If you’re a writer and you’re 97 and want more to do than most nonagenarians, you write a book. Since it’s 2012, you write an e-book.
Virginia Heide Stuart, J/MS 1936, is the proud author of a work of young adult fantasy fiction called Immigrant Elf. Published in January, it has started to get traction on Amazon and other book sites.
The idea for the book comes from stories that Stuart developed for her children when they were small, and she said it “kind of percolated” over the years. It involves a lonely Danish orphan, Kristin, who meets an elf named Nikke in the woods. He proclaims himself as her friend and protector, a role he has inherited because of an ancient oath. When Kristin’s grandmother dies, and she is sent to stay with family in America, it seems she’s about to lose her only friend. Then Nikke decides to immigrate with her.
In America, the orphan and the elf meet fascinating people, in the process discovering that home isn’t necessarily about where you are so much as who you are with.
It is a valuable lesson for teenagers, said the Greensboro, Vermont, widow.
“My favorite things to read are science fiction and fantasy,” noted Stuart. “Writing Immigrant Elf is the first time I tried fantasy.”
Her first book, a gripping novel of courage, Candle in a Dark Time, is about the Danish resistance during World War II. When it came out in 2004, it was named “Book of the Year” by Online Review of Books. Today, Candle in a Dark Time has been reformatted as an e-book and is also available on Amazon and other sites.
She moved from Princeton to Vermont a number of years ago and lives independently in the scenic lakeside Vermont community where she and her family spent their summers.
Her daughter is Anne Stuart, one of the most renowned romantic fiction writers in America. Stuart calls her mother “a wonder and an inspiration.”
The elder Stuart spends her mornings reading and her afternoons writing on a Mac computer (“I love a Mac,” she said). She uses email to communicate with fans and with members of her writing group in Princeton that came together 25 years ago. Now she is slogging through her memoirs.
Those memoirs, she said, are full of Rutgers stories. Born to Danish immigrant parents, Stuart had decided at an early age to become a writer. She received a full scholarship to New Jersey College (NJC), which became Douglass College.
From the moment she claimed journalism as her major, one of the few women out of hundreds of men in those pre-World War II days, she threw herself into reporting. She was Quair yearbook editor, writer for the literary magazine Pine Cone, and theater critic for NJC’s weekly newspaper, the Campus News.
“One of the best things about editing Quair was the working weekend at old Jimmy Neilson’s mansion, which was a part of the NJC campus [today it is Wood Lawn, home to the Eagleton Institute of Politics],” Stuart said. “In early NJC years, passing students were often invited in for tea. The Quair weekend was elegant. We were waited on hand and foot, had marvelous food, etc. It felt like a haute monde weekend in a British drama!”
In class, she recalled, “our professors had us write for a sort of in-class newspaper, which gave us tremendous experience,” Stuart recalled. The journalists-in-training covered not only campus events but news from New Brunswick, including crime.
“The paper wasn’t distributed,” she said. “However, if you worked for The Targum, you could use the same stories you wrote in class. We women developed stories for Campus News.”
The highlight of her academic journalism experience was covering the Bruno Hauptmann trial in Flemington in January and February 1935. Hauptmann, a carpenter of German heritage, had been accused of kidnapping the infant son of aviator Charles Lindbergh from the family’s Hunterdon County estate and murdering the boy.
The trial was covered by hundreds of members of the national and international media. According to Stuart, influential Rutgers journalism professors had succeeded in getting press credentials for their students.
After graduate school at Columbia, she had a trailblazing career as the first woman editor at Princeton University Press, a writer for Harper’s and other magazines, a public relations practitioner for Princeton University Medical Center, an employee of the state in the area of mental health, and an instructor of writing at Mercer County Community College.
During her career Stuart said she always used the writing skills she had been taught at J/MS. She remembers Rutgers journalism with great fondness.
“It was a marvelous program,” said Stuart. “The training I got was so thorough that I was able to do anything I was called on to do in my career.”