In 1944, 11-year-old Max Larousse has been relocated with her mother (and her ferret, Houdini) to Camp Barkeley in Abilene, Texas, where her father is in charge of a Nazi POW camp. Jewish Max, an aspiring magician, is not at all pleased about it, and she’s got the smart mouth to match her attitude. At least she can practice her illusions on the German prisoners—until several escape after her vanishing act grand finale.
Complete with illustrated “Houdini Presents” guides to Max’s magic tricks, AbrakaPOW is a thrilling blend of adventure and history that middle grade readers will gobble up. The best part is that it’s based on a true World War II story. BookPage contacted author Isaiah Campbell to learn more.
What is the true story that inspired this novel?
It all started when I was an 11-year-old magician in west Texas during World War II. Just kidding. I’m not quite that old.
So, when the United States entered the Second World War, it wasn’t very long before the military realized they would need somewhere to keep all the captured soldiers they were collecting, particularly from the warfront in Africa. In 1942, they decided they should open two POW camps inside the United States to house what they estimated would be a max of 3,000 soldiers (they thought they were overestimating, since the war surely wasn’t going to take THAT long, right?). By the end of the war, there were over 500 POW camps inside the U.S., housing 425,000 POWs (well within the original margin of error, right?). One of those camps was Camp Barkeley, located just outside of Abilene, Texas.
At Camp Barkeley, the 800 POWs comprised two factions of German soldiers, the Anti-Nazis and the Black Hand, who (surprise!) were Nazi loyalists. Obviously, the Anti-Nazi prisoners got along much better with the Americans than did the members of the Black Hand, and eventually the hostility between the two groups grew nearly unbearable. This all came to a head in 1944 when 11 members of the Black Hand dug a tunnel using broken dishes stolen from the mess hall and then scrambled to get to Mexico and, from there, back to the war. The FBI came and assisted the Army in hunting down the POWs, and amazingly, all 11 were recaptured within just a few days without a single shot having to be fired. (I can neither confirm nor deny the involvement of any amateur magicians in this process.)
“I enjoy learning about lives and events that I previously had little knowledge of, because it makes me feel like the Indiana Jones of research. I love to uncover forgotten stories and lost lessons. Plus I rock the fedora and bullwhip like a boss.”
What’s the most interesting thing you discovered while researching these events?
What I found the most fascinating was how well the POWs were treated while they were in the states, especially by the average citizen. The POWs were allowed to get jobs working the farms and factories in the communities, and many of them cultivated friendships with the locals around the country. In fact, there are many examples of these relationships that continued long after the war was over. Some of the POWs even immigrated to the United States because their experience was so positive. Way to be a good host, Uncle Sam!
It’s pretty intense for a young Jewish girl to be performing for Nazi POWs. Why did you decide to write this story, and what do you hope young readers will take away from it?
It really is, isn’t it? This was a story that evolved as I wrote it, and the more I found its center, the more I realized just how intense and scary the themes I was exploring really were. One thing that made me feel like this story could work and inspired me to give it all I had was reading about Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the creators of Captain America. They were both Jewish Americans, and when they created Captain America, they did it as an act of opposition both against Nazi Germany and against the anti-war movement in America. Their bravery and courage in using their talents to change the cultural view of the conflict in Europe really altered the trajectory of history in a big way.
It was that idea that became what is truly the core of AbrakaPOW and the pivot point for Max’s motivations. While she initially is looking to fulfill her selfish ambitions, she eventually realizes that she can be both great (the absolute best at stage magic) and good (using her talents to accomplish something for the betterment of those around her). It’s that sort of mindset I hope readers of this book will take from it, that it isn’t enough to be “the greatest,” you should also strive to be the best you can be for those around you.
Maxine is certainly smart-mouthed and pushy, and can even be a grump, but she’s also headstrong and a clever go-getter. What do you love most about Max?
I think my absolute favorite thing about Max (besides her wisdom in adopting Houdini, the greatest ferret the world has ever known) is when we get to see glimpses of her vulnerability. There are a few moments in the story when she’s scared or sad and stops trying to hide it behind a wall of smoke and mirrors. To me, it’s those moments that prove how strong she really is. In a book that’s all about “things are not quite what they seem,” the magic of Max is that she truly is incredibly strong, even when she’s trembling inside.
What insight do the excerpts from her diary provide?
Since I wrote this book in the third-person voice (as opposed to the first-person voice of my Johnny Cannon books), I had to find a way to make sure that we experienced the world through Max’s own eyes and in her own voice. Especially since Max is all about playing things close to the vest, it was really important to establish that additional layer so that she didn’t seem shallow or less than human. The diary gives us glimpses at her private insecurities, her hidden joys and even her opinions that she might not let most people hear. It also helps keep the timeline of the book on track and builds in a bit of a countdown, which heightens the intensity. I hope. Fingers crossed.
What do you love most about writing historical fiction for young readers?
First and foremost, it’s incredibly self-gratifying. I enjoy learning about lives and events that I previously had little knowledge of, because it makes me feel like the Indiana Jones of research. I love to uncover forgotten stories and lost lessons. Plus I rock the fedora and bullwhip like a boss.
When I’m done satisfying my own selfish ambitions, I love to see how my readers digest the stories. It’s awesome when I go to schools, and students are shocked both by the fact that things haven’t always been the way they are and also by the fact that there are some things that have never changed about the world. I like to believe that those moments are seeds which will inspire students to seek change in their world because they finally believe it can happen and also because they are convinced that it should.
You were a young magician like Max, once upon a time. Can you still do any magic tricks?
Oh yes, I have studied the dark arts most of my life and David Copperfield pays me $80,000 a month to keep his secrets safe. Just kidding. I picked up a book of coin tricks when I was around Max’s age and spent every waking moment practicing every trick in the book. That started something for me that never really went away. I read every book of magic tricks and biography of magicians that the Sweetwater Texas Public Library had in its collection. Admittedly, my repertoire is pretty limited to cards and coins, and my skills pale greatly compared to Max, but I do still perform whenever I get a chance. Like if there happens to be a deck of cards sitting out. Or if I have to distract someone when I’m losing an argument.
What are you working on next?
Right now I’m working on several ideas that are a lot of fun. I seem to have been bitten by the World War II bug and I’m discovering that, even with the plethora of stories from that time period that have already been told, there are still plenty of forgotten tales to be mined. So I’m feverishly researching and synopsizing on a couple of novels that, I think, will be pretty exciting.