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Historical novel explores phenomenon of night terrors

Two women from different eras are at the heart of Kristina McMorris’s novel “The Pieces We Keep.” But the private struggles of another character provide a fascinating depiction of a surprisingly common phenomenon.

Audra Hughes is a young mother living in present-day Portland, Ore., with 7-year-old son Jack. She is still grieving two years after her husband’s death, while Jack is afflicted with violent recurring night terrors.

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To try to discover what is haunting Jack, Audra uses bits of information revealed during these nightly episodes and from Jack’s artwork depicting a World War II plane crash. This quest leads Audra to a young Army veteran wounded in Afghanistan. Together, they begin to unravel a mystery dating back to the war.

The other heroine, Vivian James, is the daughter of an American diplomat in London at the start of WWII. Vivien has fallen in love with Isaak, an American of German descent. When Vivien returns stateside, she begins to question Isaak’s allegience to her and to his country.

With gripping suspense, the novel alternates chapter by chapter between the two heroines and two time periods. Only in the end do we discover how Audra’s and Vivien’s lives are linked by secrets that echo across generations.

While readers might be quick to classify this novel as a romance or mystery, this classification doesn’t do justice to its strong historical focus.

The novel’s story line is based in part on a true account of Nazi saboteurs who were dropped off by a U-boat on the East Coast in 1942.

With gripping suspense, the novel alternates . . . between the two heroines and two time periods.

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Similarly, the premise that Jack’s night terrors reveal information dating back to WWII was inspired by a news story in which a boy’s parents became convinced that their son’s nightmares of a WWII fighter plane crash were evidence of a past life, and were based on verifiable historical data.

Whether young Jack’s visions are evidence of a child’s vivid imagination, reincarnation, or a function of stress, from my point of view as a psychologist, McMorris does an excellent job of portraying the physical and emotional toll that night terrors can have on parents who witness them.

Night terrors in children are sometimes confused with nightmares, but in fact are different phenomema.

Most notably, night terrors in children occur during deep sleep somewhere between midnight and 2 a.m. In contrast, nightmares occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in very early morning hours when dream details may be remembered. While both are disruptive, nightmares tend to peak a bit later in middle childhood and often contribute to a child’s ongoing anxiety and increasing insomnia.

With night terrors, parents may be awakened by the cries of a child, but when they offer comfort, they find that the child is oblivious to his or her surroundings and cannot be awakened or consoled despite appearing highly agitated.

Children may scream, appear disoriented, thrash around violently, say things like “get away” or “get off,” sweat, breathe very fast, and have a rapid heartbeat and dilated pupils. The whole episode may last 10 to 20 minutes, then the child falls back to sleep.

While night terrors can be dramatic and upsetting for a parent or caregiver, it is a benign event for the child and has no long-term consequences. In fact, most children will remember nothing of the episode the next morning. While night terrors are surprisingly common in children from ages 3 to 7, they typically disappear by age 12.

This nocturnal event is called a “parasomnia” by the medical profession, a classification that includes sleepwalking, and seems to have a genetic component. Triggers may include over-tiredness, fever, anxiety, stress, or disordered breathing during sleep. Sleep specialists say that while a child must be kept from physically hurting himself or herself during a night terror, efforts to wake the child abruptly may in fact, prolong the episode and increase the child’s agitation.

Parents will easily relate to “The Pieces We Keep.” Who among us would not be desperate to find the source of our child’s inner turmoil when we see it surface in such a dramatic presentation? But McMorris’s novel is also an expertly woven and richly satisfying work of historical fiction that will touch any reader who has experienced love, loss, tragedy, or the impact of family secrets.

Nancy Harris can be reached at dr.nancy23@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @DrNancy_Globe.
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