Amanda Eyre Ward had already finished writing The Same Sky, her moving novel about an 11-year-old Honduran girl attempting to reunite with her mother in the U.S., when the controversy about undocumented minors blew up along the border last summer.
“When I wrote the book, no one was paying any attention to these unaccompanied minors,” Ward says during a call to her home in Austin. “I am so thrilled that these young children at the border are finally being paid attention to.”
The author of four previous novels, including 2005’s How to Be Lost, Ward has a particular talent for revealing the ways in which characters’ lives are touched by larger world events. She traces her interest in immigrant children to a moment when, after three difficult years, she gave up “hammering and hammering away” at a novel that just wasn’t working.
“I put it aside, cried a little, and drank too much chardonnay for a month or so,” she says with a rueful laugh. And then she began reading widely.
A native of New York, Ward has lived in Austin for the better part of 15 years with her husband, a geophysicist at the University of Texas and a fifth-generation Texan. The couple has two sons and a daughter, ages 11, 7 and 2.
Ward’s reading on immigration led her to a meeting with Alexia Rodriquez, who runs shelters along the border.
“I went down to Brownsville with her and stayed at her parents’ house. Because she knew I wanted to write a novel about this, she embraced me. She’s very religious, and she kept saying God has brought you to us so that these children’s stories can be told. She’d go into the shelter cafeteria and ask, who wants to tell this woman your stories? And kids from 5 to 15 years old would raise their hands. They would sit across the table from me and tell their stories about their journeys and their hopes, and Alexia would translate.
“One of the girls was pregnant, and I have friends dealing with various fertility issues, and that night I went to sleep thinking about how these kids were so alone and so courageous, and I woke up in the morning with the whole novel in my head. That’s never happened to me before.”
The Same Sky is not a political novel. Instead, it’s a textured, emotional story that unfolds in alternating chapters told by a Texas woman and an immigrant girl. Alice and her husband Jake own a popular barbecue restaurant in Austin, Texas, but Alice is haunted by her inability to have a child. Carla is a young girl in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, who decides to seek out her mother in the U.S. after her grandmother dies and her life collapses because of poverty and gang violence.
“I wanted Alice and Jake to be the embodiment of the American dream,” Ward says. “They created something for themselves. With that restaurant, they made their own way.” But Alice puts her comfortable life at risk in misguided attempts to control circumstances and avoid dealing with the trauma and disappointment in her life.
“Alice is seeking some sort of solace, some sort of direction to her life, in all the wrong places,” Ward says. “My personal journey and also belief is that you have to just give up control of things like that and remain open to what fulfillment awaits you.”
Surprisingly, Ward says she worked harder on getting Alice’s voice right than Carla’s. The life of the Honduran girl is the polar opposite of the American dream, but, Ward says, “From the very beginning I heard her in first person. I knew that English was not her first language, and I didn’t know how on earth I would justify her speaking English until quite late in the process. But I trusted her story, probably because I had heard so many kids tell me about their journeys. A lot of their stories are about the food they ate or didn’t eat, because their needs are so basic. By the time a lot of them leave their homes, they are starving. They live in fear of being murdered by gang members. So Carla’s voice just came through. That is so rare and amazing that I just went with it.”
For a reader, the suspense in the narrative—the hope versus the dread—lies in our concern about whether or how these two contrasting lives will converge. To bring these characters fully to life, Ward reports that she did a vast amount of research: about South and Central American gang life, about the incredibly dangerous journeys undocumented children make from their homes to the U.S. border, about the East Side of Austin, a rough neighborhood now being gentrified where much of the novel’s action takes place, and even about Texas barbecue.
“Being from New York, I thought barbecue was cubes of meat in barbecue sauce,” she says, laughing. “Here in Texas that’s not what it’s about at all!” As a sort of consolation for an often wrenching storyline, Ward offers readers lip-smacking descriptions of barbecue, as well as vivid descriptions of Austin haunts.
But in the end, Ward returns to her concern for the plight of the children at the border. “These kids are so hopeful that someone will adopt them. They are so open and ready to be loved. They are so faithful, almost in a sense that seems insane. They believe deeply that a great life awaits them. That’s a kind of spiritual capital that a lot of us here in the U.S. are missing.”
As to how The Same Sky will be read in this particular political moment, Ward says she is unsure. “When you watch the news, when you hear the soundbites, I think a lot of people turn away from this very complex issue. I hope this book will help people hear one child’s story.”