, we spoke to Ruth about the inspiration behind the book, issue-based novels and some of the story's key themes.
The Memory Cage was your debut book, what inspired you to write it?
Just like Grandad’s portfolio of photographs in the book, it was a collection of war images that set the idea moving. All of my novels since have been inspired by real life events, and I’ve always found photos really powerful starting points for ideas. I also wanted to explore memories and their effects. I imagined a refugee boy from a modern day war zone with a past he’s trying to forget; his Grandad in the first stages of Alzheimer’s, struggling with memory loss. My own Grandad had the illness and I felt I could bring that personal emotion to the story.
Many popular children's books deal with hard-hitting issues such as Lisa Williamson's The Art of Being Normal and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. Why did you choose to focus on difficult subjects such as refugee children from conflict zones, Alzheimer's and adoption?
I believe that there are few limits on the themes that can be explored in children’s books, so long as the stories are handled sensitively, and that it’s important not to shy away from issues. I didn’t consciously set out to write about adoption or Alzheimer’s as such, but these naturally became part of the novel. Whatever the issues though, storytelling is ultimately about finding a compelling story with characters you really care about.
The scrapbook Alex created for Grandad is way of protecting Grandad's memories – and could even be thought of as a way of conserving Grandad's younger self before his Alzheimer's took over. The scrapbook itself could be seen as a kind of ‘memory cage’. For you, what does the book’s title The Memory Cage refer to?
I’m often asked about the title, and it’s really interesting to hear the different interpretations. Alex wants to ‘trap’ Grandad’s memories for him as he sees it as a way of combating the Alzheimer’s and helping Grandad keep his self identity. You might say too that both Alex and Grandad are trapped by traumatic parts of their pasts that they have locked away and daren’t let free. We could maybe think of all our minds as types of memory cages, couldn’t we? A place where we store up our experiences, whether positive or negative. Do we make a cage for the memories we want to remember, or the ones we want to try and forget? It’s an intriguing question!
Alex and Granddad seem to be drawn to each other for a number of reasons – they've both experienced war, both are suppressing painful memories and they are both outsiders among their family. Is Alex's mission to help Grandad recover his memories a way of helping himself to be accepted by his adoptive family? Alex's brother in particular is much kinder towards him once Alex shows the family the scrapbook.
Yes, Alex and his grandad are very close, but I think Alex’s disconnection from his adoptive family is a lot to do with the unresolved issues inside himself. He distances himself, and in turn his family seem less caring than they are in reality. Leon isn’t the loving brother he should be, but he has issues of his own, and it’s ultimately his unhappiness and immaturity, I think, that makes him act the way he does towards Alex. Alex is desperate to keep his promise to Grandad, to stop him being put in a home, and the scrapbook is the only way he can think of to try and combat the Alzheimer’s. Subconsciously, though, as Grandad says later, by focusing on someone else’s past, Alex avoids having to face his own demons.
Do you think the scrapbook helps Alex come to terms with who he is? He's been through so many changes at such a young age – moving countries, being adopted, experiencing another culture, going from a war-torn environment to suburban England.
I think the scrapbook is a big turning point in Alex’s life, yes. It brings out truths that will first divide the family, and then help them to connect in a way they never could before. The scrapbook – and more importantly the journey to the truth it takes Alex on as he creates it – will be the trigger for him to face what happened to him and who he is now.
Following the release of The Memory Cage, did you receive letters or comments from readers who had experienced similar issues to those addressed in the book?
Yes. I’m very touched when readers, adults as well as children, write to me about the connections they made between the book and their own families’ experiences. Their letters are often very moving, and you sense that as a writer, in some small way, the stories you create can reach out to people. It feels a real privilege.
Roman invaders, a Celtic warrior queen, spooky sisters and a deadly adversary ... Ahead of the publication of Ruth Eastham's new book, The Warrior in the Mist, we caught up with her to talk about ancient folklore, current issues and literary techniques.
The Warrior in the Mist is an intriguing title. Do you prefer titles that don't give too much of the story away? Why did you settle upon this one?
For me, the title The Warrior in the Mist, is full of mystery and intrigue. I love titles that raise more questions than they answer. Who is the warrior in the story? Some might say it’s the warrior Queen Boudicca who makes her ghostly appearances. But could the warrior also be Aidan, fighting for his home and his horse, or his eco-warrior friends Emmi and Jon? I’ll leave the reader to draw their own conclusions!
Fracking is a major issue in the UK, particularly in the north of England. Why did you decide to write a children's novel about it? Do you find this is a topic that comes up in the schools you visit? It must be an issue you know a lot about being from the north west of England yourself.
Yes, fracking stirs up plenty of heated debate. Though I don’t go heavy on the technicalities, I wanted to find a really up-to-date controversial issue of how land is used, besides the usual building of new runways or motorway bypasses! Would you believe in the past I was told by one publisher that fracking would be a flash-in-the-pan issue and that it wasn’t a good idea to put it in a book! On a regular basis, the controversy about fracking hits the headlines. There are lots of plans to frack in the north of England, near where I’m from, with more projects being approved all the time nationally. The truth is there are vast amounts of energy locked deep in Britain’s rocks and a lot of people are worried about the environmental impacts of extracting it. Are the anti-fracking claims exaggerated? Whatever your viewpoint, I think that the fracking issue will be with us for a very long time to come, and, as far as I know The Warrior in the Mist is the very first children’s/teen book to have fracking in the story!
What fascinates you about Queen Boudicca and does she have any connections to the area where you grew up? Do young people learn about the warrior queen at school? Will her story resonate with them?
Boudicca is so iconic, isn’t she? A legendary figure. Theories about her abound. Where was the last battle with the Romans fought? What really did happen to her and her daughters when the Celts were finally defeated? The only written accounts about her are sketchy, and only by Roman historians, so we’re unlikely to be getting a very balanced version of the reality! The fascinating fact is that nobody really knows the truth, and that gave me scope to really use my imagination for The Warrior in the Mist ... But if the tomb of Boudicca turns up anytime soon, I might be in trouble!
Boudicca's emblem, the hare, has paradoxical connotations in folklore. In paganism hares are a symbol of rebirth, good fortune and fertility. But they have also been associated with madness, witchcraft and ill-omen. What do you like about them?
Hares have long been associated with Boudicca. One intriguing story is it that she released a hare from the folds of her tunic at the start of battle, to invoke help from the goddess of victory. When the hare went off running in a certain direction her tribe were convinced they would win! Yes, that paradox surrounding hares really drew my interest. Like you say, in pagan times they were revered as magical and bringers of good luck. It was only later on that our poor hare got demonised. Their magical reputation for appearing by moonlight and vanishing into thin air became something sinister, associating them with devils and evil spirits to the superstitious folk of the time. I often catch site of hares in my travels around the Fens. Watching this beautiful and fascinating creature, for me it’s easy to see where the original mystique came from.
Is this book spookier than anything else you've written before?
The unquiet spirit of a Viking boy in my book Arrowhead was pretty spooky I thought, and the past definitely haunts scenes in The Jaguar Trials… I love creating ghostly goings-on, exploring what happens when the past seeps into the present and upsets the equilibrium… And yes, The Warrior in the Mist is definitely up there on the supernatural scale!
Ruth Eastham here, and I’d love to tell you about my new book, The Warrior in the Mist.
When land on the Carrus estate where his dad works is leased to a fracking company, Aidan is set to lose his home, his friends, and the horse he loves. But other, ancient, forces are at play, and after the eerie appearance of two phantom girls, Aidan sees his chance… Prove Carrus was the site of the last great battle between Roman invaders and the mighty Queen Boudicca, those two thousand years ago. Get the land the protection it needs. Stop the frackers being allowed anywhere near.
Together with his best mates, Emmi and Jon, Aidan sets out to find Boudicca’s tomb…
But a deadly adversary is on their trail…
Award-winning author and filmmaker Matt Dickinson has announced that Killer Storm, the third and final book in The Everest Files trilogy will be released this August.
The book will be launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday 20 August ahead of the premier of Dickinson’s new play, Everest Calling, which will be performed by the pupils of Glenalmond College, Perth at the Edinburgh Fringe from 21–26 August.
Killer Storm concludes the adventures of teenage explorer Ryan Hart whose dream to summit Mount Everest reaches a dramatic climax as a terror attack sees him held hostage at Base Camp. The book is being published by Shrine Bell, the fiction imprint of Vertebrate Publishing – an independent publisher of adventure and outdoor titles.
Dickinson’s filmmaking career as a director/cameraman for National Geographic television and the Discovery Channel has taken him to some of the most remote corners of the earth – often in the company of the world’s leading expeditioners. Inspired by his 1996 ascent of Mount Everest with actor Brian Blessed, Dickinson’s popular Everest Files series has seen him make appearances at hundreds of high schools across the UK and abroad in a bid to promote literacy and cross-curriculum learning.
Commenting on the release of Killer Storm, Dickinson said, 'Killer Storm marks the end of a fascinating journey for me as a writer. Setting out to create the Everest Files trilogy was a huge challenge for me – almost as big a challenge as summiting Everest itself! During the research phase of the book I travelled twice to Everest to join expeditions in search of inspiration and background. So the project has been the perfect mix of real-life adrenaline on the avalanche-prone slopes of Everest and writing excitement as the three books came together. Now the summit is in sight with the impending publication of Killer Storm and my email inbox is filling up nicely with comments from readers who are eagerly anticipating it! I look forward to launching the book at the Edinburgh Festival this summer!'
The Everest Files trilogy forms the basis of Dickinson’s popular creative-writing programme, the ‘Everest Reading Challenge’, which aims to promote literacy and to open a window on mountain regions and cultures. Now in its fourth year, the scheme is available across the UK, with Matt planning hundreds of appearances at schools and events over the coming months.
Shrine Bell, the new fiction imprint of award-winning publisher Vertebrate Publishing, will release new paperback editions of all four children’s titles by award-winning author Ruth Eastham as part of a deal to sign her latest novel The Warrior in the Mist (Shrine Bell, 7 September, £7.99).
Eastham’s four books will be rereleased with all-new book covers over a six-month period, beginning in June 2017 with The Memory Cage.
The deal was put together by Eastham’s agent, Caroline Walsh, of David Higham Associates, who commented, ‘I’m delighted that dynamic new fiction imprint Shrine Bell is working in collaboration with award-winning author Ruth Eastham to bring her fantastic stories directly to teen readers.’
Vertebrate Publishing’s managing director Jon Barton said, ‘An opportunity to sign such a talented author as Ruth Eastham on a multiple-book deal doesn’t come along very often in a publisher’s career. The quality of her storytelling will be a great boost to youthful enthusiasm that we are developing here at Shrine Bell.’
Eastham’s debut novel, The Memory Cage won the 2012 Coventry Inspiration Book Award (7–11 category) and her second book The Messenger Bird won the 2013 Oldham Brilliant Book Award. Her third title, Arrowhead, was described as ‘absolutely breath-taking’ by Carnegie-Medal-winning author Kevin Crossley-Holland and her fourth book, The Jaguar Trials, was praised by Love Reading 4 Kids, which said it’s ‘a nail-biting read’.
Commenting on her new collaboration with the imprint, Eastham said, ‘I'm absolutely delighted that Shrine Bell are going to re-issue my books. It's fantastic to work with such a dynamic team and a publisher who believes passionately in its authors as well as fiction for young people.’
Eastham joins Matt Dickinson and Sarah Mussi on Shrine Bell’s roster of children’s and YA authors. Find out more about Shrine Bell at www.shrinebell.com.
‘THE EVEREST FILES’ AUTHOR IS BACK ON EVEREST AGAIN THIS YEAR ON A FILMING MISSION. IN THIS SERIES OF BLOGS HE REPORTS BACK FROM THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN ON EARTH!
WHY EVEREST? HOW DID IT ALL BEGIN?
I am often asked at schools where my fascination for Everest began.
The answer is simple. It began with a single book, at my grandfather’s house when I was seven or eight years old. Both my grandfather and my great grandfather had been big readers. There were thousands of books in their houses.
Shortly after my great grandfather died, my grandfather showed me his copy of The Ascent of Everest by John Hunt, the account of the very first epic climb to the summit of the highest peak on earth. I remember being enchanted by the pictures. It seemed such an incredible adventure and I never imagined for a single second that I would follow in the footsteps of Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing to reach that most sacred place.
Later, as I become more interested in climbing and mountaineering, I continued to read more and more books on the theme. I remember finding them in the library of my school when I was about twelve or thirteen years old and devouring them avidly. They were written by great British climbing heroes like Doug Scott and Chris Bonington. I could not imagine that I would one day film some of those great heroes myself for my documentaries!
Reading brought the mountains alive in a way that amazed me. I really felt lost in the stories.
YEARNING TO TRY IT MYSELF
By the time I was fifteen I was getting really keen to try some mountaineering myself. I found ways to get to the Peak District, went rock climbing at the famous Stanage Edge and took long solo treks across the boggy marshland of Kinder Scout. But Everest already had a hold on my mind and I wanted to see it for myself. A gap year journey to the Himalaya followed, only to be interrupted by sickness and running out of money.
But the siren call of the mountain had a hold on me and it was only a matter of time before I would travel to the mountain itself.
One of my great regrets is that my grandfather died before I summited the mountain. I think he, and my great grandfather too, would have been utterly amazed, and probably very proud, to know that someone from their family had reached the top.
Everest has long been a mountain o fascination for me. My journey to the mountain began with a singe book. Photo: Matt Dickinson.
Contemplating Everest from the nearby viewpoint of Kala Pattar. Putting my feet up for once! Photo: Matt Dickinson.
It was my great grandfather's copy of The Ascent of Everest that started my obsession. Photo: Matt Dickinson.
My great grandfather's precious book. Photo: Matt Dickinson.
It was given to him by Kitty, a family friend, at Christmas in 1954, one year after the great ascent happened. Photo: Matt Dickinson.