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Behind the Book, 4

Illustration by Julia Ogden (

When was the last time a sense of freedom made you feel as if you’d reinvented yourself? That’s what happens to 16-year-old Maddalena in my novel, THE WILD IMPOSSIBILITY, when she ignores potential danger and approaches the barbed wire fence surrounding Manzanar, a World War II internment camp. Why? Because of a teenage boy who’s imprisoned there, a young man who intrigues her, whose presence compels her to return to the camp again and again. Later she rejoices in this unrecognizable person she has become:

“Where was the Maddalena who gathered eggs early in the morning without complaint, who arrived at school before the first bell with her dress ironed and her hair neatly braided? She wasn’t herself anymore; she was wild and free. Pushing Scout to a gallop, she dropped the reins, her arms outstretched like wings. The sky opened, endless above her, Scout’s hooves drumming below. This was what life could be—a risk, an adventure.”

Maddalena—young, inexperienced, longing for excitement—doesn’t know that the risks she takes will change her life, and the lives of the people she loves, profoundly and irrevocably. And she hasn’t thought about consequences—she just acts, and the emotional high of that action sets her on a trajectory that’s unstoppable.

Of course, Maddalena is a character in a novel, and as her inventor I must push her off-balance, give her wants and needs that lead her to make choices that show (some would say) overwhelmingly poor judgment. In real life, plenty of people spend their lives trying to avoid risk, in effect accepting the status quo or something close to it. They’re “risk averse,” to borrow a financial/economic term, which means they’re conservative, eager to maintain a relatively stable status quo while inching toward whatever goal they have in mind. For some, it’s a sound practice. But others, this lack of risk-taking comes with a price—missing out on the emotional high that comes from taking a chance, from “what if?” thinking.

“Risk” and “change” aren’t synonyms, but they do seem to go hand in hand, because most changes involve some element of risk. I suppose the fact that I moved to another country by myself, in my 60s, means I’m not terribly risk averse. But I had a role model—my childhood friend’s mother who moved to Paris at age 70, leaving behind seven children and a handful of grandchildren. She eventually returned to the U.S. because of that extended family, but that happened quite a few years later, after she’d made a new life for herself. She gambled on change, reaped the rewards, then gave up her life in Paris—risk all over again, with different stakes. Then there’s my friend who went to London for a vacation before her last semester of college and decided to stay. Later she moved to Italy (a country she’d never intended to live in), where she’s been for 30 years. And she did finish that college degree, 20 years later.

I call these women courageous. Some of the changes they chose to make were deliberate and long planned for; others were happenstance; all were risky. Is gambling worth it when the stakes are high, either physical or emotional or both? Ask an extreme athlete that question and you’ll get an affirmative; ask someone whose life is ruled by fear and you’ll get the opposite, based on the belief that security is its own reward. Which kind of risk-taker are you? If your pursuit of a love affair could end in violence, would you do it?


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