“At 8:30 the Morlaisses had supper. The menu was always the same: soup. Soup is easy to digest, it makes you grow, and it guarantees a good night’s sleep — that is, if it is salt- and pepper-free, of course.” ~ Secret Letters from 0 to 10 by Susie Morgenstern
photo of Susie by styeb.
Well, I never thought this would happen in a million years.
I just read a story where I was actually glad when the main character stopped eating soup every night!
Just one of the many things that amazed me about Secret Letters from 0 to 10 by Susie Morgenstern (Putnam, 1998). Where have I been? Why hadn’t I ever encountered this multiple award winning gem before, or read anything else by Ms. Morgenstern? I loved loved this book — it totally satisfied my cravings for a deliciously engrossing, moving, masterfully crafted middle grade novel with a French twist.
And I owe it all to amazing author Anne Mazer, who answered my call for books set in France. So large is my love for this book, that it’s going to be really hard not using exclamation marks !!! after every sentence in this post!!
Breathe. Focus. Relax.
Secret Letters was originally written in French and translated by Gill Rosner. Seems both Susie (originally from New Jersey) and Gill live in Nice, France (my French Riviera envy is off the scale), and the book has won sixteen international awards including Le Prix Totem (French equivalent of the Newbery). Ooh-la-la!
Ten-year-old Ernest Morlaisse lives a very unadventurous, isolated life with his 80-year-old grandmother, Precious, who is a prisoner of the past. They rarely speak to each other as they follow their regimented, solitary routines each day. There are no friends, no TV or telephone, and for Ernest, no going out anywhere except for school. All this abruptly changes when Victoria de Montardent, a new girl in class, bulldozes her way into Ernest’s deprived existence.
This personality plus, budding bon vivant (a sheer embodiment of joie de vivre) has the charm, energy, and exuberance of at least ten kids rolled into one (she lives with two parents and 13 brothers). Of course, she turns Ernest’s world upside down and inside out when she professes her love for him on day one: “I love Ernest . . . We’re getting married in thirteen years, eight months, and three days.”
As their friendship develops, Ernest’s life broadens by lovely
degrees — his heart opens to all the people, places, and things around him. It’s truly a delight to witness his blossoming, and you can’t help but want to hang out with Victoria’s welcoming, boisterous family, because as soon as you walk in the door, you’re one of them. There are also many poignant moments, such as when Ernest wonders why his mother had to die giving birth to just one child, when Victoria’s mother was able to have fourteen kids. He also wonders what he could have possibly done wrong to make his father disappear shortly after he was born.
I do love the letter motif in this story — a secret letter from Ernest’s great grandfather that needs deciphering, love letters from Precious’s deceased husband that she reads over and over, love notes to Ernest from adoring classmates that go unread, the letter Ernest writes to his missing father, and finally, the daily letters his father had been writing to him all along ever since Ernest was born.
But, what I love most — wait for it — is Morgenstern’s use of food to define character, underscore important plot points, heighten reader interest and identification, and generally enrich the themes of friendship, family, and self actualization.
Viva la cuisine!
A big meal for Little Ted.
It enters the story in the form of a large green apple and one cracker — Ernest’s same-old-same-old after school snack. He eats automatically, without relish, methodically chewing. For supper, he and Precious eat the aforementioned soup — bland, almost medicinal, a symbol not of comfort or nourishment, but of Precious’s mistrust of “too much salt, too much sugar, and bad influences in general.” Germaine (cook/housekeeper), just as old and paranoid as Precious, “was suspicious of oil that might be rancid, fried food, rotten meat, and too much noise.” Because both were suspicious of school food, Ernest came home for lunch. Such was their life: same food — prepared, served and eaten in the same manner at precisely the same time every day.
photo by EverJean.
Enter Victoria — a girl after my own heart. A person who collects the silver foil from candy bars. Her goal: 2000 wrappers by the year 2000. “Don’t worry, Ernest, I’ll take care of your food education, but it would help if you decided to like chocolate.” She breezes into the Morlaisse kitchen one morning with a bag of croissants and rolls, totally unaware of the effect she is having on the shocked people in the room. Not wanting to be rude, Ernest bravely bites into a croissant, certain that he’s going to die on the spot. But of course, it’s warm and delicious, the first time in his life he knows what “delicious” is. Can you imagine?!
photo by pennacook.
The croissant is filled with chocolate, naturellement. Mmmmmmmmmm.
Then, it’s lunch at Victoria’s, where Ernest eats his first beef fondue. Eating is now a communal activity; no longer is he sipping soup in silence, now he is dipping his fondue fork with a noisy, hungry tribe. Later, he goes to the supermarket for the first time with Victoria and two of her brothers. As they fill up four shopping carts, Ernest spots a book written by one Gaspard Morlaisse. Could it be his father? Who knew such life-changing discoveries could occur in the grocery store?
But the most significant food foray, and my favorite part of the story, is when Ernest begins talking to his grandmother, in hopes of learning about his father. He convinces Precious to go outside for a walk! And to a restaurant! For the first time in his life, Ernest has something to write about when his teacher assigns the essay topic, “Sunday.”
I have never been to a restaurant in my life. I have never been out on a Sunday. I have never eaten couscous. My grandmother has never been outside her apartment for as long as I have known her.
It is a great day when a ‘never’ is erased. But when three ‘nevers’ are erased in one day and are replaced by three ‘first times,’ that day is three times as great.
Yesterday, I went out with Grandmother to the restaurant on the corner to eat couscous.
Couscous is a North African specialty which is made from grains of wheat. The restaurant owner brought the couscous to our table in four parts. They were:
1) the couscous
2) the vegetable broth
3) the meat
4) the hot sauce
This is what you do: You put the couscous grains in a soup plate and make a little hill. On this you put the vegetables to make the scenery — carrots, turnips, and leeks, and chick peas, which look like little rocks. Then you add some meat and pour some broth over the whole plate . . .
At first, Grandmother was scared to try, but she soon got into it. Each mouthful is a surprise. And it’s so good to taste faraway flavors, and to be warmed up by a hot dish in the middle of winter. When you feel good, you get strength and energy. This was easy to see in my usually silent grandmother. She began to talk. She spoke of war and the dead, of loss and of pain. But talking about the dead brings them to life, and that must be better than letting them die a little more each day, buried in silence. Every time a word is spoken in their memory, they come to life, even if it is only a tear’s worth.
And even for us, who really are alive, but who don’t live fully, it may sound strange, but couscous, yes, couscous made me realize that it’s never too late to learn to live. But you need a good teacher and a lot of willpower. I really want to have willpower, so I can learn, not just skills like reading and writing that help to pass the time, but to really live, because afterward, you die, and then it’s too late.
Beautiful, no? A turning point in this boy’s life, and an encapsulation of the book’s central theme, all because of couscous!
When I first met Len, he was working in North Africa and told me how much he loved couscous. He likes it with a meat and vegetable stew. Couscous got us talking, too!
Final evidence of Ernest’s transformation comes in the form of Henrietta — a 20-year-old cook who steps in for Germaine when she is ill. She loves to experiment in the kitchen, serving up new and wonderful dishes along with her own brand of joie de vivre. Now, Ernest looks forward to each new day with all its surprises, and begins to think, “anything is possible.”
I have gone on much too long about this book. But I’ve had so much fun tracking the progression of a simple green apple and cracker, all the way to a chef-in-training’s innovative creations. Food, like Ernest, is an ever-evolving character in Secret Letters from 0 to 10.
I think this might be the first children’s novel I’ve read in translation, except for The Little Prince. I would think the hardest thing to “translate” is that essence of “Frenchness.” Should I call it the “je ne sais quoi”? Most noticeable is the use of some formal language and a few details which felt a little more “adult” than most books I’ve read for the 8-12 age group. Read this yourself before handing it over to your middle grade reader.
Mais oui, il est un livre fantastique. Merci beaucoups, Madame Morgenstern, for writing it, and Anne Mazer for recommending it. Charming and enchanting.
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (somebody, stop me)!!!!!
*Drifts out of room dreaming of France.*
Must. Find. Chocolate. Croissants.
♥ Check out Susie Morgenstern’s official website here.
P.S. Just read Anne Mazer’s What Goes Up Must Come Down, Book 18 in the Amazing Days of Abby Hayes series (Scholastic). Loads of fun as Abby discovers Paris. French pastries are involved ☺!
photo by ~Amy-Ever After~
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