Back on the Bookshelf


A French classic is back on the shelves of American bookstores after being out of print in English for nearly fifteen years, largely because a Duke professor wanted a copy her children could read.
Political science professor Ruth Grant shrugs off the importance of her role in getting Joseph Joffo’s A Bag of Marbles back in translation, but the publisher says the memoir of two boys’ experience evading deportation to Jewish camps during the World War II years of the Vichy government’s Nazi collaboration would never have been reprinted in the United States without her. “It’s not a project we would have picked up without prodding from Ruth,” says Maggie Hivnor, an editor at University of Chicago Press, which has published Grant’s books on political science topics. “The only reason we considered it [was] that she recommended it.”

The book has been in continuous publication in France since Joffo’s story first rolled off the presses in 1973. A bestseller in his native country, the book subsequently was translated into eighteen languages. However, printings in English ceased in the mid-1980s. Grant discovered the book while taking a course on campus. She wanted to brush up on her French before co-hosting a bilingual conference at Duke, and signed up for an intermediate-level language course taught by Romance languages graduate student Jennifer Terni. “Jennifer is an exceptional teacher. When she teaches French, she tends to use a historical period to give context to the language,” Grant says. “She assigned the book. Afterwards, I wanted my kids to read it.” Terni, who grew up in Montreal, was introduced to A Bag of Marbles as a teenager. She says the book made a big impression on her. Though a memoir, it has elements of an adventure novel, with the two boys striking out on their own in an adult world, using the system and scheming to survive. “There are moments that are seriously dark. At one point both the boys are caught by the Gestapo. If one of them breaks, both of them die,” Terni says. “It’s an interesting story on the human level: There’s the persecution, but they are just boys, and they benefit from the kindness of strangers, people who help them.” After the class ended, Grant found the book wasn’t available in English, so she called her editor to ask how one gets a book back in print. That launched a complex negotiation process that eventually involved three publishing houses and led to top executives from Houghton Mifflin, which owns the English rights to the book, traveling to France to meet with executives from Joffo’s publisher, Lattes.“Most paperback reprints are pretty routine, but this one involved a great deal of work on the part of many people,” says Hivnor. “It was a joint effort: Everyone had to be patient and cooperative—the original French publisher, the original American publisher, our contracts manager, Ruth Grant, the translator, and the author.”

The initial push to get the project rolling didn’t end the Duke involvement. Editions since the last English printings included a discussion by the author of questions he had received from readers through the years. The afterword includes Joffo’s perspective on why people risked helping him and his brother, why the family split up to escape, and what happened to the author as an adult. The afterword, from a re-issue of a French edition, had not been translated into English. So Grant persuaded editor Hivnor to hire Terni for the job.
The book, in paperback, hit the shelves at the end of the holiday season.
Terni says the experience has been an opportunity to both teach and learn. By introducing students and now a broader American reading public to Joffo’s memoir, she says he hopes she will help “remind a new generation about the war.” And Grant has accomplished her goal. Now that it’s in English, she reports that her twelve-year-old and twin seventeen-year-olds, as well as her husband and mother, all have read the book. “Everyone loves it,” she says.

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