Deerfield author’s first book combines history with magic

  • “Enchantée”

  • TRELEASE

  • WEISBLAT

For the Recorder
Published: 1/30/2019 5:41:28 PM

Deerfield resident Gita Trelease believes she’s always wanted to be a writer. With the publication of her first novel, “Enchantée,” her dream is coming true.

“Enchantée” (464 pages, $18.99), which is being published next week by Flatiron Books, is a young-adult book set in 1789 at the outset of the French Revolution. Its heroine is 17-year-old Camille, the orphaned child of a working-class father and an aristocratic mother.

From her father, who ran a printing press, Camille has inherited a passion for social justice. Her legacy from her mother is a bit more complicated. That side of the family has passed on an aptitude for working magic, an aptitude that is both a blessing and a curse for Camille.

She lives in a shabby apartment in Paris with her younger sister Sophie, who designs hats for the nobility. This work brings in a small amount of money, as do some of Camille’s minor magic tricks.

Unfortunately, their dissolute elder brother takes all their money and gambles it away. Sophie is ill, and Camille feels overwhelmed.

One evening she decides to try to reverse their fortunes by digging into the forbidden magic trunk her mother left. The trunk enables her to dress herself up and erase the signs of poverty from her face and skin.

Thus transformed, Camille goes to the royal palace at Versailles disguised as a widowed noblewoman. There, she uses magic to win at card games so she can support her sister.

This solution to their problems is complicated. The magic feeds on sorrow. It also feeds on Camille. She finds herself increasingly alienated from her sister and her former self — and from Lazare, the young balloonist who is quickly becoming Camille’s romantic interest.

Camille is also in danger of being recognized at Versailles by other practitioners of magic. Not all of them share her good reasons for using the dark arts.

Inspired by youth of years gone by

Trelease herself was born in Sweden, she said, but immigrated to the United States at the age of 5. She has lived for most of her life in New England, although she went to graduate school in New York, where she received a Ph.D. in English literature.

For a while, she and her husband lived and taught in New Jersey.

“I thought that was what I wanted to do, research and teaching,” she said. “I loved teaching.”

Eventually, she discovered that the rigors of academic life didn’t allow her time for creative writing. When her husband was offered a job at Deerfield Academy, they decided to move to Massachusetts, seeing a pathway to more professional freedom — and more fresh air.

They live at the academy with their son. Reading to her son, she explained, reconnected her to her early passion for young people’s fiction.

“I thought, ‘What if I go back to this literature that I grew up loving, using my research skills and historical writing?’” she recalled.

Her academic specialty in English had been late 19th-century British literature. She chose to set her novel in France in the previous century, however.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the French revolution,” she replied. “It was something that British writers were writing about in the 19th century.”

In the course of her reading, she came across a thought-provoking biography of the French queen Marie Antoinette. She then saw the film “Marie Antoinette” by Sofia Coppola.

“In the film, (Coppola) portrays (Marie Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI) and the aristocrats as very young,” Trelease explained. This picture of youth inspired her to set something in this era for young readers.

“I had this dream where I saw a girl sitting at an 18th-century desk, and she was writing a letter. And I knew — the way you do in a dream — that the letter was written in her tears. And that she was an outsider,” Trelease said.

The dream spurred her to write about such a character. Around the same time, she came across an article about the hot-air-balloon craze of the 1780s.

“The people who flew the balloons became celebrities,” Trelease enthused. “That gave me a really fun way for the love interest to enter the story.”

The hot-air balloon came to stand for much of the thought of the era in which the book is set, Trelease said, representing change and new horizons.

“One of the big philosophical movements that created the setting for the French Revolution was the Enlightenment, a hope that science could rescue people from superstition and old, entrenched ways of seeing,” she said. “The balloon symbolizes that.”

Absorbing history, through fiction

“Enchantée” is an immensely readable book. Trelease deftly weaves historical information into her novel so that the reader absorbs information about Paris in 1789 — particularly about the gap between rich and poor in pre-revolutionary France — without ever realizing it.

Trelease brilliantly establishes the rules of magic in her fictional world.

“When I was first starting to write the book, I read an article that (Amherst young-adult author) Holly Black had written about world building,” she remembered. “One of the things that she said is that magic always has to have a cost in the world. ...

“I wanted it to seem that there was really a real-world consequence for (Camille’s use of magic). I asked myself, ‘What does a poor girl like her have? What can she give in exchange for this magical ability?’”

The answer was the sorrow that enables Camille’s magic to thrive.

I asked Trelease why, when “Enchantée” appealed so much to an adult like me, it was classified as a young-adult book.

“It’s not just the age of the characters,” she responded. “It’s also a coming-of-age story from the perspective of somebody who is 17 years old. ...

“It’s not an easy time of life. But it’s a really important one,” she continued. “When I think back to being a teenager, I remember the search for identity and a sense of belonging. Those things can be crushing, but they are also the things that make me want to write for this age group.”

Trelease is already hard at work on the sequel to “Enchantée,” in which Camille and her friends start a revolutionary club but have to deal with the fact that not everyone has the same ideas about the revolution.

“The French Revolution has a lot of moral grayness,” she mused. “I think that’s important to explore. ... I’m really interested in what it means to be a hero in this environment.”

Gita Trelease will celebrate the launch of “Enchantée” on Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 6:30 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop, 9 College St. in South Hadley. To register for this free event, visit the store’s website at odysseybks.com/event-rsvp.

Tinky Weisblat is the author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.




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