One of the great pleasures of writing for me is researching historical events and details that help me understand and more fully realize the lived experience of my characters. The research I did for my second novel, Your Mouth is Lovely, for example, opened up a world to me—that of early 20th century life in the villages and prisons of the Russian Pale of Settlement—that I had previously only encountered filtered through the imaginations of the great fiction writers of that era. For my most recent novel, however, I decided not to do to any formal research. The Imposter Bride is set in the Jewish community of Montreal in the years immediately following the Second World War. It is told from the perspective of a young woman named Ruthie who is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. I wanted to stay true to the knowledge Ruthie would have had at that time—the 1950’s and early 60’s—both within her own family and within the larger Jewish community, rather than superimpose onto her narrative the knowledge that we now have about the Holocaust. I wanted to convey what it was like to be a child—as I myself was—at a time when the truth of what had happened to many of the adults in the community was just slowly beginning to emerge.
In the years immediately following the war the details about what had happened in Europe were not widely discussed and taught as they are today. The refugees coming over from Europe faced a wide variety of reactions, including compassion, of course, but also aversion, a certain condescension and varying degrees of ignorance. What had happened during the Holocaust was not yet taught in schools, and was not written down in history books, nor did the adult survivors who lived among us expressly articulate what they had experienced. The truth of what happened in Europe was revealed to us slowly and often indirectly, through behaviors, the lingering fears and reactions that we witnessed, the tattooed numbers that we could see on the arms of some of our teachers and parents, and only the occasional verbal comment or description. It was Ruthie’s experience of that time that I wanted to convey and to do that I relied on my own memories of that era and those of my siblings, friends and cousins, rather than doing formal research about the facts of the time.
The first step for me in writing fiction is deciding which of my characters is telling the story. I might sense an entire novel taking form inside of me but if I start writing from the wrong point of view I cannot find the story I want to tell. My most recent novel, The Imposter Bride, is a case in point. The first scene of the novel seemed to write itself. It describes a young woman named Lily arriving in Montreal immediately following the Second World War, having taken someone else’s identity to cross borders and gain entry to a new life in a new country. The first drafts of the early chapters told the story from Lily’s point of view but each time I tried to move beyond that first scene I hit a wall. A first person account of a Holocaust survivor’s life during and after the war simply did not feel like it was mine to tell, nor did it feel like I was gaining entry into the heart of the novel I felt within me. I kept writing and rewriting from Lily’s perspective for longer than I care to admit, aware that it wasn’t working but not pinpointing that the problem was one of perspective and point of view. Finally, one morning another voice came into my head. It was the voice of a six-year-old girl, the daughter of Lily, living in Montreal in the 1950’s. As I began to follow that voice the story opened to me. The details and story lines that had eluded me for so long poured out. It became a story of the intergenerational effects of trauma within a family and within the community in which I was raised.
My most recently published novel, The Other Side of the World, contains a 100-page novel-within-the-novel set entirely in Singapore and Borneo. The book appeared in early December, and since then readers and interviewers keep asking an obvious question: Have you ever been to Singapore and/or Borneo?
The answer: No . . .
And the response to this answer is often bewilderment, as in: How can you write about a place you’ve never seen or been to? To this point no one, including friends and reviewers who have been to Singapore and Borneo, has questioned the credibility of the Singapore and Borneo I’ve conjured up. But why should people believe that a fiction writer has to go to a place in order to write about it? An earlier novel of mine, The Stolen Jew (1981), begins in Israel, on a beach in Herzlia, and I wrote this novel before I’d ever been to Israel. The Stolen Jew also contains several sections set in the Soviet Union, both in time-present (about smuggling out a Jewish dissident), and in the nineteenth century (about a Jewish boy kidnapped to take the place of another Jewish boy for 25 year service in the Tsar’s army—the dreaded cantonist gzeyra).
I had never been to the Soviet Union.
I did an enormous amount of research for my book The Secrets of Mary Bowser. The novel is based on the true story of a woman born into slavery who was freed and educated in the North, and then became a spy for the Union army by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. Historical fiction can be a powerful way to learn about the past. Thanks to Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosenay, readers around the world have learned about the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Bowser’s bravery, like the horrors enacted at Vel’ d’Hiv, should be more broadly remembered. But for authors, blurring the lines between history and fiction can still feel risky.
Quite a few of the facts that I incorporated into The Secrets of Mary Bowser—particularly the actions of Bet Van Lew, a pro-Union white Richmonder whose wartime escapades including digging up and reburying the body of a Union officer killed by the Confederates—were so bizarre, I feared readers would find them too implausible, even though they were true.
What concerned me most, however, was not that the true parts of the novel wouldn’t be believed. It’s that the parts I invented would be mistaken for fact. Knowing the historical record provides such scant documentation of Mary Bowser’s life that I couldn’t possibly write a biography, I authored the novel as a way to commemorate Bowser’s achievements and to guide readers’ understanding of what slavery was like in urban, industrialized Richmond, and what free black life was like in antebellum Philadelphia.
Despite a detailed historical note included in the book, though, a surprising number of online reviews of The Secrets of Mary Bowser attribute biographical details to the historical Bowser that were entirely my own invention. As I’ve taken to saying, just because you read something in a book about a real person who played an important role in the Civil War, doesn’t mean everything in the book was true.
As it turns out, the first person to fictionalize Bowser’s life story was Bowser herself. “The Black Slave in the Confederate White House,” an article I wrote for The New York Times, documents her continuing self-reinvention, before, during, and after the Civil War. Bowser likely made a good spy precisely because slaves live lives of surreptition and concealment. The strategies that enabled her to survive enslavement also facilitated her espionage. It shouldn’t surprise us that even after the war was over, Bowser continued her cagey—and effective—habit of constructing a series of public identities to serve different purposes.
Like many published authors, I didn’t choose my book’s final title. But I’ve come to relish the irony it implies. While Sarah’s Key suggests that once we find the key we can unlock all of history, The Secrets of Mary Bowser entices us to search out what we can learn about the past, while reminding us that there is much that may always remain hidden.
Earlier this week, Leslie Maitland wrote about choosing an epigraph, the artist Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteineproject, and reconnecting branches of her family separated by the Diaspora of the Nazi years. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
I would not be writing this today but for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, nor could I have written my newly published book, Crossing the Borders of Time. Indeed, but for the dedicated mission of “the Joint” to save imperiled Jews from murder in the Holocaust, I would not be here at all. It was thanks to the Joint and cooperating agencies that my mother made an eleventh-hour escape from France in 1942 before the Nazis seized the country and sealed its ports. Like thousands of other Jewish refugees, she and her family fled to safety on ships chartered by the Joint from neutral Portugal. There were more than four hundred passengers with her on the Lipari, leaving from Marseille to Casablanca, where they transferred to a freighter, the San Thomé, for a voyage that lasted almost two months before the ship was cleared to land in Havana.
In this I was blessed by access to the remarkable archives of the Joint, which permitted me to study in detail the challenges it combated in securing visas, ships, and funds to rescue as many Jews as possible. In a seemingly indifferent world, even the United States had so sharply restricted entry that between the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and war’s end in 1945, ninety percent of American visa quotas for would-be immigrants from Nazi-controlled countries in Europe went unfilled. Thus the Joint took on the mission of finding safe havens elsewhere for hunted people who were trapped in deadly situations.
In my mother’s case, through internal Joint reports, I would learn for the first time of dangers that threatened her family even after the agency had managed to get them out of France. They had been at sea for more than four weeks when Cuban president Fulgencio Batista abruptly revoked permission for the San Thomé passengers to land. Once again, it was the Joint that saved them. Rushing into action, the Joint provided sufficient international pressure and inducements to prevent the San Thomé from meeting the same cruel fate as the St. Louis, whose passengers—barred from landing in Cuba or the United States three years earlier—had been sent straight back to Europe to face the Nazis.
Now, just this spring, in a gift to the general public and all researchers, the Joint has started making this material available online through its archival website: http://archives.jdc.org. With funds donated by Dr. Georgette Bennett and Dr. Leonard Polonsky, the project has already digitized records dating from the agency’s founding up through 1932. In a telephone interview, Ms. Levi told me that the effort is continuing, and full archives covering the World War II period should be digitized by year’s end. Some of those Holocaust-era documents are expected to be online as early as this summer, she said, adding to what is already there.
Besides the professional researchers who will clearly benefit from the expanded website, Ms. Levi noted, members of the general public have consistently turned to the Joint seeking answers regarding family members, all too often dead or missing.
“Jews have questions about their pasts,” she said. “There is a hole somewhere they’re longing to fill. There is something intensely powerful about finding information about one’s family in a document in an archive. I’ve seen people burst out crying.”
Meanwhile, as the agency’s online archives grow, so too do its endeavors around the globe. Its work goes on today in more than seventy countries, where it strives to alleviate suffering, rescue endangered Jews, strengthen Jewish life, and provide relief for Jews and non-Jews who fall victim to disasters. It is my hope that through the online archives, the children and grandchildren of the people served and saved may one day learn their stories and join me in saying thank you to the Joint.
Gerald Kolpan’s article “Blazing Saddles It Wasn’t” brought forth little known true stories of Jews in the Wild West: those who fought Indians and those who befriended them, and in some cases, joined them.
My personal interest in Native American culture and ceremony was a major inspiration in my setting to work on Jacob’s Return, my debut novel. Jacob Goldman is the protagonist, a secular Jewish man committed to tikkun olam by way of his investigative journalism focused on social and environmental justice. From the outset, Sheila Strongblood, Jacob’s wife, was destined to be a powerful character. She is a full-blooded member of a Native American tribe in California.
When I was eight years old, I wrote my first stories about Native Americans, who lived “back then.” It was a time I yearned for but which I believed was untouchable. I spent much of my youth in the swamp behind our house, imagining I was a scout in uncharted wilderness, discovering turtles and frogs in ponds and holes of mud and water. I sledded and tobogganed each winter down Indian Hill.
In my fifth grade school picture, my skin shines dark from the sun and a thin cord of rawhide circles my neck and hangs just below my collarbones. That precious cord held against my chest two buffalo teeth alternating with colored clay beads. In my high school years, the profile of an Indian warrior adorned my soccer jersey. When I was young, I nurtured a romance with symbols instead of an experience with the actual native people of the area where I grew up.
My interest in Native America continued even when my initial break from Judaism came as an adolescent and my ambivalence toward my heritage grew as I became an adult.
In 1998 I began work on my first novel, Jacob’s Return, at a time in my life when I needed to find out about Jewishness, but not through the Conservative channel in which I grew up. In my bones I was drawn to earth-based, tribal life and ceremony. Once I moved to Oakland, California, and friends of Native American heritage invited me to participate in sweat lodge, I did so as a Jew. I faced boundaries that I hadn’t even known I’d constructed as a way to keep distant from God’s creation: I was scared of being scalded in the lodge, of my muscles hurting from long-sitting on the hard ground, of my weakness in general. I feared that I was an interloper in others’ deeply personal cultural ceremonies.
Over time, I realized that I was among those who were freely sharing their spiritual tools with me so that I might discover my own. I became grateful to be among those who deeply knew powerful earth-based ceremony, and who had beautiful appreciation of plant and animal medicine. These people took on the yoke of being stewards of God’s creation.
During these early years of earth-based practice, I entered the story of Jacob’s Return with the question of how my own ancestors, the Israelites, might have lived on the land. I believed that Sheila Strongblood Goldman’s tribe would help me understand something critical about myself. My searching led me to the San Joaquin Valley in Southern California where I connected with an active tribe, the Tachi Yokuts at the Santa Rosa Rancheria. I contacted Clarence Atwell, then Chief of the tribe. He invited me to meet with him and the tribal historian.
Dressed in ornate plains schmattes (including war bonnet), and astride a paint pony, Brooks and his warriors come upon a prairie schooner carrying an African-American family. “Chief” Brooks looks at the little group as they huddle together in terror, and then turns to his closest companion who is raising his tomahawk to strike:
No, no, zayt nisht meshuge! Loz im geyn! Abi gezint! Take off! Hosti gezen in dayne lebn? (Don’t be crazy! Let him go. As long as you’re healthy! Take off! Have you ever seen such a thing?).
The “chief” lets the family go in peace, quickly stating the reason for his mercy:
“They darker than us!”
It’s either funny or offensive depending upon who’s watching; but for many, it’s the only reference to Jews and Indians they’ve ever seen.
Pity – because there was a bone fide Jewish Indian chief. His is a tale of guts and brains, as are most stories about Jews among the Indians.
Almost from the beginning of Westward expansion, Jews have made a home on the range. They were fur trappers, gold miners, cowboys, peddlers and scouts. There were sheriffs, marshals, mayors of small towns and at least one gunfighter. A shana medele from San Francisco married Wyatt Earp; a storekeeper from Bavaria and a tailor from Latvia invented blue jeans.
Czechoslovakian émigré Sigmund Schlesinger was one such pioneer. After losing his job in Philadelphia, Schlesinger went to eastern Kansas where he found work on the railroad, only to be laid off again when hostile Sioux took charge of the tracks. Needing work, he volunteered to be an Indian Scout for the Army, despite never having ridden a horse or shot a gun. A quick study, he became a hero of the Battle of Breecher’s Island, Colorado, said by some to be the most ferocious in the history of the Indian Wars.
Years after the battle, his commanding officer wrote to Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston, Texas:
He had never been in action prior to our fight with the Indians and throughout the whole engagement which was one of the hardest, if not the very hardest, ever fought on the Western plains, he behaved with great courage, cool persistence and a dogged determination that won my unstinted admiration as well as that of his comrades, many of whom had seen service throughout the War of Rebellion on one side or the other.
I can accord him no higher praise than that he was the equal of many in courage, steady and persistent devotion to duty, and unswerving and tenacious pluck of any man in my command.
But not all Jews encountered the Indians in battle. Some were among their closest friends – and became trusted advocates for their rights and freedoms.
Meyer came to the United States in 1866. In Europe, he had been a yeshiver bocher and a talented musician. Shortly after his arrival, he joined his older brothers Max, Adolph and Moritz in Omaha where they had a prospering cigar and jewelry business. Separate from his brothers, Julius began trading with Indian tribes like the Ponca, Omaha, and Sioux. So well known did he become for his honesty that the Indians dubbed him “Box-Ka-Re-Sha-Hash-Ta-Ka: “the curly-headed chief who speaks with one tongue.”
According to Julius, in 1869, a hostile tribe attacked him. They tried to kill him – and it was only the intercession of Standing Bear, chief of the Ponca, that saved his life. Julius became Standing Bear’s interpreter and was soon translating for such famous chiefs as Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Swift Bear.
For many years, Meyer served as Omaha’s government Indian agent, often fighting for Native rights. Julius was also known as a man who knew how to make a dollar for his friends (and himself). One such scheme involved taking Standing Bear and a group of the Ponca on a yearlong jaunt to the 1889 Paris Exposition where they caused a sensation.
Julius kept up his association with Standing Bear and the Nebraska tribes until May 10, 1909 – the day he was discovered dead in Omaha’s Hanscom Park. He was clutching a revolver and had two bullet holes in him: one in his temple and another in his chest. He was legally declared a suicide, although to this day, there are people who believe that this great Jewish friend of the Indian was murdered.
Still, if Julius Meyer was an honorary Indian, Solomon Bibo became the real thing: real enough, in fact, to become a chief.
Bibo was born in Westphalia in what is now Germany, in 1853. Like Meyer, he immigrated in 1869 and joined his brothers in business. The Bibos were among Santa Fe, New Mexico’s most successful traders, known for square dealing with their Indian neighbors. Bibo and his brothers became speakers of several Indian dialects and Solomon was often called upon by the Acoma Pueblo to negotiate treaties between their tribe and the U.S. government.
In 1885, Bibo married Juana Valle, the granddaughter of an Acoma chief. Later that year, the Acoma elected Bibo their new “governor,” the equivalent of tribal chief – a position he held four times. He helped create the tribe’s first modern education system, hired its first schoolteacher and supervised the first Acoma school building.
Solomon and Juana were married for nearly fifty years and had six children. Years before, she had converted to Judaism. At 13, their son, Leroy became a traditional Bar Mitzvah but also participated in the Acoma rituals of manhood. The couple was separated only by his death on May 4, 1934; they are buried side-by-side in a Jewish Cemetery in Colma, California.
When you do anything creative – from writing stories to hooking rugs – people are likely to ask you where you get your ideas.
A lot of times I haven’t had a good answer; but in the case of my new novel, Magic Words, the lightning bolt of creativity hit me in the midst of pursuing one of the most American of all activities.
I was watching TV.
The program was a PBS documentary “The Jewish Americans;” and a nice little show it was, too. All of the Yiddishe luminaries were included: Abraham Cahan and Irving Berlin; Emma Lazarus and Jerry Seinfeld; Jacob Adler and Hank Greenberg and I guess, a coupla doctors and scientists.
Then there was the young man in buckskins. He only appeared for about 10 seconds in the show: short, with curly hair and a droopy moustache, he stood proudly behind four Indian chiefs in a posed studio photograph taken sometime in the 1880’s.
I was amazed: a boychik from Europe who somehow gained the confidence of a group of people rightly suspicious of the white man? An Israelite adventurer who once conversed with the free-living masters of the mountains and plains?
As the photograph faded from the screen, I knew I had found the subject of my next novel. All I needed now was a little research.
Not that Julius was easy to track down. He was, to say the least, obscure. There wasn’t very much about him on the Internet (he still has no Wikipedia page); so I had to search for him in more traditional ways. I wrote to Jewish historical societies; I haunted libraries and perused photo collections.
And the more I discovered about Julius, the more fascinating he became.
Born in Bromberg in what is now Poland; immigrated to America after the Civil War to join his brothers who were merchant princes in Nebraska; captured by the Ponca and eventually made their interpreter; named Box-ka-re-sha-hash-ta-ka (“Curly-headed white chief with one tongue”), by the greatest chieftain who ever lived; Indian agent and trader; speaker of seven Siouxan dialects.
But two facts really sold me on Julius. First, there were the circumstances of his death. He was found dead around noon in Hanscom Park in Omaha in the Spring of 1909 – with one bullet in his breast and another in his head -and declared a suicide. The possibilities around that almost wrote themselves.
Then, in an article in the September 10, 1926 issue of The American Hebrew, I read that Julius brought a magician named “Herman the Great” to a Ponca camp to perform for the great Standing Bear and his people – and about how that night as Alexander slept, a young brave attempted to kill him for his hat, believing it to be the source of his mystic power.
For me, this was like that one good gift at Chanukkah. A magician? I’m there!
And it got even better. Further research revealed that “Herman” was in fact, Alexander Herrmann, the most famous magician in the world before Houdini and the creator of many of the famous stage illusions still amazing audiences today; the inventor of the “Cake From A Hat” and the “Floating Boy”; the wizard who sold out the Egyptian Theatre in London for 1000 straight nights.
I knew I had found my second leading man; and when I discovered that Alexander’s mother’s maiden name was Meyer, I used my author’s prerogative to declare them cousins. Besides…how else would a humble man of the plains like Julius know a prestidigitator of such distinction?
A year and a half later, I had a book. All because of 10 seconds of TV that provided a tantalizing glimpse of a man who was a member of the tribe…in more ways than one.
Gerald Kolpan‘s newest book, Magic Words: The Tale of a Jewish Boy-Interpreter, the World’s Most Estimable Magician, a Murderous Harlot, and America’s Greatest Indian Chief, is now available. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.
Sometimes they appear out of nowhere – as in the case of Prophet John McGarrigle, the clairvoyant Indian scout in my new novel, Magic Words. I was writing a passage in which one of my main characters, Julius Meyer, walks into an overheated shack seeking shelter from the cold. Inside that shack was Prophet John.
Sure, Julius was surprised, by not half as surprised as me. I had no idea who John was, what he was doing in that shack or why he was in my book. I had to write him to find out.
The story of Eli Gershonson, a Jewish peddler in the Old West, is just the opposite. He took a long and circuitous route to his supporting role in Magic Words.
Eli started life in my little son’s bedroom. He was part of an imaginary gang of “protectors” I would tell Ned about at bedtime; their job was to fight off his nightmares.
The group included the Bagel Man (the hero of a song I made up), the Guys Up The Street (some tough dudes who hung at 2nd & Kenilworth, our Philadelphia corner), and Eli Gershonson, Esq., a lawyer who would take the bad dreams to court if they dared bother my boy (nothing like a lawsuit to scare off Freddy Krueger).
It may sound a bit elaborate, but most nights, it worked.
Cut to 15 years later.
I was writing my first novel, Etta, and found myself in need of a name for a character – a Jewish peddler of the type who roamed the West by the hundreds at the turn of the century. By this time, my son was 21 and no longer needed a nightside attorney, so I appropriated Mr. Gershonson’s moniker, revoked his law degree and gave him a wagon filled with pots, pans, cloth, needles, pins and other chazerai. In the end, he appeared in less than two pages in the book, but that was all he needed to advance the plot.
I figured that was my farewell to Eli.
Then, in 2009, when I was writing Magic Words, I needed a name and background for another Jewish peddler who would be Julius Meyer’s uncle in the book. He needed to be patient, honest, and kind, but with a quiet authority.
I soon realized that the character I was envisioning had all of the qualities of the character I already had.
So, Eli Gershonson jumped from my first book to my second, pots and pan intact, though shedding some 30 years in the transition. In Magic Words, his part isn’t a page-and-a-half cameo, but a major role woven throughout the narrative. In fact, he’s one of the last characters we see in the book.
I’m thankful to Eli for allowing me to move him from one story to the next. His presence gave my two books a kind of crazy continuity, not to mention that I was afforded the great pleasure of getting to know him better.
Believe me, he’s a mensch.
These days, when people write a book, they invariably have an acknowledgments page, where they thank a few people or–like someone going on and on at the Oscars–everyone they ever knew, down to the babysitter who once braided their hair in elementary school. My own acknowledgements page for my most recent book thanks my first readers–the friends who commented on my stories in draft–and the artist colonies that offered me an extended time to write.
Now that I think about it, and think about it in terms of what really enabled me to do what I needed to do, I realize I should also have thanked New York’s Tenement Museum. The museum consists of a modern visitor center at 103 Orchard Street and a tenement at 97 Orchard that has been “restored”–or perhaps safely kept in its earlier dismal condition. The rooms have been furnished as they were during the years (1863-1935), when the tenement was occupied.
This may sound drearily like any number of museums, where you stand behind a rope while you look at a Victorian bedroom or see the trundle bed where Melville’s children slept. But it is nothing of the sort. Instead the tour guide who takes you into 97 Orchard Street (you can’t just wander alone) tells you the story of one of the immigrant families who once lived there. And at least some of those immigrants were Jewish.
The Museum gave me the very thing that I needed to write: a sense of the lived life, the specifics of daily existence. I have at times got buried in, and distracted by, my efforts at verisimilitude. I have tried to do research for books and only learned how much I don’t know, how there was no way I could write my book unless I had more courage, more of an ability to ask people who I didn’t know what their lives were like. But intruth you don’t need to know everything to write a story or novel. You just need enough to convince. In an interview on identitytheory.com, the fiction writer Jim Shepard talks about the role of research in fiction this way:
Henry James said, ‘She had eyes like this and a nose like this.’ And you go, ‘I could really see her.’ You have two details! Theoretically you could do the same thing with the Battle of Antietam, right? If you get the right details. Part of the point of all that research is not, ‘Oh, I am going to be able to deploy more details.’ It’s that I am more likely to come across those two.”
What The Tenement Museum gave me were the details, ironically enough, to imagine where my characters lived. I only used two things from the visit to the Museum: a detail about where toilets were placed in a tenement and what the lay out of an apartment might be like, but, in my head, the whole world was quite vivid. I could see it all, and hopefully my readers can as well.