Mother of Invention
A former Baltimorean combines science and history in a young-adult novel
Published: July 13, 2011
The Atomic Weight of Secrets
By Eden Unger Bowditch
Gregarious, erudite, and edgy, Eden Unger Bowditch still possesses the air of a streetwise Baltimorean even after a five-year absence. Before moving to Cairo in 2006, Bowditch worked as an editor for Urbanite and a freelancer for various publications including City Paper; she also authored three books about Baltimore history. In late January, with revolutionary gunfire beginning to sound outside her windows, Bowditch wrapped up work on The Atomic Weight of Secrets, her young-adult fiction novel.
Meticulously composed and edited, Secrets weaves together the stories of five inventive wunderkinds circa 1903. The children were taken from their homes and plopped into a schoolhouse in Dayton, Ohio. Once there, the kids—all spawn of scientific bigwigs—contrive to escape from their ominous guardians. Bowditch incorporates bits of mechanical detail into the story that call to (the adult) mind a time when the gears of one’s imagination whirled without impediment, unencumbered by thoughts of mortgages or credit scores. Secrets is not untethered from reality, though; its science- and fact-based narrative serves as a counterweight to the abundance of fantasy and magic in young-adult fiction.
Before the start of her Baltimore book tour, Bowditch regaled City Paper with stories from here and abroad and discussed the intersection of young adult fiction and research.
City Paper: How did you come to live in Egypt?
Eden Unger Bowditch: Nate, my husband, went to [Johns] Hopkins [University] for grad school. He got his doctorate in 2005 and taught at Loyola for a year. Both of us lived in Europe as kids, so we thought it’d be really great to live abroad. Sort of jokingly, this job at the American University in Cairo came up and I said, ‘Apply for it. Why not?’ And he did and they offered him the job, and we had to decide, ‘Do we really go?’ And in a sense, it’s an adventure and it’s only a two-year commitment [so] we thought, Why not?
CP: Tell me about living there through the revolution.
EUB: Well, first of all, living in Cairo is way safer than any American city. I let the kids run around town on their own, and it’s fine. Every once in a while you hear a story like maybe somebody tried to touch someone’s arm. And then there was one guy who was running around town trying to steal purses off women’s shoulders. That was huge—all over the ex-pat community people were freaking out. . . . And then the revolution [started], the government had sanctioned thuggery going on and hired marauding hordes [were] coming in and smashing windows. Our car was stolen—hundreds of cars were stolen. That happened, but that’s eased off and there’s nothing against ex-pats, Americans or Europeans. It’s really an internal revolution.
CP: Does living through the revolution change your perspective about Baltimore in any way?
EUB: I still say it’s way safer in Cairo today. . . . In fact, we do this sort of cultural diplomacy tour—we play in a band [The Fuuls] with our 16-year-old.We played in Jordan [and] the security guy was like, ‘All right, let me tell you, I lost three men last week. I can’t promise you anything. If I tell you to duck, you duck.’ And then I said we moved to Cairo from Baltimore. And he said, ‘Whoa, you’re from Baltimore? Oh, then, nevermind.’ I lost my wallet in Cairo. I dropped it, and a beggar came after me to bring it back—not a penny taken out of it. I was [in Baltimore] for a week when I first moved out, and my wallet was stolen. It just doesn’t happen like that in Cairo.
CP: I read the piece you wrote for City Paper where you traced the history of the Baltimore Zoo—now the Maryland Zoo. I can tell you really have a deep appreciation for research. How does that tie into The Atomic Weight of Secrets?
EUB: I love research, being a detective. I love writing for people that appreciate that it’s real, that the history is valid. I don’t like to cheat people. Each and every page that’s read, research has gone into it. When I’m reading something I don’t want to be brought out of the world that someone’s offering me by crap, you know, crappy facts or poor research. Then you’re always having to struggle to get back into the story again.
This book has a lot of [research] because it is not a book about magic wands and stuff like that. It’s a book about science. So there’s historic stuff. It’s a different kind of magic. Invention is all about magic. We invent things that make us fly. We put chemicals together to create something else. Why is that not magic? So bringing that along with historic stuff. I love doing research, I love tying things in and piecing things together. Everything is sort of a puzzle, and I think kids appreciate that.
CP: When I was reading your book it made me remember how, as a kid, I had to imagine way more than I would have if I were sitting in front of the television screen. Do you think with all of these projected images—you know, television, video games, the internet—that there’s some kind of threat to the developing imagination?
EUB: I think there totally is. And that’s why, even before the book came out, we were hearing from film people. And I really don’t even want to talk to these people. I wanted this to be a book for long enough before it became a film. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I mean, ironically this seems to be going against me. But I think that’s definitely the case. There are a lot of rich descriptions, especially with the food stuff. So many people said they gained weight reading the book. And what has been so rewarding is that I get so much feedback from kids. I talked to a mother who said as soon as her kids finished reading the book they went off and started inventing things.
Eden Unger Bowditch reads from The Atomic Weight of Secrets July 16 at 1 p.m. at Book Escape, July 23 at 2 p.m. at the downtown Barnes and Noble, and July 27 at 2 p.m. at the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Hampden Branch.
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