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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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  • First Published:
    Mar 2023, 288 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2024, 288 pages

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They cross the courtyard to class. Already, the day is hot and sticky. Some of the younger boys extend their arms like airplanes, swerving through the thick summer air, making noises with pursed lips. "Sheeew!" Roger joins in, veering this way and that. He misses Georges, his friend since nursery, who was moved to Saint Michael's after making up a game of dangling books, tied in their carrier straps like bombs. Sister Brigitte called Georges a prankster and reminded Roger that he can't afford to get into trouble. "You must keep to best behavior—I mean it, Roger."

Roger drops his arms now, bringing his books close to his chest. He has new questions that popped into his head last night.

Do bats have upside-down dreams?

Why do stars twinkle?

Does Heaven get full?

He spots Sister Brigitte, small in the folds of her habit, pink-tipped nose and eyes like sea-blue marbles, standing outside the classroom building. Roger begins asking her his questions, and though she shushes him—"Not now, you'll be late for lessons"—she pulls him in for a quick hug, fabric rustling, and presses her soft cheek to his.

The schedule is always the same:

Wake up, lave, make the bed, and morning exercise

Lauds and breakfast

Lessons

Lunch and washing dishes

Afternoon rest

Arts and crafts

Chores by rotation

Supper

Vespers and bedtime

Roger has Sister Brigitte's permission to spend rest time in the garden. Stepping-stones spiral like snail shells around tall stalks of purple iris and white lilies. Beyond the iron-slatted gate, mounded hills dabbed with wildflowers. Roger sits on the rock bench, looking past the gate, wondering who might come, and writing stories on spare pieces of paper that Sister Brigitte saves for him.

He writes about a boy who wishes to do nothing all day long, but in wishing to do nothing, he does something. He writes about two friends, a moose and a deer, who believe they are the same until they come to a lake and see their different reflections. One day Roger writes about a girl—a real girl he spots carrying a basket of dug-up plants over the hillside. In his story, she drifts to sleep dreaming of planting a garden and wakes the next morning in a full-grown flower bed.

After reading his latest, Sister Brigitte says, "Be proud of that wild imagination you got from your mère et père."

Roger wishes to write even wilder stories.

* * *

"Hey, sissy, are you writing in your diary?" Albert says, walking past, freckles splashed across his nose and cheeks.

The adults think Albert is angelic, but the kids know he is a bully. He's always mocking Roger for using the private stall in the boys' bathroom, and for turning around to undress, even as other boys chase each other, naked, hurling pillows. But Roger is doing what Brother Jacques, praising modesty, told him to do. He angles his paper away and continues writing.

The new boy, Henri, takes a seat at the far end of the bench. His shorts pouch like Roger's do, and he has nearly as many mosquito bites on his ankles. Roger keeps to his writing. Henri gave a smile earlier, but maybe he's fallen in with Albert.

"I like stories that are funny. Do you write funny stories?" Henri asks.

"Not really," Roger says.

Henri looks toward the chapel. "Have you noticed that Brother Nicolas's eyes are bloodshot?"

Roger looks up. "What's that?"

"When there are red lines in the white part."

"Like tiny lines of a map," Roger says.

"Like the roads to good and evil," Henri says, his voice pitched high in imitation of Sister Chantal.

Both boys laugh, then look around to be sure no one heard. Maybe Henri is a prankster, too, but he doesn't seem eager to get in trouble.

"I'll show you some of my stories anyway," Roger says.

Henri scooches closer on the bench.

* * *

There is only cold water at Sainte Marie's, so once a week Brother Jacques leads the boys through town to the public bathhouse. Roger and Henri walk side by side now, inhaling the street smells: fried fish, pipe smoke, garbage, the salty sea air. Brother Jacques, straight and tall like a tree, doesn't talk much, but he also doesn't quiet the boys as they chatter on their way. Henri knows lots of riddles, and he tells them to Roger. Roger doesn't know the answers to any of them, so Henri supplies them.

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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