Margi Preus spent her childhood summers frolicking with siblings and cousins on Kabekona Lake.
“It was a great way to grow up,” recalled the Newberry Honor-winning author. “We had a lot of unstructured free time to explore, imagine, be outdoors.”
Now her children and grandchildren visit the family cabin retreat, where she wrote her newest book, “Enchantment Lake,” a Northwoods mystery. Set in northern Minnesota, 17-year-old Francie investigates multiplying mysteries: a poisoned hot dish, a puzzling confession, eerie noises in a bog and a legendary treasure said to be under enchantment. “I think of Francie as a Northwoods Nancy Drew,” Preus said.
Over the course of several summers, she crafted her first mystery for young adults from the cabin’s cozy, screened-in porch.
“Novels are big and complex, even children’s novels,” Preus says. “’Enchantment Lake’ was a lot like a jigsaw puzzle you leave on a table and pick up when you come back to the cabin.”
She’s already writing the next installment in the mystery series. Her first novel for young people, “Heart of a Samurai,” is a 2011 Newberry Honor Book. It is a fictionalized account of a real Japanese boy shipwrecked and rescued by a passing American ship in 1841. President Barak Obama bought the book as a Christmas present for his daughters. Preus wrote to the Washington, D.C. bookstore, thanking them for recommending her book. She enjoys writing for a younger audience because “these are the people who are going to transform the world, and hopefully, save it from humanity.”
“Reading is part of their research, so there’s a part of me that likes to have a hand in that,” she said. Compelling real-life drama motivates Preus to write historical fiction. “I was really engaged by this story of a real person that we’ve never heard of before,” she said of Manjiro, the 14-year-old main character in “Heart of a Samurai.” “This time period has always interested me. It’s so interesting – full of intrigue, jockeying for power, assassination attempts and the amazing transformation in Japan at that time. The samurai became the modern founders of Japan.”
“The Bamboo Sword,” which will be released this September, is a companion book to “Heart of a Samurai.” Travel, reading and watching documentaries are all part of her meticulous research. “I watched a lot of samurai movies for that one,” she recalled. Japanese artwork – wood block prints, in particular – uncovered surprising details that found their way into the novels. She writes and researches concurrently. “I might write two words, then have to do more reading. Would they say that? Think that way? Move like that?” “The Bamboo Sword” begins with U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry steaming into the forbidden waters of Edo Bay for the first time. Japan has lived in isolation for 250 years. As the samurai prepare for war, 13-year-old Yoshi longs to join the fight. “I like these big problems – war and peace, life and death situations, political crises,” Preus said.
She has published two additional, award-winning historical novels: “Shadow on the Mountain” and “West of the Moon.” “The past is a foreign city to everybody. It’s unfamiliar to everybody. Nobody that’s alive has been there,” she said. “My guess is as good as anyone else’s.” Preus makes her home in Duluth, where she has taught fiction and children’s literature at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the College of St. Scholastica. She served as artistic director of Colder by the Lake Comedy Theatre for 25 years. With collaborator Jean Sramek, she wrote hundreds of comedy sketches, satire, adaptations, a couple of comic operas and dozens of original plays. Her website is www.margi preus.com.