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Sunday, March 24 News

Woog’s World / Fiction author keeps family stories alive

If you live in Westport, you know certain things about the town: It’s home to the world’s largest hedge fund. Many Wall Street titans live here too.

But you know other things, perhaps less apparent. For instance, we had one of the first suburban homeless shelters in the country. It’s still here — right behind Tiffany.

Similarly, if you grew up in Auburn-Lewiston, Maine, you know it’s home to one of the largest percentages of French-Americans in the United States. But you may not know that since the early 2000s, the twin cities on the banks of the Androscoggin River have drawn over 5,000 Somali refugees.

Susan Ross knows all that. She grew up in Auburn-Lewiston, with her own special back story. Family members emigrated there from Russia, Lithuania and Vienna. They were among the first Jewish merchants in Maine. Her parents had a wedding gown shop (and raised five children) there.

All of that provided a backdrop for Ross’ first book. “Kiki and Jacques: A Refugee Story,” published in 2015, tells the story of 12-year-old Jacques. Life is hard, but he’s looking forward to being named soccer captain. Then a better player arrives from Somalia. Meanwhile, Jacques surprises himself by becoming friends with Kiki, a smart, kind and strong-minded Somali girl with a mysterious scar.

The book earned raves from educators across the country. They’d been looking for young adult fiction that addressed the issue of refugee children in schools, because that’s what they saw in their own classes.

Ross — a Westport resident since 1997, whose own children went through the school system here — is passionate about the impact of fiction on students. “Kids experience other cultures through stories,” she says. “That’s how they make new friends.”

“Kiki and Jacques” has just been released in paperback. That should give it new life at a time when refugee and immigrant issues are at the forefront of a national debate.

But that’s not all that’s happening in Ross’ writing career. Her second young adult novel was published earlier this week. It too fills an important educational niche: the Holocaust.

“Searching for Lottie” draws on Ross’ family’s experiences before, during and after World War II. Some members were killed by the Nazis. One survived, thanks to false papers; she boarded with a Catholic family, and they became lifelong friends.

Another relative, Magda Szemere, was a famous young European violinist. After her arrest, she disappeared forever. Researching “Searching for Lottie,” Ross was astonished to learn that Magda’s music had been preserved on gramophone recordings.

That’s the intensely personal background for Ross’ book. She turned it into a contemporary mystery, following a 12-year-old girl as she turns a school assignment into a research project about the great-aunt she is named for: a violin prodigy and Holocaust survivor.

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As often happens, fiction follows real life. Ross’ middle name is Charlotte — “Lottie” is its German nickname. And in seventh grade at Bedford Middle School, Ross’ son did a similar project.

She believes the timing is right for her new book. The Holocaust is receding in history, yet simultaneously the internet draws it closer to us all.

“We can research our ancestors,” she says. “The facts are real, but the memories are less painful. After the war, survivors did not talk much about the past. Now we can learn about it, and understand it.”

Ross adds, “I wanted to look at the legacy of loss through the eyes of a child who can do it without overwhelming sadness. At the same time, she understands that Lottie was a real person. I wanted to bring people to life, but in a way that would not overwhelm kids.”

Writing is actually a second career for Ross. The 1981 Brown University graduate met her husband at New York University School of Law. She practiced labor law — at one point representing the Teamsters — and taught legal writing. She and her husband lived in London and Budapest. In 1997, searching for a suburban town in which to raise their young children, they came to Westport. It was winter, but they were captivated by the Compo Beach playground. “What an amazing community to build this!” she thought.

Ross stopped practicing law to raise her kids. But she started writing. She discovered the Westport Library (and is now a trustee). On May 4, Ross will discuss “Searching for Lottie” at a library-sponsored event (held, due to construction, at the Westport Woman’s Club).

She looks forward to seeing young readers there. “All kids have family stories that need to be preserved,” she notes.

Susan Ross has certainly done her part to preserve hers.

To learn more about Susan Ross and her books, visit www.authorsusanross.com.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.

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