The Girl from the Red Rose Motel
Mercer University Press
The Girl from The Red Rose Motel by Susan Zurenda delves into very relevant issues of the day. It is told from three points of view: privileged high school senior boy (Sterling), a high school junior girl whose family lives below the poverty line (Hazel), and their high school English teacher (Angela). It is a drama about relationships, showing how poverty has impacted children and having to navigate being homeless with going to high school.
The plot has Impoverished high school junior Hazel Smalls and privileged senior Sterling Lovell meeting after both were punished with in-school suspension, Sterling finds himself drawn to the gorgeous, studious girl seated nearby, and an unlikely relationship begins. Set in 2012 South Carolina, the novel interlaces the stories of Hazel, living with her homeless family in the rundown Red Rose Motel; Sterling, yearning to break free from his wealthy parents’ expectations; and recently widowed Angela Wilmore, their stern but compassionate English teacher. Hazel hides her homelessness from Sterling until he discovers her cleaning the motel’s office when he goes with his slumlord father to unfreeze the motel’s pipes one morning. With her secret revealed, their relationship deepens.
This book will tug at reader’s heartstrings. The characters are complex, and people will root for each of them. The ending may not be what readers are hoping for, but it is very realistic. There are important current issues that are covered.
Elise Cooper: Did you base it on your experiences?
Susan Zurenda: I taught English for 33 years, mostly in the community college system. In the last ten years I taught AP English in high school. The story came out of my teaching experience since I taught the 4 AP classes and a fifth class called Reading Strategies. These children were behind in their reading and writing skills. I was supposed to be a magician to get their reading skills improved so they can pass the exit exam to graduate in South Carolina. In the story the children in the AP classes and this fifth class were from different backgrounds.
EC: Were there any incidents in the book based on your actual teaching experience?
SZ: Yes. One is what starts the action in the book. When Sterling and his friends take over his AP English class. I taught these eight boys who terrorized their teachers since middle school. They have never been called to task. I had three of them in a class. They tried to one up themselves with trifle behavior. I decided to just sit at my desk and the ringleader came up and started teaching. I went to the Vice-principal and insisted these boys be punished. They called themselves ‘the crazy eights,’ and I called them ‘the hateful eightful.’
EC: Are you the AP English teacher, Angela Wilmore?
SZ: No, but I could not have written her story if I did not have the teacher experience and knowledge. Angela is a lot nicer and funkier than I ever was. She is very stern and caring just like myself. She does not have children of her own. She helps the student Hazel when her family cannot help. Angela becomes Hazel’s foster mother. The inspiration for Angela becoming a foster parent was a friend of mine, a teacher of the year. She did it because the child had no place to go.
EC: How would you describe Sterling?
SZ: He is very smart, in the AP class, but misbehaves so he finds himself in ISS, in school suspension. He does have some baggage because of what happened in his childhood. He is an arrogant, rude, disrespectful brilliant, affluent boy.
EC: How would you describe Hazel?
SZ: She is shy, quiet, and shameful of her desolate situation, having to live in a hotel. She does not seek out friends.
EC: How about the relationship between Hazel and Sterling?
SZ: When he starts to show he likes her she does not believe he is serious. It is a while until she opens up to him. She grows throughout the novel. Sterling and Angela show her it is possible to get out of the world of poverty. She becomes more self-confident, logical, and level-headed. I did hear of students living in run down motels, considered homeless. A guidance counselor I know started the organization CAST: Care, Accept, Share, and Teach, to assist families.
EC: What was the role of the Red Rose Motel?
SZ: I wanted to separate the families who are homeless from the drug addicts and mentally disabled. There are a lot of families with children who are homeless. In January 2022 there are about 350,000 children nationwide living in hotels because their families were evicted. There is a lack of affordable housing. The family gets evicted because they do not make enough money to afford a rental unit so they move to the Red Rose Motel.
EC: Next book?
SZ: I do not know if I will write another book.