Eric Lotke is the author of Making Manna:
Libby Thompson is just fourteen years old when she flees her abusive home with her newborn son, Angel. Now they must build a life for themselves on hard work and low wages, dealing with police who are sometimes helpful—but not always—and a drug dealer who is full of surprises. As Angel gets older, he begins asking questions about his family, and Libby’s tenuous peace threatens to crumble. Can a son without a father and a young woman without a past make something beautiful out of a lifetime of secrets? Making Manna explores the depths of betrayal, and the human capacity to love, flourish, and forgive in the face of heartbreaking odds.
Read on for an interview with Eric, as well as an excerpt from his book.
Q: What inspired you to write Making Manna?
A: Trigger warning. This story has a really bad beginning.
Twenty years ago I was working on a death penalty case. The young man on death row was the product of an incestuous rape. I wrote those words in his social history — “product of an incestuous rape.” The phrase was so distasteful that I horrified even myself. The case came and went but those words stuck with me.
Years later, I wanted to write something hopeful and uplifting. The world is a mess. I wanted to say something nice.
So I went back to that kid. I started there but gave him a different ending. I took the worst beginning I could imagine and turned it into something positive.
Q: What was your favorite part about writing the book?
A: This was really interesting. When I wrote a scene that was happy and light, I was in a better mood at bedtime. When I wrote a scene that was dark or dreary, I wasn’t as joyful in real life. Putting myself into the mood to create the scene expanded beyond the page.
I suppose it went the other way, too. One weekend I had a lot of time to write and I was looking forward writing the scene that came next. I expected it to be happy and triumphant. As it turned out, I was a little blue that weekend. Maybe I had a cold, something was wrong at work or the kids were annoying. Whatever. I don’t recall. But I remember being a little down as I started … and it is quite clear that this fundamentally happy scene has a melancholy undertow. I always wonder if that undertow was inherent in the material and it would have been there anyway, or if it reflects my temper over the weekend.
In any case, I quite like the complexity and I never sought to iron it out.
Q: Why did you decide to write from the perspective of Libby rather than her son, Angel?
A: The book begins from Libby’ point of view. Angel is a baby. Yes, he’s occasionally cute, but he’s more of a prop than a character. Mostly he’s a logistical problem that needs diapers and daycare. Starting in Part Two the story moves to Angel’s point of view, and it ages with him from kindergarten to high school. In the end the two points of view come together. Now they’re equals.
One smart reader described it as a “coming of age” story of both the mother and son at the same time. I think that’s exactly right. Libby was so young when he was born! She has so much to figure out, and so does he. I think changing the point of view helps bring that development to life.
Q: Libby comes from a tough background but manages to work hard and support her family. How accurate do you think her life is compared to a real-life girl in her situation? What research did you do to keep the novel grounded?
A: All of her problems are real. She has a bad boss and not enough money, and she’s (justifiably) afraid of the police. She solves her problems in ways that are always credible and based on real world experience. I readily admit, however, that her success is unlikely. Does one in five people like her succeed? One in twenty? A hundred? I want to show the hopeful possibility – while also making it clear that life is hard and the odds are against her.
Good luck makes a difference, too. Libby meets Sheila at the outset, and her health stays good. She gives the good luck back, though, doing favors for others. I think it’s honest to show that luck makes a difference. That’s not a novelist’s trick.
Q: Sheila and her husband have a bad experience with the prison system. Does this aspect of the plot come from your experience as a lawyer?
A: Absolutely. That’s the heart of the story. Typical fiction shows us courtroom dramas with cutting cross examinations and explosive closing arguments. My personal experience brings you people with really bad lawyers who accept really bad plea bargains. Justice on TV is about crime labs and DNA exonerations. The real justice system is about kids who miss their parents in prison, and cops who book you so they can bill overtime on your court date.
Q: How else did your career influence the book?
A: Can you tell that I once earned my living as a chef?
More importantly, my life as a parent influenced the book. It would have been a different book if I weren’t a dad.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from Making Manna?
A: First, I want readers to have a good time. Escapism is okay. You deserve a break today. You bought my book: I owe you a good time.
But I also want readers to reflect on the understory and worry about the injustice, especially in the justice system. The obvious problem is bad cops and excessive prison terms. The subtler problem is that people who need protection don’t get it, and people who’ve been hurt don’t get help. That’s a different failing of our justice system. I explore those failings and show a different way out.
Q: Do you plan to write a sequel?
A: I hadn’t planned to, but people have asked and now I’m tempted. A plot is starting to take shape. I have another book in mind, too. It depends, of course, on how this book is received.
The kindergarten classroom is bright with color. Sunny windows with rainbow curtains look over a grassy playground. The floor is carpeted in blue, scattered with yellow throw rugs and purple pillows. In the center is a cluster of red tables with little green chairs; on each table sits a stack of paper, and jars with pencils, crayons, and little scissors with rounded points.
Angel stands by himself in the corner. His clothes are all new to him, but every one of them came used from Goodwill and the Salvation Army. The room is filled with kids, but nobody seems to notice Angel standing quietly.
Two girls in matching red Elmo sweaters greet each other with a hug, and chatter excitedly about a playgroup called LittleKinz. Two boys in Redskins jerseys dare each other to jump into the deep end of the pool when they get home. One tells the other that his parents can’t use their opera tickets on Saturday. “My mom said to tell your mom that you can have them if you want.”
The only African American child is in the center of a little crowd, dressed in bright pink from top to bottom. She wears a pink shirt covered by a pink vest, pink pants with pink socks and shoes, and a pink hat with a pink feather. “We made the biggest dog fort!” she is telling the other kids. She and her sister found “every blanket and towel in the house” and hung them over the sofas and chairs in the living room until the “the whole room was full.” They crawled around in the space underneath and made space for all their “stuffy dogs” so each one had a room of her own.
“We played in it all day,” she says. “But then the maids cleaned it up. That ruined it.”
Eventually the teacher moves to the front of the room. “Come on up, boys and girls. Welcome to kindergarten. I’m Ms. Milton and I’ll be your teacher. We’re going to spend the whole year together!” Ms. Milton is wearing blue jeans and a green blouse with flowers, and her hair is entirely silver-gray.
“Who here knows how to write his name?”
Almost every hand in the class goes up. Angel’s doesn’t.
“That’s wonderful!” Ms. Milton cries. “I thought you looked smart!” She ushers them toward the tables and sets them to work making name tags for themselves. “There are stickers and crayons,” she explains. “You can decorate them anyway you like.”
Angel stays where he is, rooted in place at the edge of the hurly-burly, while Ms. Milton bustles around setting the kids up and passing out the supplies.
“Done already?” she says to the African American girl in pink. She peels the back of the sticker that now says Veronica West and places it in the center of her shirt. “Everyone else do like Veronica,” she says. “Peel off your sticker and put it on when you’re done. You can keep drawing until everyone is finished.”
Another girl raises her hand. “I’m done,” she says.
“Peel your sticker and put it on,” Ms. Milton replies.
She turns and all but stumbles on Angel, standing silently in his space. “What have we here?” she asks.
Angel straightens his back and stands tall. “My name is Angel Thompson,” he says. “I don’t know how to write my name.”
Ms. Milton seems almost embarrassed that she hadn’t seen him earlier. “Then we’ll teach you,” she says with a smile. “That’s what we’re here for.” She waves toward a teachers’ aide who Angel only now notices, also standing quietly to one side of the room. She brings Angel to a special table by himself, not far from the others, but clearly separate.
By the end of the morning, Angel is pretty good at writing his name and knows a lot of other letters besides. The teachers’ aide, Miss Stephanie, spends most of her time with Angel, though occasionally another child comes over for a few minutes’ attention. For lunch he eats the sandwich his mom made for him, peanut butter and jelly, with two Hershey’s kisses on the side. “That’s what my mom always made for me,” she’d said.
The activity after lunch is drawing. The children are again shown to the desks with the papers and crayons, and invited to draw pictures of their families.
“Can I draw my dog?” asks Veronica West.
“Your dog, your cat, your house. Anything you want,” says Ms. Milton. “But start with your family.”
Angel is placed into the tables with the other children, but near an edge, and Miss Stephanie gives him special attention.
This at least is familiar to Angel. Miss Josephine’s day care had crayons and papers—though not as many colors—and Monet loves to draw at home. With encouragement from Miss Stephanie, Angel draws three stick figures in a row.
“Who’s the tall one?” Miss Stephanie asks. She’s pretty tall herself, with long black hair and eyeglasses in a big round circle. She wears blue overalls over a yellow turtleneck.
“That’s my mom.”
“Which one is you?”
Angel points to the smallest stick figure, drawn in the same pink crayon as his mother. “That’s me,” he says. “My name is Angel.” He points to his nametag and his face lights up in a smile. Then he reaches back for the crayons and for a minute it’s as if Miss Stephanie doesn’t exist. He leans close over his drawing, all his attention on the little figure at the end of the row. Carefully, deliberately, he retraces the lines and redraws the figure. Then letter by letter, he spells out his name under the drawing. He looks back up at Miss Stephanie, and points back and forth between the picture and the word. “Angel,” he says. “That’s me!”
“That’s you, all right,” Miss Stephanie cheers. She reaches down for a hug and a pat. “You’re the Angel.” The she points to the third figure, midway in height between Angel and his mom. “Is that your dad?” she asks.
Angel looks at her like she asked which one is the elephant. The question makes no sense. “I don’t have a dad,” he says.
“Surely, you have a dad somewhere,” protests Miss Stephanie. “Are your parents divorced?”
Angel stays silent.
“Does he live in a different state?”
“Mom says he died in a car accident,” Angel explains at last. “With my mom’s parents too. It’s just the three of us that’s left.” He pauses as if he’s going to have more to say, but then nothing follows, and he looks blankly down to the page.
“So who is this?” Miss Stephanie asks, her finger is still on the third figure. “Your older brother?”
“She’s my sister.”
“Why is she drawn in brown?” Angel and his mom are stick figures drawn in pink crayon, but his sister is brown.
“Because she looks like her.” He points toward Veronica West. “She says to tell the truth when I draw.”
Lights are starting to go off in Miss Stephanie’s eyes, as if she is starting to understand. She looks carefully at Angel, who clearly has no African blood in his veins. “Do you and your sister have the same mom?” she asks.
“No,” says Angel. “She has her own separate mommy.”
“The same dad?”
“Nope,” Angel replies. “She has her own daddy too. His name is Zeb. She tells me that I met him once. But I was a baby. I don’t remember it.”
Now Miss Stephanie is again looking confused. “If you have a different mom and a different dad, what makes her your sister?”
“She’s not legally my sister,” with an emphasis that suggests he’s heard it said this way before. “She’s in a different foster family but she lives with us.”
“She likes us better. We’re nicer than the foster family. I met them a couple of times. They have lots of foster kids and my mom—my real mom—says they only do it for the money.”
All this time Miss Stephanie had been standing up over Angel, and leaning down toward him. Now she gets down on her knees so she’s nearer his height. “What’s your sister’s name?”
“Monet. Like the artist.”
Miss Stephanie smiles. “Does she like to draw?”
“She loves it! Especially with colors. We draw all the time.” He leans in close, takes advantage of her proximity to whisper confidentially in her ear, “She’s in sixth grade.” Then he gathers himself to say something difficult, and minding his diction, he concludes, “She’s in Sidney Lanier Middle School.”
“Good work,” says Miss Stephanie, beaming. “That’s great. I was an intern at Sidney Lanier.”
Angel looks brightly back at her. “Her bus leaves at 7:10, a whole hour before mine.”
“Thanks for telling me,” says Miss Stephanie. “Do you know where Monet’s parents are? Her real parents?” She smiles as she echoes his way of saying it.
“Where are they?”
Angel slows down and straightens up to tackle something difficult again. “The Virginia Department of Corrections,” he says. He pauses to make sure he got it right.
Miss Stephanie stands up and steps away.
“Mom is in Fluvanna and Dad’s in Nottoway,” Angel concludes with a triumphant smile, naming the prison where each is held. He got it all right.
And just in time, too. Because at that moment, Ms. Milton calls everyone’s attention back to the center of the room. “Time to pack up,” she says. “All done drawing. Now it’s quiet time.”
Miss Stephanie and Ms. Milton shepherd the kids to a giant double-door closet, filled with rolled-up soft mats, one for each kid. The two boys in Redskins jerseys have a little push scuffle about who goes first, but it is quickly broken up, and soon enough each child has unrolled a mat and is lying quietly on the floor. Angel picks a spot on the edge, between Miss Stephanie’s desk and the window. He doesn’t sleep, but he lies quietly listening to the sounds. Some kids are reading, and turning pages in their books. Other kids are breathing in a way that makes Angel think they’re asleep. Outside he hears birds. They sound like the same ones he has at home, sometimes singing at random, and sometimes in response as if they’re talking to each other. A teacher quickly hushes any children who talk.
What seems like a few minutes later, a church in the distance chimes one o’clock. Ms. Milton starts to circle the room. “Wakey, wakey,” she says. “Time to roll.” She and Miss Stephanie supervise the kids standing up to roll their mats and use the bathroom. Angel is the first one with his mat rolled and returned to the closet. He helps some other kids roll their mats and work out the tricky elastic bands that hold them shut.
“Thank you very much,” says a blonde haired girl in a blue tank top.
“You’re welcome,” Angel replies.
Veronica West has her mat rolled but can’t get the elastics to stay in place. “Want a hand?” says Angel, scooting in beside her.
She looks at him like he’s holding a gun to her head. “I can do it,” she declares. The elastic snaps loose again and the mat starts to unroll. She scowls at him. “Look what you made me do!”
Angel reaches down to arrest the mat. “Hold it like this,” he suggests.
“Like as if you know,” says Veronica West, as she rips the mat away from him and sets it down to start anew a few steps away.
Angel leaves her be and stands quietly to the side until all the mats have been put away. Veronica West is last, until Miss Stephanie takes her mat away, fixes the elastics and replaces it gently into the closet.
“Story time,” says Ms. Milton. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” She holds in the air a giant book, with a picture of a little blond girl and a family of bears on the cover.
Some children shout out in enthusiasm. “Hooray!” Angel hears, and from behind him, “My favorite!”
Other kids aren’t so happy. “Not again,” says one of the boys in a Redskins jersey. His friend grumbles but Angel can’t make out the words.
Angel himself doesn’t know the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Indeed, he doesn’t know many stories at all . . . though he knows he likes them. The other kids all push around Ms. Milton, and she directs them to sit around her in a loose circle. Angel soon finds himself on the outside edge.
Ms. Milton opens the book so it stretches across her lap. He’s never seen a book so large in his life. Miss Josephine had a scattering of books, though none nearly so big, and she rarely read them.
“Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks,” begins Ms. Milton. She holds up the book so everyone can see the giant picture of the pretty blond girl.
“She went for a walk in the forest.” Again she holds up the book to show the pictures. Trees in the sunshine, a deer in the shade and birds flying above.
“Pretty soon, she came upon a house.” Ms. Milton holds up the picture of a wooden cottage. “She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in.”
The audience murmurs in anticipation. Angel, too, senses the possibilities.
Showing the pictures as she goes, Ms. Milton tells the class how Goldilocks explores the house. One bowl of porridge is too hot and one too cold, but the third is perfect so she eats it all up. One chair is too big and one is too small, and the small one breaks when she tries to squeeze in. Then at last Goldilocks comes to the beds. One is too hard and one is too soft. But the third bed is just right. She lies down to take a nap.
“Don’t do it!” cries one of the Redskins boys. Other kids laugh.
“Stay awake,” warns another.
But Goldilocks can’t hear them. Soon she falls asleep in the bed.
Angel leans forward in anticipation.
Soon the owners of the home come back, and they’re bears! Ms. Milton holds up the pictures for all to see. A big scary papa bear, a friendly momma bear, and a cute little baby bear. A family of bears who live in the woods. Before long they find the chairs that didn’t fit and the smallest one that broke. They find the porridge that Goldilocks tasted and the perfect one she’d finished off. Each discovery makes them angrier than the last. Eventually, they find her upstairs in their bed.
Goldilocks wakes up in horror at the three hairy beasts . . . “and runs straight out the door and into the forest, crying mommy, mommy, mommy all the way home.”
The kids all cheer. Ms. Milton holds the giant book aloft, pages open to Goldilocks tearing through the woods with the bears chasing behind.
One girl echoes, “Mommy, mommy, mommy all the way home.”
Another cries out, “Run faster!”
Ms. Milton lets them celebrate awhile, then encourages them onwards. “How’d you like it?” she asks the class.
The children respond with more cheers.
“Do you think she made it home?”
Again more cheers.
“Does anyone have any questions?”
At first the room is silent. The children don’t seem to know quite what to say. Eventually Veronica West raises her hand.
“What’s on your mind, Miss Veronica West?” Ms. Milton inquires.
“I want to know if bears can have dogs.”
“I didn’t see any in the story . . . but yes, I suppose they can. I don’t see why not.”
The blonde girl in the blue tank top who Angel helped with her mat raises her hand.
Ms. Milton singles her out. “What’s your name?”
“What’s your question, Tammy Atford?”
“Does she get in trouble?”
“What do you think?”
“I bet she does.”
“Then I bet you’re right. Seems like she didn’t even make the bed!”
All the kids laugh. Ms. Milton keeps the conversation moving on along those lines, calling on every child by name and sometimes asking them to repeat their names for all to hear. Some kids are worried about the broken chair and want her to say she’s sorry. All of them hope she gets home safely. Angel doesn’t say a word. But he’s sitting in a place with a good view of the book and he studies the artwork on the cover, especially the red cardinal in the tree.
“Is there anything else?” Ms. Milton asks at last. Does anyone have anything else to say or ask?” The room is silent while she looks around.
Finally, Angel sits up straight and raises his hand. Ms. Milton sees him immediately and leans his way in encouragement. “What’s on your mind, little Angel?”
“My name is Angel Thompson,” he says.
“Thank you, Angel. What’s on your mind?”
He gathers himself to speak deliberately. “It’s about the porridge,” he says. “That’s like oatmeal, right?”
“Yes, porridge is like oatmeal.” She makes a gesture as if stirring and eating from a bowl in her hand. “Is there something you’d like to say about the porridge?”
“Why doesn’t she mix it?”
Ms. Milton looks at him in confusion. “Mix it?”
“One bowl is too hot. One is too cold. She could mix them. Put too hot and too cold together. Then she’d have more porridge that’s all just right.”
Ms. Milton’s eyes open wide in comprehension. Mix the porridge, of course!
Angel forges ahead boldly. “She could still eat the bowl that’s just right. But if she’s hungry she can eat even more.”
Now all of the kids seemed to understand. A positive murmur fills the room. He catches some words behind him. “Mix the porridge, mix the temperature!” Someone else says “hot and cold together” while a different voice says “more to eat!”
Veronica West’s voice rises above the hubbub. “She’d get fat.”
“Not from one bowl of oatmeal,” protests Angel. “And she seems to be hungry.” He finishes with words he’s heard many times around the house. “You never know where your next meal is coming from.”
The kids fall silent and look at him in surprise. They don’t seem to have heard that before.
“But she still needs to pay for it,” he concludes. He looks deeply troubled, like he’s solved one problem but raised another. “I don’t know how she can do that.” He turns to Ms. Milton for answers. “Does she have any money? Does her mom work at night?”
Still Angel is the only one talking. The room is silent while Angel waits for an answer, but at that moment the school bell rings. The kids all jump up like they know what it means, though Angel waits for Ms. Milton to make the announcement. “All done for the day. See you tomorrow!”
Eric Lotke has cooked in five star restaurants and flushed every toilet in the Washington DC jail. He has filed headline lawsuits and published headline research on crime, prisons and even sex offenses. His new book, Making Manna, is an uplifting tale of triumph over economic and criminal injustice.
More at www.ericlotke.com.