What sticks with me about this tiny story, more than anything, is the fact that when she told it to me, my grandmother used the term “slavery” with regard to her grandfather. As a child, I thought slavery was confined to the U.S., the great and irredeemable horror and shame of white people owning black people. But according to my grandmother, there were slaves in Denmark, white slaves, and my great-great-grandfather was one of them.
As a child, that word “slave” haunted me. Now I know, thanks to Google, that he must have been not a slave, exactly, but a serf, a villein, who was legally bound to the land and the landowner.
My ancestor supposedly did not have a last name, as he was a serf. But when he was a young man, his landowner’s son fell into a river and nearly drowned. My great-great-grandfather jumped in and saved the child’s life. As a reward, his Danish owner freed him from his indentured servitude and also gave him his own surname, “Hoff,” followed by “beck,” which means river in Danish. (Or so I was told; I don’t speak Danish.)
And my ancestor, now a freeman, and bearing the last name of Hoffbeck, made his way to America to seek a new life. Which tends to be the story, with the single and huge exception of those who lived here before the white conquerors came and claimed it for their own, of pretty much every other American family.
* * *
My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.
Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable?
There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?
At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.”