Hearts full of love and a weak heart (Long Island, NY 1999 to some years later; Kiev, Ukraine 1986 backstory): “A good book can transform souls,” says Maggie Topper, our bright-eyed, twenty-six-year-old narrator excited to embark on a new career teaching sixth grade English at a middle school on the northern shore of Long Island (same region the author lives.) If Maggie is right – as readers who can’t live without books would agree – then The Secret of Clouds has a big-hearted, life-affirming soul about a special teacher and a special student transforming each other’s lives. Buoyed by a big-hearted cast of characters, this is a feel-good yet poignant novel sprinkled with tug-at-your-heart student writings shared with a teacher they trust.
Authors frequently preface their novels with a quote (or two). Sometimes it captures the essence of the book, often not or the meaning obscure. Alyson Richman, known for her historical fiction novels, introduces her first contemporary one with a single line by Zelda Fitzgerald that may be the best at summing up a novel:
Yuri Krasny is one of Maggie’s students. Yuri may be turning twelve but he’s an “old soul” with a “most generous heart.” Maggie’s principal asked her to tutor him at his home as it’s too risky for him to go to school. Born with a “weak heart . . . but his mind had no limits. It could still be filled with dreams.” Enter Maggie, a teacher who finds “light in the darkness,” who sees Yuri’s “spark,” that light. The novel opens with Maggie’s lyrical description of Yuri as the child:
“You sense is extraordinary, is the one who returns everything you give and more … your beacon as every word you utter in the classroom suddenly has a destination. It’s as if you are teaching to the light.”
Yuri is mature beyond his years because his protected life is surrounded by adults: stay-at-home mom Katya and molecular biologist father Sasha who works at Stony Brook University, where Brookhaven National Lab is located. Which is to say Sasha knows painfully well the science behind Yuri’s illness. Though Yuri is blessed with extremely devoted parents, he’s extremely unlucky to have a genetic condition preventing him from living a normal childhood, from living his dreams.
Richman, still very much the writer drawn to the historical past, skillfully weaves Yuri’s parents’ backstories into the plot: Katya was a former Russian-trained ballerina in the Kiev ballet corps (today also called The National Ballet of Ukraine, considered “one of the world’s greatest ballet schools”). Graceful and thin, “weightless, as if she had harnessed the wind,” her motherly love and suffering for her sickly child is reflected in graceful prose. Sasha is Jewish. Choosing 1986 to tell their Ukrainian stories comes at a time when Gorbachev “announced those with Jewish ancestry” could leave their country. In an unusually candid statement coming from a Soviet leader, he admitted “Jews had been widely prosecuted.” Katya was only nineteen when she married adoring Sasha. She hadn’t realized how widespread anti-Semitism was until they met – Sasha’s reason to emigrate. Katya sustained an injury that ended her dancing dreams, so when the opportune time came the two left their homeland. Historically, 1986 also marks the date of the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, alluded to from the start in the Prologue.
In America, Katya is the epitome of a sleep-deprived mother living and breathing every moment worrying about her baby, now at a tender age, “such a beautiful yet fleeting time” Maggie reminds those of us who have children.
Mother and son are terribly isolated. This is a family living on the edge, so everyday is precious to them, everyday grateful for what they have.
When Maggie is let into this loving family, her life changes. While she’s laser-focused on inspirational lessons she can gift Yuri, it’s Yuri (and his parents) who gives her the greatest gift of all: a deep personal connection to the fragility and preciousness of life.
Maggie’s lessons are powerful messages too. Creatively, she comes up with meaningful reading and writing assignments matched to Yuri’s (and his classmates) interests and needs. For instance, she picks sports stories to appeal to the boys like Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella that inspired The Field of Dreams baseball movie with Kevin Costner we all loved. First, though, she must figure out how to connect with the pale boy slumped in his living room chair. Once she learns his passion is baseball, Maggie and Yuri begin to see the light.
Richman teaches us too, again drawing on history. In 1981, Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University educator, pioneered the method of combining the teaching of writing with the teaching of reading. Maggie, by the way, graduated from Columbia Teachers College.
Maggie is the teacher you never forget. A romantic soul, soothed by the fairy-tale cottage she rents in a rural enclave that’s “more like New England than the fancier towns closer to Manhattan.” She’s close to her parents who live nearby. Her mother loves to cook mouthwatering meals, recipes passed down from the Sicilian old country. (Katya’s home is also filled with savoring smells, meals nostalgic of Ukraine.) “Food is love.” Maggie’s retired father is now living out his dream of making violins in the basement of her childhood home.
Other heart-warming characters who bring something special for Maggie and the reader are her school colleagues: art teacher Suzie, Maggie’s best friend, the one we’re all grateful to have or wish we had. A colorful ball of fire and counselor-in-chief ready to drop everything when Maggie needs her; substitute music teacher Daniel who just so happens to treasure beautifully-crafted violins like the ones Maggie’s father makes. With his green velvet jacket, “poetic soul,” charm, and old-fashioned manners he seems more out of the 19th century literary world than the 21st; and Florence, an older teacher who decorates her classroom every year with butterflies, giving the impression she’s lost her passion until Maggie discovers there’s a heartbreaking reason.
“Baseball banter” fills the pages when Maggie and Yuri are together. He’s an avid Yankees fan, like his dad; Maggie roots for the Mets, like her brother. When Maggie asks Yuri why he loves baseball so much, his answers show how wise and intelligent he is:
“Everything about it is unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen . . . “the math of baseball is always changing” . . . “baseball is like live math” . . . “you can always change the stakes every time you’re up at bat.”
Author notes at the end of historical novels that inform us what’s fiction versus fact are favored. Richman knows this, doesn’t disappoint when she turns her sights on the contemporary. In a Reader’s Guide interview included in the novel, she explains the personal inspiration for her characters’ passions and Maggie’s teaching ideas such as: her son loves baseball, which accounts for why she writes like a sports columnist, and all her novels feature something artistic because her mother is a painter. In this novel, it’s the violin that both her husband and daughter play.
Sasha also speaks of butterflies. Butterflies having to do with the physics of chaos theory. The “butterfly effect” also beautifully summarizes the novel’s soul: how one small action can make a big difference.
There’s a secret in the clouds but there’s no secret that one person can make a big difference. Or, in this touching, heart-filled novel, the light beams on two.