Wenatchee author pens books amid Rwandan genocide
Thursday, June 14, 2012View full version
WENATCHEE — Mary Mendenhall penned her first book, “Michael and the Ice Princess,” by candlelight in a tin-roofed cottage on the Ugandan border. Six miles away, the Rwandan genocide spread town to town, killing hundreds of thousands.
At one point, more than 10,000 refugees arrived in the 1,500-person village Kisoro where the Wenatchee musician lived. Waves of sickness, whispers of violence and an impending sense of fear seeped into her handwritten notes.
Mendenhall flew to Uganda with her three children two months before the genocide broke out in 1994. For six years, her family was among about 10 foreigners doing humanitarian work in the border town. When the village went dark at night, she worked on “Michael and the Ice Princess” over a six-month period in 1995.
The story itself had nothing to do with Africa; it’s a fairy tale set in medieval Europe about an orphaned girl cursed with constant coldness, who goes on an epic journey to find her origins. Mendenhall originally wrote the story as a 10-page Christmas present to her fiancé. In Uganda, she rewrote it as a novel based the medieval mystics, a collection of writings from early Christian philosophers from the Middle Ages.
“I’m in Uganda, I’m reading the mystics, especially John of the Cross, and I’m thinking this is really good stuff but it’s difficult. It’s very technical in a poetic sense,” Mendenhall said. “I’m reading this in exasperation saying, ‘Somebody needs to write a story!’ It was like a big tap on my shoulder, I thought, ‘Well what about Michael and the Ice Princess.’ It’s the vehicle.”
Mendehall seamlessly wove teachings from the 16th-century texts into dialogue and themes. For the setting, all she had to do was observe the Ugandan town she lived in.
“When some people write medieval fantasy, you could tell it’s coming from a cereal box cover,” she said. “When you see people hunting for firewood, people who struggle to buy meat but once a month, when you’re living in it, it’s a whole different world.”
When Mendenhall came back to the United States in 2000, she was already working on her second book, set against the Rwandan genocide. It’s about an Irish-Mexican man who travels to East Africa as a project developer and gets embroiled in the political turmoil and genocide facing the country.
She finished it in January and she’s searching for a publisher. Her first book is available at Amazon.com.
The project took 15 years in part because “it was just too close,” she said. “Some of the violent spots in the book I had to put off until my imagination and psyche could handle it.”
Mendenhall didn’t feel threatened by the violence until 1998, when a group of militants crossed the Rwandan border, invaded Kisoro and cut all of the telephone wires.
“We had to run up into the hills with everyone else,” Mendenhall said. “Each kid had a day pack with their passports and a change of clothes. It was very much part of the story.”
She also spent several years interviewing witnesses in Uganda and researching at universities overseas and in the U.S. She said the book is equal parts memoir, pure fiction and wishful thinking.
She titled it, “The Wrong Side of Eternity: A Present Day Passion” because of the suffering that’s chronicled, but she also dedicates a huge part of the book to humor and hope.
“People are still dancing, they’re getting married, they’re still learning and growing and that’s what makes it tolerable,” she said. “It’s not a book about genocide, it’s a book about people. Anytime you can paint the people in three dimensions, it’s a story worth telling.”
Rachel Hansen: 664-7139