Finding hope while studying penguins

A quirky adventure following an unusual heroine, “How the Penguins Saved Veronica” tells the story of wealthy 85-year-old Veronica McCreedy, who lives alone in a Scottish mansion. Feisty, stubborn and at times whimsical, McCreedy decided to use her large inheritance in funding a group of scientists who study penguins in Antarctica.

But all that money comes with one condition — she wants to meet the penguins.

“The main inspiration of my book was a friend of mine who’s obsessed with penguins,” author Hazel Prior said. “When her husband died, she found an extraordinary strategy of coping with her grief: she decided to travel round the world visiting penguins, her aim to get photos of every penguin species in its native habitat. She’s had such fun with her mission. I’ve always felt that the natural world can bring us healing in many ways, but I decided a story about healing through penguins would be extra-special.”

Prior said she decided to make Veronica older because she’s been incredibly inspired by people she knows who have started learning new things, from harp-playing to sky-diving, in their 80s and 90s.

“I love their ‘it’s-never-too-late’ attitude,” she said. “And they have experienced so many changes in their lives. Having an octogenarian as my main character gave me the chance to delve back into wartime history, which is another interest of mine.”

It’s also important for other reasons.

“Our society leads us to believe that it’s better in every way to be young,” Prior said. “It would have us think that at 30 the best part of your life is over, at 40 nobody notices you anymore and from 50 onwards you may as well not exist — particularly if you’re a woman. This is so wrong. I admire people who are hungry for life, who go out and seek new experiences regardless of their age. For example, a friend of mine started learning the harp at the age of 90. And my neighbor’s father took up skydiving in his 80s. These are extreme examples, but we never stop dreaming, learning or having new adventures. Every year that passes adds to our rich bank of experiences. The logical conclusion is that the older you are, the more interesting you are — so wouldn’t an octogenarian be the perfect heroine?”

Speaking of harps, when Prior was a student in Scotland, she found an old broken Celtic harp in a cupboard and decided to learn how to play it, which wasn’t quite as easy as it sounded.

“But the harp has always been a source of magic and wonder for me,” she says. “It’s an instrument with a sound that’s just so evocative and moving. The Celtic harp was the inspiration for my debut novel, ‘Ellie And the Harp Maker.’”

Asked if she has any special take-aways for readers, Prior answered that she would like to highlight the importance of caring for this planet that we share with so much amazing wildlife. Adélie penguins are just one of the many species threatened by climate change.

“But overall, ‘How the Penguins Saved Veronica’ is a fun book,” she said. “Penguins are not only sweet and charming; they also set us a wonderful example of determination, gusto and cheerfulness in the face of hard conditions — a lesson that’s very relevant in our current times. If I could sum up the message of the book in one word, that word would be ‘hope.’”

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