I owe a debt of thanks to Donald Trump. His campaign rhetoric helped inspire parts of my new middle-grade novel, The Courage Test (Macmillan).
No book is written in isolation. There is always a personal and historic context, and it’s only natural for outside influences to leak into any manuscript. For this book, Donald Trump — as the emergent Republican frontrunner for the presidency of the United States — became the inescapable buzz and background to my thoughts.
Back in early 2015, I set out to write the story of William Meriwether Miller, a 12-year-old boy who travels with his father along parts of the Lewis & Clark Trail. They drive, hike, backpack, and paddle through some of the most beautiful parts of America. Along their trip, they experience new places, new people, and (we hope!) gain new insights into themselves and each other.
Young Will’s experience parallels that of the original quest of Lewis & Clark and the “Corps of Discovery,” explorers who sought the Northwest Passage, the hoped-for water passageway from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. The more I learned about that expedition, the more fascinated I became. I’d accidentally hit upon a rich pathway into the American soul. The scope of the book shifted under my feet. The Trail was no longer merely convenient metaphor; it became essential fact, a way into the messy heartland. So the book also became an expression of my awe at the exploration made by Lewis & Clark from 1804-06. Theirs was a military journey into uncharted territory — the old maps employed that great phrase, “Parts Unknown,” to label vast areas — the first epic and fateful push west that came to define the American pioneering impulse, for better and for worse. It was a story of discovery and nation-making, of personal bravery and perseverance, of ignorance and arrogance. Most profoundly, their exploration inevitably precipitated the cruel clash of cultures between the American government and the indigenous people who had lived on that land for centuries.
And so I set a father and son wandering along that same path to discover parts unknown. They learn something of themselves, but also this: that we are forever remaking our nation in a thousand different ways. How we respect the land, how we treat each other. Each day, we define ourselves anew. The idea of America is not fixed in time. It is a fluid, ever-changing thing.
Lewis & Clark are guiding spirits that haunt Will’s journey. The other specter that haunted my writing journey, if you will, was Donald Trump. I was hearing his words on a daily basis. And it struck me that what he represented seemed to strike against the spirit of this nation’s core. He boasts about building a great wall, he stokes fear and distrust of immigrants, he promises deportations. On the day of his campaign announcement, June 15, 2015, Trump said:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
And Trump promised:
“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me —and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
He hasn’t stopped denigrating people since. Just yesterday calling the Somali immigrants of Minnesota a “disaster” for the state. It is one thing to lead a thoughtful discussion about immigration standards and practices; it is something altogether different, and more hateful and fear-mongering, to broadly disparage a culture and a community of immigrants living in our country. It’s also counter-productive.
In The Courage Test, I weave in details throughout the book that echo and mirror the explorers’ original experiences (an incident with a bear, adventures in the rapids, encounters with the Nez Perce tribe, etc). To cite one example: protagonists in both time periods meet up with a vulnerable, pregnant 15-year-old girl. For Lewis & Clark, her name was Sacagawea. She grew up with the Shoshones and was kidnapped by the Hidatsa tribe at roughly age ten. A few years later she was sold to a fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau, who made her his wife. Sacagawea famously joined Lewis & Clark on their journey to the sea. Correspondingly, in the main narrative, Will and his father meet Maria Rosa, also 15 and pregnant. It is strongly intimated that Maria came into the United States illegally from Mexico, a runaway seeking a new life.
To me, it became very important how Will and his father responded to this girl. Because it would not only reveal their character, but it would say something about America, at least a vision of America in which I still believe. In that sense the book became in part my response to Donald Trump. A story about morality, and compassion, and the courage to face the coming challenges with open, generous hearts.
THE COURAGE TEST is a 2016 JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION.
“Preller traverses both domestic drama and adventure story with equally sure footing, delivering the thrills of a whitewater rafting accident and a mama bear encounter, and shifting effortlessly to the revelation of Mom’s illness and the now urgent rapprochement between Dad and Will. Whatever young explorers look for on their literary road trips, they’ll find it here. — The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.
“Preller stirs doses of American history into a first-rate road trip that does traditional double-duty as plot device and coming-of-age metaphor. Will is initially baffled and furious at being abruptly forced to accompany his divorced father, a history professor, on a long journey retracing much of the trail of Lewis and Clark. The trip soon becomes an adventure, though, because as the wonders of the great outdoors work their old magic on Will’s disposition, his father and a Nez Perce friend (who turns out to be a Brooklyn banker) fill him in on the Corps of Discovery’s encounters with nature and native peoples. Also, along with helping a young runaway find a new home, Will survives a meeting with a bear and a spill into dangerous rapids — tests of courage that will help him weather the bad news that awaits him at home.”—Booklist, Starred Review
“A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama..” — School Library Journal.