Tell Me, What Were Their Names?

In my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, John and one of his best friends, Sam Feldman, go to war as civilian doctors assigned to the Army.  Their motivation is the attack on Pearl Harbor, an eye-opening event in the lives of many Americans who believed we could stay neutral in regards to the war taking place in Europe and atrocities such as those that occurred during the Rape of Nanking.

For most Americans, World War II started with Congress declaring war after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  However, for other Americans, specifically sailors in the U.S. Navy, it started in the early morning hours of October 31, 1941, with the sinking of the U.S.S. Reuben James by German Submarine U-552.

The Reuben James, a World War I Clemson-class, four-stack destroyer, was part of an escort for convoys bound for Great Britain carrying war materials from the “Arsenal of Democracy.”  German U-boats (submarines) didn’t hesitate to fire on any ship in the convoy, considering them all to be fair game.  For this reason, it was only a matter of time before America became involved in a “shooting war.”

The Reuben James was torpedoed and sunk while escorting convoy HX-156.  The incident resulted in the loss of 115 of the 160 crewman, including all officers.  Although not the first U.S. Navy ship to be torpedoed before the war, the Reuben James was the first one lost.

When news of the sinking reached America, many concerned people wrote letters to the U.S. Navy trying to determine the fate of loved ones and/or friends.  Unfortunately, most of the country ignored the sinking.  One person who did not was folk singer, Woody Guthrie, who wrote “Sinking of the Reuben James” immediately following the incident.

I mentioned the Reuben James in my novel in an effort to remember all who lost their lives during a dark time in history.  Also, in the spirit of one tagline I came across during my research, friends don’t allow friends repeat history.

Oracle Night by Paul Auster

If you’ve never read Paul Auster, be warned that his work is always a little surreal.  His novels read like a mixture of fantasy, mystery, and a ghost story.  Pay attention to the details because some of them will weave their way deeply into the story and some are loose threads.  The random encounters are rarely random, and even if a character seems like he hasn’t changed and/or made any kind of journey, you as the reader certainly will.

Such was my experience as I read Oracle Night.  I could tell you the jacket flap details, but it would be much more fun to tell you it’s about a writer who writes a story about a man reading the work of a long dead writer who wrote about a man who has the ability to predict the future.  If it sounds crazy, that’s because it’s a Paul Auster novel.

Still, don’t allow that to deter you from reading about writer Sidney Orr and his mysterious blue notebook purchased from M.R. Chang’s Paper Palace or about Sidney’s wife, Grace, and the nature of their relationship versus hers with fellow writer John Trause.  Factor in Jacob, John’s drug addict son, and Nick Bowen who manages to lock himself into Ed Victory’s underground bunker (The Bureau of Historical Preservation), and Lemuel Flagg, a British lieutenant blinded in World War I who has the gift of prophecy, and you’re in the multi-layered world of Paul Auster.

Some of my thoughts as I read Oracle Night included:

Every writer’s nightmare and every writer’s dream:  to write words that actually come true or at least predict the future.

What are these worlds that writers create?

Do we live in the present with the future inside us?

Are we creating futures as we write?

Is the pen truly mightier than the sword?

Such are the questions Auster’s work provokes every time I read it.  I can also recommend Travels in the Scriptorium, The Book of Illusions, Augie Wren’s Christmas Story, and Man in the Dark.  If you need a point of reference, readers of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind will probably enjoy Auster’s novels as long as they keep in mind that he will take it to the next level of wonderfully bizarre.

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

One of the most interesting and disturbing eras I researched for my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, was the Great Depression.  Of all the details I studied, I found those affecting farmers to be the most heartbreaking.  This is probably because my protagonist, Dr. John Welles, came from a farming family.  The Welleses survived, but they did not come out unscathed.

Before the stock market crash in October of 1929, farmers were already experiencing hard times.  One contributing factor was the forty percent drop in prices between 1920 and 1921 as the overseas market disappeared.  World War I had led to a time of prosperity for farmers as war-torn European nations needed produce grown in America.  This need led to a remarkable increase in agricultural production, income, and purchasing power.  The profits farmers made were reinvested in more land and machinery.

Once the war ended and the European markets no longer needed American food products, prices and profits plummeted.  The price crop supports that existed at the beginning of World War I guaranteeing farmers minimum prices on certain crops disappeared in 1921 when President Harding announced their end.  Further exacerbating the problem was President Coolidge’s increase in taxes on imports, which decreased foreign trade for America and removed more of the farmers’ markets.  Many farmers lost their new land investments to foreclosure and/or experienced bankruptcy.

The construction of new homes, usually an indicator of economic strength, declined from 1926 to 1929.  It is not surprising that no one paid attention to this warning sign especially since the crisis in the farming community, the truest measure of economic success or failure, was already in trouble.  When added to the faith people placed in the stock market and the endless purchases made on credit, it is no wonder America experienced the Great Depression.

As I watched videos of farmers dumping milk into ditches on the side of the road and apples into piles left to rot, I knew in my heart that even if it meant their downfall, John’s stepmother, Collie Mercer Welles, wouldn’t let anyone go hungry.  The character I created in Collie wouldn’t and couldn’t justify throwing food away when people around her were starving.  Greed in that form simply did not exist in her.  She may not have had the means to transport food, but anyone who made his or her way to the Welles farm would not be turned away empty-handed.

Farm protestors attempt to block roads leading to markets.

Unfortunately, many in the farming communities did not share the opinions and morals of my fictional character, Collie.  The withholding and destruction of food was one of the most hideous consequences of the Great Depression.  Desperation hit farmers when the expense of producing crops exceeded what they could make selling them.  Groups known as Farm Holiday Associations were formed to stop selling crops until prices were forced higher.  They operated under the motto, “Neither buy nor sell and let taxes go to hell.”

While in my heart I believe the Welles family would have risen above such actions, I wonder if they would have found resistance in their own community to helping those who were starving.  It wasn’t uncommon for farmers who bucked these types of associations to find their efforts met with violence from a pitchfork in the tires of their vehicles to standoffs between deputies meant to protect food convoys and farmers armed with guns.

The stock market crash of 1929 will probably always be the most well-known contributing factor to the Great Depression.  Billions of dollars were lost literally overnight by 1.5 million Americans who were involved with the market enough to actually have a broker.  However, 40 million people living on farms had already been enduring hardships since 1919, and it is these people who would be hit the hardest again, particularly on the Great Plains, during the aftermath of the crash.  The farmers knew what those living in the cities and banking on the stock market had yet to learn:  the Great Depression was already upon them.

The title for my blog post came from a Depression Era song, the details of which you can read about here:  “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and listen to the Bing Crosby version here:  “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Enjoy other interesting Depression Era history on Prohibition (I’ll Drink to That), speakeasies (Welcome to the Apple Crate), and moonshine (By the Light of the Silvery Moon).

Is It Ever Too Late?

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in 'Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory'

When I heard that Gene Wilder passed away a week ago Sunday, I was sadden to know that a small piece of my childhood had faded away like the edges of a watercolor painting. Goodbye, Willy Wonka. Laid to rest are the magical, mythical qualities that made Gene Wilder the wonderful actor he was. I also felt that I had missed an opportunity. It’s my own fault for not acting upon it, but I made the common error of believing I had all the time in the world. Allow me to explain.

Two years ago, I read Mr. Wilder’s novel, My French Whore. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet tale of love and loss set during World War I. I often wondered about the loss portion of the story. Did it mirror Mr. Wilder’s own loss in life, specifically that of his wife, Gilda Radner? In the story, it’s the male protagonist who is lost. Maybe Mr. Wilder would rather it had been him so that Gilda could have gone on living. He had a wonderful, twenty five year marriage to his wife, Karen, so perhaps I’m reading too much into the tale.

All this to say that I wanted to contact Mr. Wilder and ask him to write a sequel, one in which the two main characters find each other again. It would be possible based on the nature of the tale. Mr. Wilder was creative and imaginative: he could have rescued the protagonists from the fire and made it believable. But I missed my chance, and now it’s too late.

I’m familiar with many of the arguments writers offer for ending their stories on a sad note or sometimes with a gut punch to the reader. As long as the story is well-written, the event is believable and not just for shock value, and it fits with the rest of the story, character arcs, etc., then I can accept a sad ending. There are some, however, that have left me reeling.

For instance, The Time Traveler’s Wife. I read it once, and once was enough. The novel still haunts me to this day. I went so far as to pen a letter to Audrey Niffenegger begging her to write a sequel that pulls the lives of her protagonists back from the black and bitter ending she gave them. After the torturous lives they led, why did she have to end her novel the way she did? As an author creating people and situations, she could have opted for a better ending if not a Pollyanna one.

Then there is The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue, The Girl in the Green Glass Mirror by Elizabeth McGregor, and The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason. These books live in a locked chest in my house because that is the only way I can contain my emotions regarding them so great are the effects they had on me. If you think I’m exaggerating, after my mother read The Piano Tuner at my suggestion, she called to chew me out for not warning her. To this day she describes her experience with the ending as having the air knocked out of her lungs.

These books are so well written and so heartrending. Why do we do this to ourselves as readers? The question made me re-examine my own novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Did I infuse painful accounts into the storyline that will make a reader sit stunned long after the last page has been read? Will I leave him/her with feeling as if he/she just buried a good friend for whom he/she will mourn all the while knowing it’s a fictional character? Personally, I question whether the loss of the character was counterbalanced by the fact that they led a good long life on the pages of the novel. If so, it’s easier to let them go.

In the world of Dr. John Welles, where I have complete control, some would argue that if I leave readers feeling as if they’ve had their heart torn out, then I’ve done a good job of writing. I’m not so sure I would agree. Others would say that’s just how life is: people live and die, get over it. I must admit that I don’t have the answers to the questions I’ve posed regarding the handling of characters’ lives and the endings of novels. I also know I’m not the only person who feels this way, and in this small fact, I take some comfort.

Without giving away the ending to my novel, I believe I have done a good job of dealing with characters and events. However, if one day I receive a letter from a reader who praises my writing while begging for a remedy to their grief and pain, I will seriously consider what I can do to ease the situation.

Open up and say, Ahh!

images (5)Despite what the government has done to healthcare, what we experience in America today is light years ahead of healthcare in the early 1900s. Consider Calvin Coolidge, Jr., the President’s son. After developing a blister on his toe while playing lawn tennis, he contracted an infection from a relatively common bacterium, Staphylococcus aureus. Within a week, the sixteen year-old was dead. Something we all take for granted today wasn’t readily available when young Calvin needed it: penicillin.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like for people whose life expectancy was 53 for men and 54 for women. Every nick, scrape, and cut had to be taken seriously, or it could lead to death. My own great-grandfather lost his life to a cut he received while working on the railroad. After blood poisoning set in, the only option was amputation. He refused to let the doctor take his leg, and the infection took his life.

Consider childbirth. Often unsanitary conditions led to a high rate of infant and mother mortality. Midwifes or female relatives or neighbors were responsible for delivering babies, especially among the poor. Having a doctor present was a luxury, and even then, life hung in the balance.

It sounds rather third-world when you read about it and not at all like America today where there’s a pill to pop for just about every illness or disease and organizations dedicated to medical research.

Before this post becomes too morbid, I’ll focus on the research I conducted for the one disease that threatened the lives of the characters in my 300px-CampFunstonKS-InfluenzaHospitalnovel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. It also occurred during the above-mentioned time period of the early 1900s.

Known by the nickname Spanish Flu, the 1918 flu pandemic hit the world in two waves and reached remote places such as Pacific Islands and the Arctic. Around 500 million people were infected and 50-100 million died, 3-5% of the world’s population.

The deadly H1N1 virus attacked healthy young adults by causing an overreaction of the body’s immune system. The very young, elderly, or previously sick patients actually had a better chance of surviving because their immune system was already underperforming.

It’s also no coincidence that the flu virus thrived among the soldiers fighting in World War I. They were weakened from malnourishment and stress, and troop movements helped spread the disease. Obituaries of those who succumbed to the flu piled up next to those of soldiers who lost their lives in battle.

The Great Pandemic website provides valuable information on what is still one of the most well-known natural disasters in the world today. With all of the improvements in medicine, it’s hard to fathom something like this occurring again. Yet I wonder if we’re not living in the shadow of the flu pandemic or possibly its more lethal, mutated cousin.

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Peace by Proxy

The following piece of flash fiction was written based on the visual writing prompt below.  It wasn’t the original idea that came to mind, but it is the one with which I was most pleased.  I have been writing flash fiction lately for a writing circle contest.  I hope you enjoy my latest installment.

dirt-road-427913_1280

Josiah watched the soldier march up the long road snaking across his property. Fog shrouded the young man, but his uniform and unique helmet marked him for a Brit. When he reached the front porch, he stopped and saluted smartly.

“Excuse me, sir, does Jenny Coates live here?” the young man asked in a Cockney accent.

“No, son, she doesn’t.”

The soldier chewed the inside of his mouth, narrowed his eyes.

“All right then. I’ll ask at the next house.”

He disappeared around the side of the house as the screened door creaked open. Josiah’s wife, Kathleen, stepped out carrying two cups of coffee. She handed one to her husband and scrutinized his pale face.

“You saw the soldier again, didn’t you?”

“Yep,” Josiah admitted. “He just left.”

“Why do you think he keeps coming here?”

“I suppose his ghost is attached to that old Lee Enfield I bought for my collection.”

“Why don’t you sell it at the next gun show?”

“I can’t. I have to find out his name and why he’s looking for this Jenny.”

Kathleen smiled into her cup. She took a sip and asked, “You aren’t afraid of him, are you?”

Josiah snorted. “He’s just a boy.”

“A boy who’s obviously been dead since World War I.”

Josiah sighed and turned up the collar of his Carhartt against the November chill. Kathleen sat beside him on the glider, setting it in motion.

“You believe you can bring some peace to this boy, don’t you?” she asked.

“If not him, then perhaps me.”

“It won’t bring our son back, Josiah. Tommy’s sacrifice in Afghanistan–”

“Look, Kath; if Tommy is out there wandering, his ghost attached to some piece of gear, wouldn’t you want people to do right by him?”

“Let’s start with the initials R.W. carved into the stock, okay? We can trace it back through dealers next.”

Josiah squeezed his wife’s knee.

“Thanks, babe.”

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