Remembering Marilyn Sachs

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The summer I was ten I had the flu for a week.

A week in summer is years when you’re a kid.

I was incredibly bored, having read all my summer books. My mother went to the library and picked out books she knew I would like. One of them was called Laura’s Luck by Marilyn Sachs. The story was about a girl named Laura who (along with her younger sister Amy) has to go to camp for the summer. Laura has had a terribly hard year; her mother had been hit by a car several months before and was still in the hospital recuperating. Her Aunt Minnie was along to care for the girls and although Aunt Minnie was kind, she wasn’t their mother. However, Aunt Minnie needed a break, so the girls went to camp. The rest of the book detailed Laura’s time at camp–being in a cabin with girls younger than her, spraining her ankle, meeting her best friend, and several letters written home describing camp.

I loved the book.

I wanted to go to camp, too (although my experience with camp was incredibly different than Laura’s) and when I recovered from the flu, I went to the library and read more of Marilyn Sachs.

I read Amy Moves In, the first book in the trilogy about the sisters. I then read Amy and Laura, the final book in the trilogy when their mother does finally come home but is confined to a wheelchair. I read Veronica Ganz, about a local bully who has met her match in Peter Wedeymeyer. The next book was Peter and Veronica, which detailed them becoming friends. Mary was after that one, the story of Peter’s best friend who daydreamed about kidnapping Hitler. All her early stories were set in the Bronx in the 1930’s-1940’s, which became as familiar to me as Beverly Cleary’s Klickikat Street.

One of the first stories about the Holocaust I read was Sachs’ A Pocket Full of Seeds. The first chapter we learn young Nicole is in hiding at an exclusive boarding school as World War II rages on. In flashbacks we find out Nicole’s family were Jewish, how they were discriminated against in Nazi-occupied France, and how one morning (after spending the night with her best friend who was going to Switzerland) Nicole came back to her apartment to find her family gone. The book was inspired by Sachs’ friend Fanny Krieger, a Holocaust survivor who lost her family in the camps. Fanny’s story inspired a sequel, Lost in America, telling how Nicole went to New York after the war ended. I remember afterwards feeling horrified and sick at what happened to the Jews.

I also knew if something like that happened again, I would try to save people like Nicole and her family.

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A good library day would be if I found a Nancy Drew I hadn’t read, a Beverly Cleary to reread and a Marilyn Sachs I’d not yet discovered. I loved all her Bronx stories but my all time favorites were the ones set in San Francisco. For a Bay Area girl like me, these were all familiar places: In Dorrie’s Book, the narrator mentioned Ghiradelli Square and in another, a character mentions eating at the Hippo Burger, a place my dad used to take me when I was little. I felt connected to the characters then; it made my small world seem bigger.

A graduate of Hunter College and Columbia, Sachs moved to San Francisco in 1961 after living all her life in New York. Like Amy and Laura, her mother was in a car accident but didn’t survive. She grew up lonely and became a children’s librarian, marrying Morris Sachs, a sculptor. They had two children, Paul and Anne. Anne would later do illustrations for Dorrie’s Book. Sachs was a National Book Award finalist for The Bear’s House while A Pocket Full of Seeds would be named a Best Book by the New York Times.

I finally got to meet Marilyn Sachs at a friend’s wedding in 2010. My friend Laurel made sure we met (she was the bride) and I tried not to be too Annie Wilkes (“I’m your biggest fan!) with her, but I couldn’t help it. I was so excited to meet one of my heroes, one of the writers I loved as a child. Marilyn was gracious and invited me to lunch.

We had lunch in her house and all her books were there in hardback and paperback, some in different languages. She told me stories about each one. I knew talking about Dorrie’s Book was hard; her daughter Anne had died several years before. She also showed me the book she contributed to called The Big Book of Peace. In her books and her life, she fought for justice and equal rights for all.

At the time I was working for a social media company who was partnered with Huffington Post to provide content. I arranged it that Marilyn wrote several essays for our site, then an essay about how much she loved living in San Francisco. Although she didn’t know what blogging was, she gave it a go.

When I found out about her death I was on a train heading towards the Bay Area to visit friends and family. I choked up. She was eighty-nine. I knew she had a good life, but the news still stung. Later on Twitter I noticed many writers remember her and her books.

It gave me comfort; I wasn’t the only child who searched for a Marilyn Sachs on a Saturday.

I knew I wouldn’t be the last one, either.