Katherine Marsh found a secret room in the basement soon after her family moved into their house in Brussels, the capital of Belgium.
“It was actually a small wine cellar,” Marsh said, “but it seemed like the perfect hiding place.”
This discovery, and one that followed soon after, jump-started the idea for her new novel, “Nowhere Boy.”
She learned that the street where she was living — Avenue Albert Jonnart — was named for a man who had lived there, in another house, more than 70 years ago. He had hidden a Jewish boy for months to keep him safe from Nazi soldiers during World War II.
Marsh decided to write a story about a boy who is hiding from danger in Brussels in 2015.
Ahmed is a 14-year-old Muslim orphan from Syria who is fleeing the war in his country. His passport has been destroyed, and he fears that he will be sent back if he doesn’t have the proper documents.
The scared, lonely teenager hides in a tiny basement room in a house on Avenue Albert Jonnart, and that’s how he meets Max, the 13-year-old boy who lives there. Max tells no one about Ahmed. He brings the boy food, clothes and magazines and tries to shield him from a sharp-eyed police inspector.
Like Ahmed, Max is lonely. He misses his home and friends in Washington, D.C., and he feels angry about the family’s sudden relocation for his father’s job. Everything is strange and confusing. Max has to attend a French-speaking school. He must write with a fountain pen rather than a computer or pencil.
Marsh’s children, Sasha and Natalia Barnes, helped her get the school details right. They had an experience similar to Max’s when they moved to Brussels three years ago.
And they lived through some of the fears and hazards that Ahmed and Max deal with in the book, including a terrorist attack.
Because her family’s American perceptions would be different from Ahmed’s, Marsh did lots of research to make sure she was true to his character. She interviewed refugees from Syria and other countries and the workers who helped them. She even had a chance to meet Bénédicte Jonnart, who shared important details about her heroic grandfather Albert.
“My greatest joys in writing the book were the [true] stories I heard and the friends I made as I did the research,” said Marsh, by phone from her home in Washington, where the family returned last month.
Back in the nation’s capital, one of the first things the family did was stroll through their neighborhood, noticing “what had changed and how we had changed,” Marsh said.
“In going [to Brussels], we definitely pushed beyond our comfort zone,” she added.
And she wanted to write about the greater confidence and strength that can come from that in “Nowhere Boy.”
Already, Marsh is pushing her creative zone, as she works on another novel about courage and kindness, with girls as the main characters.
What: Katherine Marsh will speak about and sign “Nowhere Boy.”
Where: Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Avenue, Northwest Washington.
When: Thursday at 7 p.m.
How much: Free.
Best for: Age 9 and older.
For more information: Check politics-prose.com/events.