It is surely tempting for writers of young adult books to romanticize their subjects even more than those of us who write biographies for adults. In a digital world, the competition for a teen-ager’s attention is brutal. When the author combines obvious hero worship with juicy details gleaned from secondary sources, baby food, however tasty and marketable, is the result. On the other hand, when a first-rate author with an important idea for a book on her mind finds a publisher celebrated for its quality, the odds begin to tilt in favor of the production of that rare commodity in today’s non-fiction young adult market: a serious, well-crafted and balanced biography that has been meticulously researched.
I would love to brag that I discovered North Little Rock’s Carla Killough McClafferty, but she already has gained national attention with her biography entitled “Something out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium.” Winner of several prizes, including an American Li-brary Association Best Book for Young Adults award, McClafferty has already staked her claim as a major force in the young adult non-fiction market.
With her latest book about an American who repeatedly risked his life in France to help save approximately 2,000 refugees who otherwise were doomed to die in Hitler’s death camps, McClafferty takes another major step forward in her career.
One of the most compelling attributes of McClafferty’s writing is her absolute refusal to gild the lily. In “In Defiance of Hitler: The Se-cret Mission of Varian Fry” (Farrar Straus Giroux, hardcover, $19.95), she presents Varian Fry with major warts and all but in such a way that the reader realizes by the end of the book, her subject’s often unattractive personality has been given to us for a reason. Fry didn’t fight with everybody, just everybody who got in his way. An arrogant, snobbish kid from New Jersey who was pampered as an only child and simultaneously neglected emotionally by his parents, Fry was difficult, to say the least. With a mother who suffered numerous nervous breakdowns and a father who was rarely home, Fry didn’t get a lot of hands-on guidance about how to make it in the real world. It didn’t matter.
Usually, it was Fry’s way or the highway. Admitted to Harvard in 1926, he managed to get expelled for putting a stolen “FOR SALE” sign on the president’s lawn. Only heavy-duty lobbying by two people (including his future wife) got him readmitted, but he was required to repeat his junior year.
The pivotal moment in the story and, indeed, Fry’s life, comes in 1935 when, as editor of a foreign policy magazine called “The Liv-ing Age,” Fry spends three months in Nazi Germany learning first-hand what is happening to the Jews. Five years later, he is on a plane to Marseilles, France, to rescue people who have gotten on the wrong side of Hitler. And, of course, it is here where her story truly begins. And because we already know how persistent and single-minded Fry is, we can now root for him. As McClafferty notes (but does not put so crudely), before and after his mission to France, Fry was, more or less, a pain in the butt, often unable to get along for any length of time with colleagues or wives alike. But for a few short months in France, he was perfect for his job. As the urbane, impeccably dressed representative of an international organization called the Emergency Rescue Committee — on the surface, a per-fectly legal vehicle for assisting refugees — Fry, was, in fact, a no-holds-barred operator who stopped at nothing to get refugees across the border into Spain and out of Europe while it was still possible. Forged documents, bribes, lies and 18-hour work days came with the territory, but the hardest part was deciding which people could be helped and which could not. And at each moment arrest was a possibility for every refugee and those who tried to help them.
McClafferty, of course, does not merely take Fry’s word for it, though he later wrote extensively about his experiences. Indeed, her real forte is the research that she puts into her books, and it shows on every page. Her writing is sturdy, straightforward and unadorned. She writes like a good carpenter builds. The book is also richly enhanced by numerous photographs. While her book fits in the young adult niche, I couldn’t put it down.
Grif Stockley is a historian at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.