Dominican Sister Maeve McMahon knows a thing or two about children. She came to New Orleans from Ireland 30 years ago as a young nun to “make a difference in the lives of children.”
She grew to love New Orleans as a teacher and principal at St. Leo the Great School in Gentilly and as president of Marian Central Catholic Middle School, and she opened a pilot school only two weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck.
Like many others, Sister Maeve evacuated, landed in Houma, La., and later learned that all of her earthly possessions perished in the storm.
“That was the beginning of a journey I will never forget,” said Sister Maeve, who has since returned to Dublin, Ireland.
Her devotion to children outweighed personal suffering. With other nuns, Sister Maeve taught youth at hurricane evacuation centers in Houma and Baton Rouge.
A wave of emotions
She heard hurricane stories – “one worse than the next” – that she couldn’t shake until she wove them into the fictional tale, “Riding Out the Hurricane.” The book was the 2011 Nautilus Award silver winner in the children’s category of middle grade and teen fiction.
“It’s huge to me because that award is recognizing the book for its literary and inspirational context,” Sister Maeve, 67, said. “I have goose bumps knowing people like Deepak Chopra and the Dali Lama have been awarded the Nautilus award.”
In the book, Hurricane Katrina is told through the eyes of 12-year-old African-American Jade Williams who, with her grandmother, rode out Katrina in their 9th Ward home with an elderly white neighbor. Their familiar tale of being rescued from their rooftop, spending days on a bridge before being airlifted to the airport and brought to the Houston Astrodome resonates with readers.
“My story was to offer hope for children in natural disaster,” she said. “(The characters) kept the faith and knew God would see them through. That made all the difference. … I wanted the story to be a positive, faith-built one. The negative things that went around the world should not eclipse the incredible heroism.”
As a writer, Sister Maeve took poetic license with some facts – the main character’s age changed from 5 to 12; she altered the ending from grandma and Jade staying in Houston in a donated home to returning to New Orleans to live in a FEMA trailer; and she created Bunty, the dog, as a comfort for Jade.
“She lost her friends and her life to Katrina,” Sister Maeve said. “The first gleam of light she experienced after the storm was when she found Bunty on the bridge.”
While fictional, the chronology and key areas of the story are correct, Sister Maeve said, taken from a scrapbook of Times-Picayune stories she saved and from her research.
Book tells students’ stories
Sister Maeve was in New Orleans recently and visited St. Anthony of Padua School to discuss the book with sixth and seventh graders who had read it. She said it was emotional to write.
“This is your story,” Sister Maeve told the students. “I wanted you to have a story that reflected what happened to many children. … I couldn’t believe the suffering of the children.”
She gave a little background on fashioning characters – grandma, the wise one whom Jade listened to; a smart classmate and teacher of Jade’s that she modeled after individuals at St. Leo the Great; and Jade’s catharsis into maturity.
“In any good book, the main character goes through a transformation,” she said. “Jade saw some terrible things. When she experienced those things, she thought, ‘I’d better take care of grandma and Miss Mary Lou.’”
Sister Maeve also wanted to show a resurrection of the people.
“You can go through things, but there is a resurrection,” she said. “God gives you hope. I lost everything, but I felt God was holding me in the palm of his hand, and everything would be all right.”
Sister Maeve told students that her favorite scene was when people stranded for on the bridge were calmed by singing Gospel music. She asked students what they liked about the book.
“I liked it because it had a lot of passion and feeling,” sixth grader Gabrielle Slater said.
“I feel I can relate to this book, and people of all ages could relate to this book because the three main characters are three different ages, and growing up in New Orleans I have heard all the stories of Hurricane Katrina,” said seventh grader Chelby Sterling.
Sister Maeve said the tragedy in the book is universal; in fact, it’s a bestseller among children in Ireland. While Irish students experience gratefulness for what God has given them after reading the book, they find it difficult to comprehend the generosity of complete strangers in America as depicted in the book.
She encouraged St. Anthony students to embrace their dreams, their education and God, and not to take things for granted.
“Follow your dreams, follow your education and don’t let life kick you around from one catastrophe to another,” she said, adding to do good works “and there will be a deep peace in your life.”
The book is available at Maple Street Bookstore, through Amazon and from Sister Maeve by emailing her at email@example.com. She will ship the book free from Ireland.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.