Deahn Berrini – Milkweed: A Novel. Reviewed by Charlene Peters

(“The Road to Milkweed,” in Ipswich Chronicle, July 07, 2009)

The seeds of Deahn Berrini’s idea to become a published author were planted early. She recalls, as a toddler, longing to be able to read what was in the bookshelves of her childhood home in Ipswich. In fifth grade, her teacher suggested she publish the storybook she wrote for an assignment. When she finally decided she wanted to write, Louisa May Alcott and Sherlock Holmes were influences, to be sure. But her true inspiration? “Harriet the Spy.”

“I thought, ‘What a good idea — to write down what you’re saying!’” says Berrini, who in her mid-40s just published her first novel, “Milkweed,” and will be at Spirit of ‘76 Bookstore in Marblehead on Wednesday, July 15, 6-8 p.m., for a book-signing event.

The title draws upon the symbolism of the monarch butterfly egg’s dependency on milkweed, connecting it with Mark, the main character, a botanist who is so dependent on one thing that, when it’s taken away, he can’t seem to put his life together.

Putting a life together could be Berrini’s autobiography, but for now, her focus is on “Milkweed.”

Getting a book published is an arduous process on its own, but for this new author, it’s been a path she’s been paving for a particularly long time. Growing up in Ipswich as one of three daughters of a divorced mother, Berrini learned at a young age that she had to think practical. Risk-taking was not part of her makeup. So she put her dreams aside and attended Brown University on a full scholarship, focused on “making it.”

“I really wanted to go somewhere else,” she says.

For a time, “somewhere else” was in Rhode Island, attending an Ivy League college. But reading would be her only true escape from a prudent life.

“You read a book and you’re somewhere else,” says a wistful Berrini, who saw a bit of herself in Alcott, her literary heroine, at an early age.

“I can do that, too,” she thought.

But it would take some time before Berrini could muster up the courage to follow through.

She majored in history at Brown, but grew increasingly impatient with talking about history.

“I just wanted to read,” she says.

Her poetry and English classes helped fill the void. But practicality was still in Berrini’s mindset. From Brown, she attended law school at Boston University.

“I disliked the whole ordeal,” she says candidly of her law experience.

But she came to a determination: “If I can go through law school, I can do anything. I can write a book.”

But she didn’t. Instead, she began teaching history to paralegals.

“Teaching was better than being a lawyer,” she states with conviction.

And then, just when she thought she would have to be practical forever, she married, moved to Nahant and finally felt a sense of security that enabled her to pursue her dreams. That was more than 17 years ago, and after she gave birth to her first child, Alexander, she began to craft fiction regularly while he was napping. Her daughter Charlotte was born three years after Alexander, and with the help of a mother’s assistant, her writing continued. She was writing a novel about living in a haunted house in Nahant, a book that went nowhere, and one she now says she should have “shred.”

Next, she wrote a book of short stories that gave her confidence to continue the slow process of becoming an author.

She entered it into a contest. She didn’t win, but judge Richard Currey, author of three books, including “Crossing Over: A Vietnam Journal,” wrote her a letter, encouraging her to continue, saying that she was a good writer.

Her intention was to pursue the book of short stories, but Berrini got sidetracked when she met a woman who told her about her husband, who had gone missing-in-action in Vietnam.

“It changed everything,” says Berrini. “They never found the body.”

The empathy she derived from this woman gave her incentive to start her novel, “Milkweed.”

“I went home and said, ‘That’s my book!’ I realized I had something, and I knew the plot would work,” says Berrini, who then utilized her background in history and began interviewing veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Milkweed” came about before the war in Iraq, but once the current events surfaced, Berrini decided it didn’t matter that she remained focused on Vietnam veterans, because all veterans experience the same PTSD.

“The symptoms are the same for every war,” she states, referencing Homer’s epic, “The Odyssey,” which she recommends as a “page-turner.”

A New Chapter

Now living in Swampscott with her husband and two children, Berrini had been teaching English composition as an adjunct professor at North Shore Community College up until three years ago. She left after a writing-group member referred her to an agent, who read “Milkweed” and believed in its potential for success. The Vermont-based agent, Sally Brady, helped Berrini with edits and, to her credit, left intact a perhaps obscure reference to 20th-century photographer Diane Arbus in order to build a character who loves photography and art.

“[The reference] was true to the character, true to the theme,” says Berrini.

Brady knew the book could sell, but what she didn’t know was that her husband would die, and subsequently she would become too ill to work. Berrini was left to her own devices. But as she steeled herself, Somerset Press got in touch with her.

The publishing company had previously been sent a copy and offered to get the book going for Berrini, who needed little convincing to sign on with them without an agent. She felt worn out from the “process” and didn’t want to pursue another agent.

“If you like it, publish it,” she said.

The novel, set in Salem and Ipswich, depicts a veteran’s return home, and, in addition to PTSD, focuses on hard-working Greek immigrants and the changing role of women in the ‘70s. The book lacks the extreme violence that today seems necessary to sell more books. But Berrini says she had to hold true to her self in portraying such a sensitive subject.

“It’s awful watching Iraq events unfold, and the unwelcome tone with welcome arms,” she says of the irony.

Berrini deepened her understanding of how difficult it is to recover and deal with everyday life after one serves our country by reading “The Odyssey” and its prequel, “The Iliad.”

“It’s saddening,” she says of her research, which has opened her mind for more writing. She continues to be inspired through students in the writing classes she teaches at the Swampscott Senior Center, of which she has been offering for eight years.

“[The seniors] have so much to say,” she says. “And many have been writing on their own for decades.”

Understanding the path Berrini took to get to “Milkweed,” one may be convinced that the story is more than about the ordeal of a veteran dealing with everyday life, but of Berrini’s pursuit of her own passion.

Because in hindsight, she believes that all those years ago, when she was thinking practical, she should have taken the risk.