The Secret of Clouds by Alyson Richman brings to life the bond between a teacher and student. In the current environment, it is a reminder of how precious a life is even for a fleeting moment. It is a story of hope and the dreams of a young boy who readers will connect with immediately.
The book opens with Sasha and Katya living in the Ukraine. They move to America but discover their young son, Yuri, has a major heart defect caused by the exposure to nuclear radiation. Because of his condition he is not allowed to attend school with other students. Assigned as a home school English teacher, Maggie Topper needs to find a way to connect with Yuri. Realizing Yuri is passionate for baseball she uses it as a teaching tool, having him read the biography of Shoeless Joe. Throughout the book are tidbits of baseball history as well as comparisons between baseball and Yuri’s life.
Although Richman is known for her historical novels, she ventured into the contemporary genre. But she makes sure to include the historical significance of the era by delving into such topics as the Chernobyl disaster, baseball, music, and a mention of the Holocaust. Trying to show Yuri that people always need hope, Maggie has him write a letter to his future eighteen-year-old self. She precedes it by explaining to him how children in the Terezin Concentration Camp wrote poetry and drawings even when starving and freezing. Maggie came to realize that “a teacher’s job is to make children feel safe, to make them believe their ability is boundless…to use their minds-and their imagination-in their darkest hour.” Yuri’s letter and the drawings/poetry of the Holocaust children sparked a creative dialogue where they were able to imagine the possibility of a better life.
This is a heartening tale of the influence a teacher has on a student, but also how a student can impact a teacher. Richman makes people think about the importance of life and how a child born can make such an impression on those adults around him, even for a short time.
Elise Cooper: How did you get the idea for the story?
Alyson Richman: I was at a friend’s house in August who is an elementary school teacher. She mentioned in an off handed manner a project, having her class write an assignment to their eighteen-year-old self. She holds on to the letters and mails it to them when they graduate high school. They address it “from the past with a message for the future.” I was in awe of that assignment.
EC: You related it to this book?
AR: The writer in me questioned if she ever had letters where the student has passed. I found out there were about four or five students. We discussed how holding on to the letter the child felt they had some future and yet it can come to pass that it might not turn out as everybody hoped. She also had a child that died of cancer that got inadvertently mailed by her teaching assistant. I thought how a teacher can be the lifeline for a family to the outside world.
EC: You were known as a historical writer. Did you go cold turkey with this contemporary novel?
AR: Not at all. I made sure that this contemporary family had some historical past. I was influenced by a former Ukraine nurse sitter for my son who lived there during Chernobyl. She told me on the day it happened no one had any idea, and many were sun bathing in the river. Only days later did the Soviet Union admit what happened, but unfortunately a lot of people absorbed so much radiation. Many children were born with cancer, birth defects, or heart problems. I hope I was able to connect the different cultures through books and even food.
EC: It must be nerve-racking for a mother who fears she will outlive her child?
AR: I could not imagine. Yuri’s mom, Katya, desperately wanted to protect her child. Think how worrisome it is for a mother to think her child’s heart could stop beating and not to be able to see any signs. There was this powerful scene in the book where Yuri is sleeping in his crib and she is hovering over him to make sure his chest goes up/down. I interviewed people who had children with rare heart defects and they never wanted to leave their children for even a minute. Another scene has Maggie staying with Yuri so Katya can get some rest. As a mother, I kept thinking Yuri was my child.
EC: Where did the title come from?
AR: I put a sentence in the book, “We have to hope every family has a family cloud that will unite everyone.” It is based on my son saying that to me after my grandmother died. I tried to explain death to him. He wanted to know where she went, how is it she was here one day and gone the next. He looked up to me and said, ‘mommy, I just have to hope there is a family cloud.’ I thought that was so beautiful.
EC: How do you feel about teachers?
AR: This book is a love letter to the beauty of a student/teacher relationship. I wanted to show how teachers leave fingerprints on their students, but also how the student makes an imprint on the teacher. Maggie was able to open up Yuri’s mind and he was able to show her how important it is not to take any day for granted and to live one day at a time. As I look back onto my own life there were teachers who encouraged me to be a writer. They said, when, not if, I will become a writer. They believed in my potential and enriched me.
EC: What was the role of baseball?
AR: In a game anything can change around the corner. Baseball can change on a whim, good and bad. It relates to life, as one thing happens other situations transform.
EC: Are you a fan?
AR: When I was little I was a diehard Yankee fan. My son really loves baseball. He has a boyish wonder and awe of this game. I guess you can say I am a fan indirectly, through my son.
EC: What was the role of music?
AR: In a lot of my books there is a nod to the violin. My daughter and husband play it. I wanted to weave something artful and beautiful that stirs the soul on an artistic level. Where my daughter takes lessons is a luthier, someone who makes and repairs violins. I gave Maggie’s father the backstory of making violins after he retired from his traditional job. I wanted to show my readers you are never too old to learn a new art form. The same can be said of Katya’s background. As a ballet dancer in the Soviet Union I showed the details of what was expected. Hopefully, the sense of beauty that music and dance can bring into our lives will come through. Also, the character Daniel uses his personality to help him with his job. He is a good listener, which enabled him to listen to the notes an orchestra plays and have the parts make a whole.
EC: What do you want readers to get out of the story?
AR: All my novels have a message of being kind to one another as the characters become knitted together. In this book, light was brought into the household. Within a community people could leave a lasting fingerprint on each other.
EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?
AR: It is about a Viet Nam veteran and a Vietnamese child whose lives collide in the 1980s. They helped each other to heal. It will be another contemporary novel with historical significance.