by Jennifer Smith
Say the name "James DeVita" in Wisconsin, and thoughts are likely to turn to the stage, not the page. DeVita has spent thirteen years as a core company member of American Players Theatre, the acclaimed classical repertory theater in Spring Green. DeVita is also the resident playwright for First Stage Children's Theater in Milwaukee. But in addition to his identities as actor and playwright, DeVita is also a novelist, and his second book, "The Silenced," was published in June, 2007, by Laura Geringer Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.
DeVita's 2001 novel, "Blue," was aimed at middle-grade readers. With "The Silenced," DeVita moves on to older readersteens and young adultswith a dark, gritty tale about life in a repressive, totalitarian society in the not-so-distant future. With the Zero Tolerance Party cracking down, forbidding citizens even to read and write, gutsy Marena and her friends Dex and Eric have to decide if they have the courage to stand up for freedom and what they know is right. Marena knows the stakes are highthe ZT Party has already murdered her mother and placed her father under house arrest.
DeVita based the character of Marena and the larger theme of resistance to repression on Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. As a German university student, Scholl, her brother Hans and their friends created a group they called the White Rose, leafleting the city of Munich and encouraging defiance of the Nazi regime. Their identities were discovered, and, as a result, Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl and their friend Christoph Probst were executed by the Nazis in February, 1943. Other members of the White Rose were executed or imprisoned later that year. Sophie Scholl was just 21 at the time of her execution.
Sophie Scholl has long been a personal hero to DeVita. "She, as a person, fascinates me. I think, my God, look at what this young person was doing when she was 21," says the writer/actor. He discovered his hero by chance: "I came across her by accident, doing a [theater] show at Marquette University about fifteen years ago. I saw a bulletin board with a clipping, something about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, something about being arrested and persecuted for distributing leaflets. I was really intrigued. How could you get in trouble just for passing leaflets?"
As DeVita learned more about Scholl's life and its historical context, he says, "I was in awe of what she didthe sense of her bravery, what it took for her to stand up."
Scholl's story remained in DeVita's mind for a long time and eventually became the basis for a 2001 play called "Zero Tolerance." Even earlier than that, in 1999, he began working on the manuscript that became "The Silenced." While "The Silenced" began as a fairly literal re-telling of the story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, over time, DeVita made his interpretation looser, setting his tale in the near future in the United States. In fact, "The Silenced" takes place in a hilly, rural area not unlike Spring Green, where DeVita lives with his wife and their two children.
The events of September 11, 2001, also had an effect on DeVita's book. As the author says, "I started this book before 9/11, in 1999. The guts of it were there, although it has changed. After 9/11 happened, I actually had to change some things. I wanted to present this responsibly." DeVita did not want to deal literally or superficially with current events that were still unfolding. Rather, given the historic inspiration for the book and its resonance in different times and places, he wanted to take a broader approach. A literature fellowship in fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts allowed DeVita to take winters off from his other work and finish the novel.
Asked why he has chosen to write for teens and young adults about a teenage protagonist, DeVita says, "I enjoy writing from the viewpoint of someone younger than myself. When I'm in their minds, I'm less jaded. I have a more innocent view of the world." Connecting that observation with his work in children's theater, DeVita notes, "In my other work, it's often younger people who re-inspire me, who make me realize why I enjoy doing what I do."
Positive reviews are beginning to roll in for "The Silenced." Kathleen Isaacs, writing for Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association, commented, "Gripping suspense combined with satisfyingly capable teen characters make this a good [young adult] read... A convincing dystopia with echoes of Nazi Germany." In VOYA, a magazine for librarians who work with young adults, Rayna Patton wrote, "The gripping plot will engage readers and raise fundamental questions about individual responsibility and the cost of conscience."
Questions are exactly what DeVita intended to raise with "The Silenced." "You'll see that both sides of the argument get painted pretty well. In the early drafts, the bad guys were the bad guys," he notes. "Later on, you see that people are doing what they thought was good for the country. And it's not easy for the young people in the book to know what to do."
Summing up his own views, DeVita states, "Extremism on any side is dangerous. I write about things I don't have any answers to; that's why I write it. I have tried to make the book complicated. To what extent that's successful will be up to the reader."