Langston Hughes, an infamous diamond heist, the Chicago shelter system and a resilient 11-year-old girl with a remarkable name don’t suggest commonalities. If you’re award-winning, best-selling author Blue Balliett (Chasing Vermeer, The Calder Game), you take these unrelated ingredients, let them marinate in years of research and firsthand experience, imbue them with mystery and heart, and serve up Hold Fast.
Early Pearl—the aforementioned girl with the remarkable name—is one-fourth of a sweet, young family. What the Pearls lack in material possessions they make up for in love and intellect, fortified by a common goal to own a home complete with lace curtains and a cat. When the Pearl patriarch, Dash, disappears from his job as a clerk at the Chicago Public Library, a despicable chain reaction lands Early, her mother, Sum, and her younger brother, Jubie, in a homeless shelter. Steadfast in their determination to find Dash and return home, the remaining three Pearls face pessimists who believe Dash left of his own volition and authorities who believe he was dabbling in dark deeds (Dash’s part-time job cataloging rare books seems suspect).
Long before his disappearance, Dash instilled in his family a love for the written word; the Pearls are the kind of family to read Treasure Island aloud for evening entertainment. His enthusiasm for the power of words is emulated by Early. And it’s this common denominator—along with tenacity and the family’s rare copy of The First Book of Rhythms by Langston Hughes—that propels Early toward solving the mystery that snatched up her father and shattered her life.
For a greater portion of the story, Early and her mother and brother remain in a homeless shelter. From hard plastic mattress covers to the cutting smell of insecticide, the environmental descriptions are documentarylike. This authenticity comes from Balliett’s extensive preliminary investigation. “I’m somebody who does lots of research before I actually write,” Balliett says. She was hesitant to begin writing the book without first sufficiently acquainting herself with the shelter system. “It was definitely my most challenging book to write,” Balliett admits. “There’s no doubt about that because I really wanted to hit it right. I wanted it to be a book for everybody who knew nothing about this world as well as for everybody who is currently within it and to have it be a book that felt OK on all sides.”
When I remark on Early’s determined strength to emotionally support her mother and brother, all while wrangling the help of otherwise dismissive adults, Balliett says, “Early does something that many kids will do when their parents hit an emergency situation: She stands up, she immediately thinks about how to fix what’s wrong with the family and how to take more responsibility.” Early’s actions feel entirely plausible to the author. “She feels familiar, and she feels like a child who had a very positive start in life, a child who’s been given tools to cope and she puts them to work.” Then she adds, “Kids are naturally problem-solvers, and it’s just that, often, nobody’s listening.”
It was through her research that Balliett met a boy named Jayden to whom she dedicates the book. About two-and-a-half years ago, she was invited by Chicago HOPES (an after-school tutoring program for students living in shelters) to visit a shelter. The building proved difficult to find, so she called her contact, who came outside along with a little boy about 6 years old to greet her. It was the little boy, Jayden, who immediately got her attention. “I got closer, he stepped right up to me, didn’t hesitate, and he gave me this quick hug, and he looked up into my face,” Balliett recalls. “So what’s your story?” he asked her. He had “this lovely self-possessed, interested way,” Balliett recalls. “And I just smiled at him. I didn’t have an answer right away. I was thinking ‘What is my story? I don’t know what my story is!’”
Jayden then surprised Balliett again. “He hurried to reassure me because I didn’t answer him right away. He gave my arm a little pat, and he said, ‘Everybody’s got a story’ just to remind me that I had a voice in me somewhere,” she recalls. “And it was one of those strange moments in life when things just turn a corner. I thought, if this little guy can speak to me from his life in a shelter with so much grace and wisdom and generosity, then I can write this book, and I can find out absolutely everything I need to find out.”
Though the shelter system is the primary backdrop for Hold Fast, it doesn’t read as a book with a moralizing agenda. It is first and foremost a great story crafted by a writer who really did find out absolutely everything she needed to discover. Through her credible, touching representation of children in the shelter system, Balliett evokes sympathy for a far-from-fictionalized epidemic. “Every community has this invisible, oddly neglected group of people who are struggling and trying to raise their kids without a home,” Balliett says. “And I’m really hoping that Hold Fast will make this a more public situation that everybody can talk about more easily.”
Before our conversation ends, I have to ask Balliett what Langston Hughes might think of being featured so prominently in the book, from the title to excerpts of his work to being the key that helps Early and her family. “I have to say I think he would love what I was trying to do,” says Balliett. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say he would love it; I wouldn’t dare be that confident.” I immediately assure her that being confident in Hughes’ praise after writing such a lyrical, lingering mystery and ingenuous homage to the written word is certainly permissible.
Gordon West is a writer, illustrator and sometime photographer living in Brooklyn. He is admittedly addicted to horror films and French macarons.