Using Family Stories—or Not

From the very beginning, I was fascinated by the stories my uncle told of his experiences during WWII. But, as I began to write Immigrant Soldier, I wanted the book to be more than just a war story. I wanted to write about the forces, both political and personal, that changed him from a frustrated teenager into a confident man, and I wanted to show what it was like to be a refugee in the United States in the 1940s.

Herman remembered some very entertaining things from his childhood. There were also the family stories I had heard as a child from my own father (Herman’s older brother) and my grandmother, Clara (Herman’s mother), as well as the stories I heard when interviewing other relatives. This gave me a lot of material to use—information about his parents, his brother, sister, and cousins, tales of life in the big house on Bernardstrasse, and memories of boyhood adventures. In fact, I had so much information from Herman’s youth that the sheer weight of it bogged down the early chapters of my first draft.

The members of my writing group reminded me how important it is to know where the story actually begins. Herman always started by telling about Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom sometimes considered to be the beginning of the Holocaust. He remembered that early November morning in 1938 very clearly. Besides being an event that marked the beginning of Herman’s journey to a new life, it offered action and opportunities for revealing Herman’s emotions and doubts. Kristallnacht was the perfect setting for the first chapter.

But all the collected family stories were still important to me. I loved everything—from the local harvest festival to how they celebrated Christmas, from the female cousin who dominated the father’s affection to the kindly great-uncle who taught Herman to appreciate good leather, from how their father encouraged them to read Schopenhauer and Kant to the stories of Struwwelpeter, which my father had also read to me. Even now, it is difficult for me not to tell you a lot more.

Unable to abandon them, I moved these childhood stories to later chapters. Many became Herman’s flashback memories during his Atlantic crossing to America. This helped. But still there was too much. One of the readers of the manuscript as it was being transformed from nonfiction into a novel told me, “You have to cut a lot of this childhood stuff. It’s only interesting to your family or people who know you. You need to take out everything that doesn’t explain his character or move the plot forward.”

This was a difficult task—a little like letting loose carefully crafted paper boats, one at a time, and watching them disappear downstream and around the bend in the river. (Secretly I have saved them in a Word.doc hidden deep in my computer. Maybe I can yet use them in a blog.)

Some of the family stories have been retained. I can only hope it is just the right amount for my readers. You will find them in those flashback chapters, as well as in the chapters that take place in London, Chicago, and Laguna Beach. And my own personal childhood memories of my parents, my grandmother, and Laguna Beach helped me paint these characters and my hometown with honesty and affection. How well I remember my father’s buoyant, often rough, personality, my mother’s quiet reserve, and my grandmother’s affectionate and gentle strength. I used to love to watch her brush out her long hair every morning, then braid it into two plaits that she wound around her head like a crown. I could not resist making this ritual a part of Immigrant Soldier. Though, when I watched, her hair was gray, no longer dark brown, but to me it was still beautiful.

Naturally, the descriptions of Herman—his looks and his personality, his doubts and his sense of humor—are based on what he told me, old photographs, the way I remember him in his later years, and how I imagine he was as a young man. I hope my love and respect for him will be evident to readers of Immigrant Soldier.


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