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Hazel Prior | A Heroine at Eighty-Six

June 16, 2020

I used to think that dreams were the domain of the young. I assumed that by the time you reached, say, thirty you had everything sorted, you settled down and life got dull. Then I reached thirty and changed my mind… maybe forty was the age? But when I reached forty, that didn’t seem to be the case. Now I’ve found myself on the wrong (or is it the right?) side of fifty… and I’m still looking forward rather than back.

This may be because I was a late bloomer. I drifted and I dreamed. Then a nasty, long-term illness jolted me into the realization that life wouldn’t last forever. I was already in my forties by the time I was finally diagnosed and fixed by surgery. The amazing gift of being able to function again gave me the determination I needed to knuckle down. Yet it still took years of harp practice before I could call myself a musician. And my first novel, Ellie And The Harp Maker, was only published last year.

Perhaps it is not surprising I chose an older woman for the heroine of my second book, How The Penguins Saved Veronica. So many novels have protagonists reaching fulfillment, tragedy, or happy-ever-after in their twenties, and I wanted to show a different side. Although we develop at different rates, I suspect a person is never fully-formed. Our life’s evolution isn’t a steady progression, however. It sometimes stagnates and then goes in spurts, depending on events and our reactions to them. As for life getting dull – No way!

Several people I know have blown me away with their wonderful it’s-never-too-late attitude. For example, one of my students started learning the harp at the age of eighty-nine and bought her first harp for her ninetieth birthday! And my neighbor’s father took up skydiving in his eighties. These are extreme examples, but show how we never stop learning or having new adventures. Every year that passes adds to our rich bank of experiences, our store of stories. The logical conclusion is that the older you are, the more interesting you are – so wouldn’t an octogenarian be the perfect heroine?

Veronica McCreedy is eighty-six when she has her adventure with the penguins. We all tend to judge by appearances, and the first thing you’d notice about Veronica if you met her might be her age. But I wanted to show her as a complete person; I wanted to make you review this initial impression, just as her grandson does. So you get to see her as a young girl, too, and you are gradually shown some of the elements that have shaped her. These days she has slipped into certain habits: tea-drinking, litter-picking, and dishing out scorn, but there is much, much more to her than this. Look inside the dry old lady exterior and you will find a vitality and strength to rival that of many young people. And she cares deeply about things, much more than she’s prepared to let on.

Veronica’s advanced age also gave me the opportunity to delve into history. Wartime Britain interests me particularly because my parents were alive then. My father was in the RAF. My mother – who would have been contemporary with Veronica – was a teenager, and her entire school was relocated to a country mansion in the north of England (I used this idea in the book). Veronica has witnessed extraordinary changes in society. She lived in an era without computers, traffic, and smartphones, but at the same time, the whole population was living on a knife-edge. The moral values were completely different as well – oh, the shame of having a baby when you weren’t married! The double-shame of sleeping with the enemy…!

What Veronica’s tragic experiences have given her – along with certain prejudices and a fear of forming close relationships – is resilience. This resilience is perhaps one of the reasons she’s so drawn to penguins.

Like Veronica, penguins are feisty and stubborn. They defy harsh conditions and refuse to be beaten. But, unlike Veronica, they communicate and cooperate. They live in a vast community and do everything together. Ever since Veronica’s teenage tragedies, she has remained closed to human contact (reflected by her obsession with keeping doors closed). As she witnesses the penguins’ mutual support system, Veronica begins to realise what has been lacking in her own life. Penguins are the perfect teachers for her.

The cruel side of getting old is, of course, the physical deterioration. Although Veronica is now robust for her years she’s deeply frustrated by the aging process. Her body has become an encumbrance that won’t work as well as she wants it to and she hates the fact that she now has to operate within this unreliable vehicle. In a way, however, her body’s failings also serve her because she is eager to contradict naysayers and prove what she can do. She pushes herself to her limits. When her body nearly gives out, her spirit fights on. I believe this is the stuff of true heroism.


How the Penguins Saved Veronica

A curmudgeonly but charming old woman, her estranged grandson, and a colony of penguins proves it’s never too late to be the person you want to be in this rich, heartwarming story from the acclaimed author of Ellie and the Harpmaker.

Eighty-five-year-old Veronica McCreedy is estranged from her family and wants to find a worthwhile cause to leave her fortune to. When she sees a documentary about penguins being studied in Antarctica, she tells the scientists she’s coming to visit–and won’t take no for an answer. Shortly after arriving, she convinces the reluctant team to rescue an orphaned baby penguin. He becomes part of life at the base, and Veronica’s closed heart starts to open.

Her grandson, Patrick, comes to Antarctica to make one last attempt to get to know his grandmother. Together, Veronica, Patrick, and even the scientists learn what family, love, and connection are all about.

Women’s Fiction [Berkley, On Sale: June 16, 2020, Trade Size / e-Book, ISBN: 9781984803818 / eISBN: 9781984803818]

About Hazel Prior

Hazel Prior

HAZEL PRIOR is a harpist based in Exmoor, England. Originally from Oxford, she fell in love with the harp as a student and now performs regularly. She’s had short stories published in literary magazines and has won numerous writing competitions in the UK.


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