Text by Lisa CavanaughWhen the publication date for her third middle-grade novel, Echo Mountain, was announced as April 21, 2020, award-winning author Lauren Wolk began looking forward to the accompanying book tour.
“Then the pandemic hit, and the month-long cross country tour was cancelled,” says Wolk, “ I was very sorry not to be able to take the tour, as they are really a lot of fun, and face-to-face contact with readers is so important.”
Set in the Maine woods during the Great Depression, Echo Mountain, a complex and affecting story about a young girl named Ellie grappling with family distress and the new natural world she inhabits, was still released on schedule, so Wolk pivoted to connecting with her audiences in new ways. “I had to quickly learn how to try to relate to audiences through Zoom,” she says, “which actually has worked quite well.” Wolk says that virtual events have also enabled her to do some things she’d been wanting to do, such as meet with groups that don’t usually have access to authors, or who can’t afford author visits or for other reasons are not often on the in-person schedule. “It has been wonderful to engage with these readers, and I intend to keep that up, even after we can someday go back to touring.”
Launching during Covid-19 also meant many people were stuck inside with plenty of time to read, and Wolk herself stayed home. “The tour being halted meant that I got to be with my family during a difficult time, so I am looking at the bright side,” says Wolk, who has two grown sons and lives with her husband on Cape Cod.
The biggest unexpected outcome was a connection readers began to sense between the novel and the current crisis. “ It came out during a pandemic, so people are seeing parallels between the Depression and Ellie’s experiences on Echo Mountain and what is happening today,” says Wolk. “Which of course was not deliberate, but I think that is really interesting. Even though it is historical fiction, many readers are finding it quite relevant given what we have all been going through.”
Despite this link between Ellie’s challenges and similar contemporary issues of anxiety, healing and interpersonal connections, Wolk didn’t start out with trouble or tragedy as her motivating theme. “I always start with place and a character and since I love historical fiction, I set my novels in the past,” she says. “ I do try to pick a time that was interesting, but I never know how that character’s life will interact with that larger landscape until the story unfolds.”
Instead, once she had her young heroine in mind, and the setting of a sparsely inhabited part of Maine, Wolk then began to discover the reasons why Ellie and her family might have ended up there. “I wondered how does a girl from town end up on the mountain, and I thought , okay, during the Depression so many people had to find their way and make ends meet, and some moved into the wilderness. So I figured let’s see what happens with that scenario.”
Just as she never knows the ending of her books as she sets down to write them, Wolk also is embracing the uncertainty of this contemporary moment and ponders how many interesting things will come out of this time. “ Ellie transforms into a wild girl on Echo Mountain, so I wonder what we will transform into? Social distancing, masks worn everywhere across the world… maybe new forms of artistic expression will emerge,” says Wolk. “I certainly hope so. Ellie rises to meet her challenges and is the better for it. I’d like to think that we can do likewise.”