The Windeby Puzzle: History and Story
"ingenious . . . We all have stories to tell, and Lowry provides a shining example of what a gift these stories can be."
Lois Lowry, two-time Newbery Award winner, has done something ingenious in The Windeby Puzzle. She's taken an intriguing historical mystery and spun two very different stories from the same set of clues. Each story is followed by a short chapter on the history that undergirds each narrative, allowing the reader a peek at Lowry's research and writing process. We see how she uses history and how she gives her characters lives that are both uniquely theirs and conform to the times they lived in. She's provided, in fact, a template on how to write historical fiction by showing the kinds of questions she asks, the avenues she explores.
Starting with the skeleton of a young teenager found in a German bog, Lowry presents the evidence that first sparked her interest in this story. In 1952, some men cutting through a peatbog discovered a body. Lowry explains how peatbogs have been known to hold secrets like this. Their unique conditions keep bodies relatively intact, even for many, many years:
"Found centuries later, some of the dead are said to resemble deflated rubber dolls. There are expressions on their faces, and the men have stubble on their chins. Some have trimmed fingernails, and hair carefully braided and arranged."
The Windeby body was said to be a young girl, around 13 years old, with a calm expression and no signs of a violent death. Lowry was intrigued. Who was this girl and what was her story? Lowry decided to do some research on life in Germany in the first century CE, the date given to the girl's remains. But beyond the history, she would need imagination to tell her personal story. And she would already know the ending, which wasn't a happy one:
"No matter what details and activities I could create to give her an imagined life, it would still end when she was thirteen years old, dead in a bog, with a woven blindfold over her eyes. Why?"
Lowry, a master storyteller, is up to the challenge. Her girl is named Estrild and she wants more from life than the usual restrictions girls and women faced:
"Her mother would never understand. Neither did her friends, the other village girls her age. They wanted all that: the beauty, the sidelong looks of admiration from young warriors. But Estrild's passion was someplace else. She thirsted for what the boys had: the strength. The power."
Estrild trains to be warrior like her brothers. She's driven by the need to avenge the death of a beloved uncle, an urge to prove herself. Lowry knows how unlikely all this is, but allows Estrild her chance, at least in fiction. In the history section following the story, Lowry admits:
"the rules for females in that very early history, the first century, the Iron Age, were probably never challenged. Women had a role: a hard one, that of having many babies, burying most of them, nourishing the ones that survived. . . . They probably complained now and then. But there wouldn't have been time or energy or any encouragement for even the gentlest rebellion. So Estrild's story is a made-up one. It is fiction. I hope you rooted for her anyway."
It may be fiction, but Estrild's village, her family, her world is given a solid form with Lowry's words. That is the power of a good story. And that world is expanded on in the second story, spurred by yet more of Lowry's research.
"But that isn't the end. Along the way I discovered a new and important puzzle piece, something that would reshape the narrative."
The new clue came from an American professor who studied the Windeby Girl 50 years after her original unearthing. In the intervening decades, new tools had been developed, scientific methods to better understand such remains. It turned out that the Windeby girl was actually a boy, around 16 years old, in bad health, who most likely died a natural death from disease or starvation. What had been considered a blindfold was more likely a cloth tie for his hair that had fallen over his face as the body lay in the peat bog.
Which meant Lowry had a whole new story to invent. She names the boy Varick, a character the reader has already seen in Estrild's story. Just as she gave Estrild a distinctive personality, she gives Varick the character of a young scientist. He studies birds and animals, examines their bones to understand how they're put together. His body may be weak, but his mind soars. In the history section after Varick's story, Lowry again explains a bit about her process, what drew her to tell these stories and imagine how Estrild and then Varick could have died.
"Although I was creating fiction, it was to be based on truth . . . One part of why I wrote the stories was to solve that puzzle, to try to guess at a cause, some reason that meshed with history, for a young person's life to end so abruptly and in such a desolate, forbidding place."
In exploring the mystery, Lowry encourages readers to become historians themselves and think about their own lives as historical. We all have stories to tell, and Lowry provides a shining example of what a gift these stories can be.