Marianna Baer’s THE INCONCEIVABLE LIFE OF QUINN and Pencil Detonators
By July 1944, it was obvious to a growing number of Germans and Nazi higher-ups that Deutschland had all but lost World War II. Further, it was clear that Hitler’s obstinance was having a negative effect on whatever post-war future that Germany would have. As a result, many Nazi officials plotted to take out their Fuhrer and some even took steps toward achieving that goal.
On July 20, 1944, the Third Reich only had nine more months to live. Claus von Stauffenberg didn’t know that. The German army officer joined a meeting at the Wolf’s Lair (Wolfsschanze), one of the control centers Hitler maintained outside of Berlin. Von Stauffenberg placed his briefcase under the long table Hitler was pounding as he dictated strategy on the eastern front. After a few minutes, Von Stauffenberg excused himself and beat feet from the Wolf’s Lair. Soon after that, the meeting room exploded. Four people were killed. Hitler was largely untouched.
Why do I bring up an interesting event from recent world history? Because it relates to writing craft and Marianna Baer‘s Amulet Books YA novel The Inconceivable Life of Quinn. Von Stauffenberg planned to detonate the bombs he left beside Hitler with a pencil detonator. The device is a relatively simple one. It’s a spring-loaded cylinder. On one end is a percussion cap that makes the explosives go boom. On the other end is a vial of liquid chemicals that, when burst, will begin to eat away the spring mechanism. When the wire fails…kaboom. Here’s a diagram:
Marianna Baer has a pencil detonator in her novel. Quinn, the protagonist, finds out that she is a couple months pregnant. Can you hear the acid eating away that wire? Babies generally take nine months of oven time to cook. Two months have already passed. When a baby is in a mommy’s tummy, it gets bigger every single day and (unless there’s a problem) nothing can stop it. You can’t close your eyes and pretend a baby isn’t coming any more than you can stand on tracks and expect the train to disappear. Pregnancy is a great pencil detonator because it causes disarray and change by its very nature.
Ms. Baer makes smart use of Quinn’s pregnancy by allowing the drama surrounding the baby to increase as time goes on. The author did, however, have a little bit of a problem: everyone on Earth has either given birth or been born. There are currently more than 7.5 billion people on the planet; being pregnant is not unique in the grand scheme of things, but it is very special to the child’s parents. So. That’s the big struggle: you must make the mundane special in your work. As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman taught his recruits to repeat of their rifles: “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” Everyone has been bullied. What makes the bullying in your story different. Everyone has fought with friends. What makes this fight different?
Fortunately, The Inconceivable Life of Quinn has a hook that makes the pregnancy worth reading about. Quinn is not only the daughter of a politician during an election year, she is a virgin and has no idea how she has come to be in the family way. In this way, there are two questions that keep us reading:
- How’d the baby happen if there was no sex? Who’s the father?
- What’s going to happen with the election? How crazy will the media get about the daughter of a NYC politician getting knocked up just before an election? (Shades of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston!)
On page 34 of the hardcover, Ms. Baer gives us a very sweet description of the first time Quinn hears the baby’s heartbeat. Her mother asks, “There it is. Can you hear that?” Then the narrator says:
A muffled, rhythmic sound. A distant drumming. Fast and strong.
A heartbeat that wasn’t Quinn’s own.
So this moment is nice and nicely written, but there’s a problem: there’s math involved. I’m the reader…I’m not supposed to have to do any work. Why should it be my job to go to the Wikipedia entry for “pregnancy” to figure out when the fetal heart starts beating? Should I be expected to get out a pen and paper and open the calendar on my phone?
Thank goodness, Ms. Baer saves me from this only five pages later. On page 39, she tells us that Quinn has been given a two-week window during which it was possible for her to become pregnant. (I think the author also says how many weeks the baby has been gestating, but I can’t find it in the text.) Don’t make your reader do math and don’t make them scratch their head and try to figure out, in this case, the baby is due and when it was conceived.
The Inconceivable Life of Quinn keeps the reader turning pages (or swiping the screen) by taking Quinn’s pregnancy and relationships in a number of unexpected directions. Ms. Baer populates her story (told from third-person vignettes from each character) with relatable characters who speak and act the way they should, even if those actions are not always pleasant. Quinn’s father should doubt her and ask several times about the father of the child. Some of Quinn’s classmates must be unpleasant to her.
The most interesting choice the author makes might be the way that she does so much to add unexpected elements to the pregnancy narrative. (I don’t want to reveal too much about those.) In this way, Quinn’s pregnancy, like so many others, is not simply an accident or a happenstance of biology, hormones, and impulse. The story of of Quinn’s “inconceivable” pregnancy becomes an emotional journey for the reader as much as it is for the prospective mother.