Excerpt from Once We Were Home by Jennifer Rosner, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Once We Were Home

by Jennifer Rosner

Once We Were Home by Jennifer Rosner X
Once We Were Home by Jennifer Rosner
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    Mar 2023, 288 pages


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In the hills above Marseille, in the Convent of Sainte Marie de Sion, Roger cups his hot, throbbing ear with one hand and stacks prayer books with the other. Palm flat, patting the edges, he straightens the piles so the books won't tip over and tumble. If they do, he'll get another ear twist or worse. At seven, he knows better than to bother Sister Chantal at lauds—but yesterday he couldn't help it, his ankles itched him to distraction and the question sprang from his mouth: "Why, if God is good, did He create mosquitoes that sting and bite us?"

Roger finishes his stacking, a final pat pat of the books, with the feeling of eyes at his back. He looks around for Sister Chantal—or was it God watching?—before he rushes out the door, ear still pulsing. He wishes he'd stayed quiet, held his question for Sister Brigitte, as she was always encouraging him to do. There is so much he doesn't understand.

Why are some potatoes purple?

Does a tiger's skin have stripes beneath his fur?

Can a person cry under water?

(This, Roger wondered before his baptism.)

He didn't want to cry. The babies cried, even though they were cradled in their parents' arms and held at the side of the basin, not dunked into it. Madame Mercier told him he was lucky baptism was possible at all, as he was born to parents whose religion killed Jesus. Being baptized would "keep him ever in the Christian fold" and "secure his life in God's kingdom." He wanted that.

But on the morning of the ceremony, Sister Brigitte looked like she was crying, huddled with Father Louis and Brother Jacques. Why? he wanted to ask, but then Madame Mercier showed up with a crisp white robe folded over her arm and shuttled Roger to a church off the Sainte Marie grounds.

At the altar, an unfamiliar priest gripped Roger's shoulders and twisted him around, back to the font. Roger thought again of the babies on Sundays after Mass, water dribbling gently down their cheeks.

"Isn't baptism for babies?" Roger asked.

The priest, one slate-blue eye magnified larger than the other behind his glasses, flicked a look at Madame Mercier then back at Roger and answered, "By God's grace, it's meant to happen now."

Roger is sure he'll always remember the shock of cold water, the shiver he'd wished to conceal but knew he couldn't hide from God. Ears pooling with the holy water, he couldn't hear the priest's words, only saw him signing the cross, his big eye glinting. Afterward, soaked at the collar and dripping, Roger tried not to wriggle as Madame Mercier fussed over him with a towel, the expression on her face like she'd gobbled up the entire croquembouche she'd brought for the occasion.

Roger still didn't understand why Sister Brigitte was crying earlier, or why they waited the four whole years he's been at Sainte Marie's—and just weeks before his first Communion—to have him baptized. But he was happy for the sweet, caramelized ball of dough he got to eat. And he was happy to be saved.

Across the cobblestone courtyard. Past the cupboard with Mary inside, marble robes flowing to her feet. Around the stooping oak tree and up the stairs. Roger pulls open the heavy refectory door with both hands, releasing a flood of echoing chatter, and edges onto a crowded bench hardly wide enough to hold his bottom. He chews the morning's baguette, swallowing quietly, scratching at his stung-red ankles and stealing glances around the room. The other boys joke and jostle as their mouths move around their ration of bread. A new boy named Henri looks Roger's way and gives a small smile. His hair and eyes are golden, reminding Roger of the croquembouche. He smiles back.

After breakfast, Roger collects his lesson books from the dormitory room. His uniform shorts are too big for him; he has to wrap the belt twice around to cinch them. Then he wets his hands at the sink and pats down the cowlick at the top of his head so Albert won't tease and call him "hedgehog." All the boys rush so as not to be late. Roger heads down the hall, gripping the thick banister to steady himself. His shoes sound on the stone stairs, slap slap slap.

Once We Were Home copyright © 2023 by Jennifer Rosner. All rights reserved. For information, address Flatiron Books, 120 Broadway, New York, NY 10271.

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