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COURTESY PHOTO - Kristina McMorris is the author of a new book, 'The Edge of Lost,' about Alcatraz Island.In October 1937, while living on Alcatraz Island, the 10-year-old daughter of a prison guard goes missing and only convicted bank robber Tommy Capello knows why.


“The Edge of Lost” (Kensington Fiction, $15) is Happy Valley-based writer Kristina McMorris’s latest work of historical fiction. In it she tells the story of two boys, Nick Capello and Shanley. One boy is Irish, the other is Italian. While not blood brothers, they form a kind of family.

Shan is a born entertainer and because of his “Black Irish” physical characteristics he can pass for Italian. Good thing because the need arises when his degenerate uncle dies en route to America. Shan’s talent for mimicry and vocal tricks, a survival skill honed in bars back in Ireland, helps him when a family of Italian immigrants lets him squeeze through immigration lines at Ellis Island posing as their son.

Shan’s New World adventure unfolds. He learns to survive while struggling to find an identity within his adopted family. Living on his wits, Shan nonetheless often winds up in the wrong place at the wrong time, resulting in a tragic break from his “family” and a trip to Alcatraz.

The reader traipses through the early 1900s from Dublin bars to 19th-century Brooklyn, N.Y. We meet historical figures in passing like the vaudeville performer George M. Cohan and Al Capone along the way.

Prior books by McMorris have been set during World War II. “The Edge of Lost,” McMorris’s fourth, “is the one that’s taken me most outside my comfort zone,” she says by phone from her grandmother’s home in the Olympic Peninsula.

COURTESY PHOTO - 'The Edge of Lost' is about Alcatraz Island.Themes of shifting identity and assimilation run through the book. An immigrant’s daughter herself, McMorris’ father is the local sauce king Junki Yoshida. “There are so many similarities between the different immigrant cultures in family structure.”

McMorris’s maternal grandfather was described as “Black Irish,” and he often was mistaken for Italian with his darker looks, she says. This inspired the character Shan, the Irish boy who hides his true identity among the Italian family who takes him in.

The novel begins on Alcatraz — the anti-Happy Valley — a place the writer has been fascinated by since she watched “Children of Alcatraz,” a documentary in which grown children of the prison staff describe meeting and interacting with prisoners, even befriending some. One claims to have played checkers with the infamous Robert Stroud, aka The Birdman of Alcatraz, portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the 1962 film.

After seeing the documentary, McMorris knew she had the nugget of an idea for her next book.

“I read a lot of memoirs and took a night tour of Alcatraz so I could picture exactly what I needed to write the book. I talked to many park rangers and historians. It’s the most research-heavy book I’ve written,” McMorris says.

She praises Multnomah County Library’s research librarians for saving her hours of time that otherwise would have been lost down online rabbit holes searching for precise period details on topics such as vaudeville, burlesque and early Italian Mafia culture. “The librarians are absolutely wonderful,” she said. “I would text them questions 24 hours a day, live chat, and they would send links for further research.”

The highlight of her research was interviewing a woman who spent much of her childhood on Alcatraz.

McMorris will appear at the Holiday Cheer book event at the Oregon Historical Society, Dec. 6. Upcoming events

• The Holiday Cheer author event will be at the Oregon Historical Society, 1200 S.W. Park Ave. from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6. It’s free to attend. Hot chocolate will flow as readers stroll among the many books and writers assembled at the 48th annual book sale and signing. All of the authors are Oregonians who published a new book within the last year. The long list includes writers Philip Margolin, Dana Haynes, Matt Love, Brian Doyle, and Janie Hibler among others.

• Saturdays at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St., are for the kids. Weekly storytime in the children’s section starts at 11 a.m. where young readers sit on the carpet engrossed by stories read aloud by Powell’s staff. This week’s story is “We’re in the Wrong Book!” followed by an appearance from The Grinch and a reading of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”

• Legendary restaurant critic and man of exquisite taste Roger Porter reads from his new anthology of food writing “Eating Words” at Powell’s, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 8.

• Proving it’s never too late to avenge a cruel ballet instructor, Lauren Kessler reads from “Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, and My Midlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker,” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 9 at Powell’s.

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