Most authors would celebrate having a novel published by a traditional press and maybe even say a little “dayenu.” But for Maplewood resident Lisa Sturm, whose debut novel, “Echoed in My Bones,” was published this summer by Twisted Road Publications, her work has only begun. That’s because this novel is also a mitzvah project.
Characters in her book grapple with weighty issues from rape and addiction to the ways the foster care system fails adolescents. Despite the challenges they face — and there are many — the women in the book navigate their way together, with a strong faith in God and poetry at the ready.
The fictional lives depicted in this book are complicated, and inspired, by Sturm’s years as a social worker in Irvington and Newark.
“I wanted to write a book that would carry with it my wish that the women and teens I worked with in Irvington and the surrounding areas would find healing,” she told NJJN in an email. “I also wanted to explore their stories of trauma, but also share the resilience that so many of my patients displayed.”
She will be reading from her book and leading a discussion on Sunday, Nov. 3, at 7 p.m., at the kickoff of Aviva Hadassah’s book group, a chapter based in Maplewood. The meeting is free, but RSVPs are required. (An address will be provided before the event.)
Sturm, a member of the Orthodox Maplewood Jewish Center and whose youngest child recently graduated from Golda Och Academy in West Orange, said she shared certain core values with many of her clients that enabled them to form a bond. Their common values included the importance of family; a desire for children to be safe, healthy, happy, and successful; a belief in the inner strength of women; and faith in God.
“I hoped that by focusing on those things that bind us rather than what divides us, we’d move toward healing,” she said.
“Echoed in My Bones” is about a set of twins given up for adoption. One twin, Jasmine, 16, lives in a world of poverty, foster care, social workers, sexual abuse, and betrayal in Irvington, but copes through writing poetry and reading “Harry Potter.”
Just a few miles away in Maplewood, her biological twin, Tessa, is growing up with the pressures of privilege. A gymnast whose parents expect her to attend an Ivy League school, she, too, often reaches for “Harry Potter” to relieve her stress.
Their mother, Lakisha, who gave them up for adoption after she was raped by an addict, is raising her family of five children in Newark with the help of her partner, Theo; extended family; and poetry.
Their stories collide when Lakisha’s son is diagnosed with leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant from a match, most likely a relative, to survive.
Sturm said she often felt inspired by her clients’ unwavering faith in God, and the way they used prayer to get through hardships. “I could relate,” she said. “I’ve had dark days when I’ve spoken to God more than anyone else.”
The religion in the book is all Sturm. “My own faith is woven into every free-form prayer that my characters utter (and there are many),” she said. “My Judaism is sown into the fabric of the way they view the world.” For example, when Jasmine asks if God is punishing her for the bad things her father has done, a social worker responds with a message straight from “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold Kushner.
“Your father made a choice and did a terrible thing,” the social worker tells her. “That’s on him. I’d look to God for comfort. Life isn’t about punishment, it’s about learning something and using that to make yourself a better person.”
At another point in the story, a grandmother says, “In this here life, it’s all for the good.” According to Sturm, “She is basically saying, ‘gam zu l’tova’ — this too is for the best.”
Sturm doesn’t worry about writing about people so different than herself. She had readers who helped and, she said, “My life has not been free of abuse or trauma.” Doubling down on her confidence in her characters’ authenticity, she said, “I also firmly believe that no one should own the real estate of the imagination. There are no lines that should divide what I am allowed to imagine from what someone else can.”
And that brings us back to the book’s mission. Sturm has been donating $5 for every book sold at her author events to empowerment groups Girls; Live, Love, Laugh in Newark and Berry’s Butterflies in Orange. And in partnership with an Essex County woman who recently broke her own silence about childhood sexual abuse, Sturm is in the early stages of planning a program for girls from eighth grade through high school that will incorporate true stories of trauma and resilience, readings from her novel, and information about local support resources. They hope to begin offering the program to girls’ groups in Essex and Union counties in 2020.
“It’s not just a novel,” she said. “It’s sort of a mission.”
Sturm has a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College and a master’s degree in social work from New York University. She’s had short stories, novel excerpts, and essays published in literary journals and newspapers.
To RSVP for the Nov. 3 book reading, e-mail email@example.com
or call 973-650-5970. For more information about Aviva Hadassah, contact Susan Friedman at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 973-763-7855.