Have you ever wanted, really wanted, to write about something that happened to you?
That’s how Ruth Behar felt, and her memories led to her first novel, “Lucky Broken Girl.”
Fifty-one years ago — when she was 9 years old — Behar’s leg was badly broken in a car accident. To help her heal properly, the doctor encased most of her body in a large, rigid cast. For about a year, Behar had to stay in bed, in that cast, in her family’s apartment in New York City.
In her novel, Behar writes about a girl named Ruthie who has the same experience. Ruthie feels the same emotions — pain, fear, boredom — as did the young Behar. She gets excited about visitors and Nancy Drew mysteries.
But Behar fictionalized, or made up, some parts of the book. She changed several names. In a phone interview from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she explained that adding or deleting certain things helped her create a stronger, more interesting story.
That winter scene where Ruthie is taken outside to see the snow? It never happened.
But other details, like the yucky prune juice and cool go-go boots, are true. Behar also based Ruthie’s friend Danielle on her good buddy Dinah (pronounced DEE-nuh). Danielle helps Ruthie walk to and from school when the cast comes off and she is on crutches. The girls love chatting and eating the cream puffs made by Danielle’s mother.
Behar is excited about sending a copy of her book to her old friend. She recently called Dinah at her home in Toronto, a large city in Canada.
“She was thrilled . . . to learn that our childhood friendship was part of the story,” Behar said. “I can’t wait to hear what she thinks” of the book.
Ruthie and Danielle are recent immigrants to the United States. Ruthie and her family came from Cuba, and Danielle and her mother from Belgium. They are all trying to figure out American culture and the English language.
Ruthie’s Spanish-speaking mother has a hard time adjusting. She needs Ruthie’s help to understand English and to buy groceries. She’s often homesick for the sights and sounds of Cuba.
“As a child, I had to help my parents in this way,” Behar said. “And so do many children of immigrants today. It’s a big responsibility.”
That year in the cast changed Behar’s life. She said she felt “broken” and sad, but then she began to realize that everyone must deal with loss and pain at some point. Because she could no longer jump rope or play hopscotch, Behar turned to reading and writing, and these new interests became lifelong passions.
Behar’s interest in stories fueled her desire to be a cultural anthropologist. In her work, she travels to other parts of the world and records the stories of the people there. This helps us all to better understand how others live and find a sense of purpose.
You don’t have to travel far to do this, Behar said. You can start by paying attention to stories told by family members.
As a kid, Behar loved listening to her Jewish grandmother’s stories, especially about how she emigrated from Poland to Cuba.
“I was impressed that she traveled alone” at the age of 18, Behar said. “There were cows and sheep and goats on the ship,” so this was not a “romantic journey across the ocean.”
Once in Cuba, Behar’s grandmother worked hard, and she helped pay for her mother and six younger siblings to join her, in 1934, not long before World War II and the Holocaust. “Had my family not gone to Cuba, they would [probably] have perished in the war,” she said.
These stories have so inspired Behar that some appear in “Lucky Broken Girl.” And she is basing the novel she is now writing on this grandmother’s young life.