“The bayou giveth and the bayou taketh away. You can’t trust her…Give her the sun and she’ll blind you. Give her a rain and she’ll swallow you. Give her a storm and she’ll claim your highways and your bridges. She’ll breach your shiny new buildings, your waking nightmares, your broken heart.”
That’s the first paragraph of Kathi Appelt’s Angel Thieves, the latest book from the Newberry-winning children’s and middle readers author—and her first foray into the young adult arena. It’s the interwoven stories of four protagonists: Cade Curtis, Zorra, Soleil Broussard, and Achsah, whose stories overlap across history, all against the backdrop of Houston and Buffalo Bayou.
“For years, I’ve known I wanted to write a story set along the bayou,” says Appelt, who will make an appearance at Blue Willow Bookshop March 23. “The bayou is really a constant and a provocateur. You know, she’s lazy and meanders across the city, but give her a big, fat storm and she rages.”
Casting the bayou as a fifth character in her book, Appelt nods to the fact that the bayou was here long before Houston was even a city. It also allowed her to look at different spots along the waterway, from the urban pieces that wander through downtown to more remote areas that seem, in her words, “like they could be thousands of miles away from Houston.”
“I almost always start with a setting,” she says of her writing. “And I think with the bayou, it’s an opportunity to explore that we do flow from one place to another in life, turning around each other on the way.”
Angel Thieves weaves together pieces of little-known true stories. Cade Curtis and his father are the thieves of the title; they steal angel statues from cemeteries, selling them to collectors on the black market. Appelt loosely based her character Achash, a runaway slave, on the real-life story of Sylvia Routh, a woman owned and brought to Texas by ship captain James Routh. When he died, he not only set Sylvia free, he also left her a substantial amount of money. He also set her two sons free, and gave them his ship. But Sylvia had two daughters, who Routh didn’t free, instead leaving them in the custody of a friend.
“There are some hard things going through this book,” says Appelt, explaining how she wrote it for an older audience. “And it really explores moral questions that the characters grapple with. What do we do out of urgency, what is the right thing?”
She hopes that readers will grapple with the idea of who is a thief and who is an angel as they read the story. The answers, she emphasizes, aren’t always—if ever—clear.
Kathi Appelt, March 23. Signing requires book purchase ($18.99). Blue Willow Bookshop, 14532 Memorial Dr. 281-497-8675. More info at bluewillowbookshop.com.