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Original Essays | November 21, 2013 0 comments
When my second novel, The Stud Book, was published, people asked, "Will they send you on a tour?" The phrasing of the question made a tour sound so... Continue »
After the Trainby Gloria Whelan
That was the driving impetus for the book, but there were many bits and pieces that went into the story. The control tower I describe I saw from a train we were taking through East Germany. My grandparents had left Germany at the turn of the century from towns we could not visit because they were under Communist control. We were relieved when we left East Germany, and our fear of that country is written into the book.
Peter's father is an architect who is rebuilding St. Mary's Lutheran church, a church that had been bombed during World War II. Peter works during the summer as a helper to the master bricklayer. The church I describe is one I visited. I saw the melted church bells that remain in the church, a reminder of World War II bombings.
I am a great lover of the music of Bach, and it was a thrill to know that Bach had walked many miles to play the famous organ at the church of St. Mary. The steeples I describe as landmarks for the people of Rolfen were landmarks for my husband and myself as we traveled the city. The descriptions and stories of the building of Gothic cathedrals that I weave into the story come from my fascination with that amazingly creative moment in man's history when brick and stone became a kind of permanent ascending prayer.
We traveled to Travemünde, the resort on the sea where Peter and his friends make a little money and get into a lot of mischief. We sat in the same unique basket chairs that shield the occupant's identity. It was from those chairs that Peter hears the anti-Semitic remarks that help him to see that anti-Semitism is still alive in Germany.
Friends who are good cooks described the varieties of delicious German pastries that are sprinkled through the story, but some of the pastries I describe, I recall my German grandmother making, and some I have made myself.
A copy editor, whose name I don't know but who must come from a German background and to whom I am eternally grateful, pointed out how formal Germans are in their relationship with one another. It takes a long time before German acquaintances are on a first name basis. When I employed that suggestion, I found my story took on a much stronger German flavor.
There is a river in the book where Peter and his friends fish. I love to fish, and walking down the middle of a stream is one of my favorite activities. I have a favorite river, the Au Sable. The Au Sable River is in northern Michigan, but I put it in all my books. It has appeared in India, China, England, and now in Germany in After the Train.
I had to learn about soccer for the book. If I could have had Peter and his friends play baseball, I would have been all right. I've been an enthusiastic Detroit Tiger fan all my life. At the early age of seven I could recite the entire Tiger lineup. I knew nothing about soccer, and to learn about it, I had to read a book and watch some matches on TV.
My German background was another piece of the quilt. All four of my grandparents came from Germany, and although they came in the 1880s, it has always been difficult as a person of German ancestry not to feel some guilt for the terrible tragedy of the Jewish people by the hands of the Germans. Like Peter, I resent that guilt, for I know I was not personally responsible, but I can't help wondering how I would have behaved had I been a German in Germany at that time. For that reason, I have always been interested in the stories of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister, and Claus von Stauffenberg, the dashing German officer, both very different men, and both men who risked their lives to put an end to Hitler's regime. Those men, especially Stauffenberg entered my story as I struggled to find examples of German citizens who stood up to be counted. I wondered if I could measure up to such examples and doubted that I would have the courage.
At a visit to Detroit's Holocaust Memorial Center, I saw a table laid for a dinner interrupted by SA troops who came to arrest and carry away the Jewish occupants of the home. That scene found its way into the book as the story of what happened to David's parents.
I had much to learn about the Jewish faith, and for that I depended on books and on Jewish friends. My editor, Susan Rich, told me about the Tashlikh service, when on the first day of Rosh Hashanah crumbs are cast into a river where there are fish. The crumbs represent the sins for the year and the river carries them away. The fish are important because fish were the first witnesses to creation. Because their eyes are always open, they are like God's ever-watching eyes. Peter tosses some of the crumbs from his Buchtein, a German doughnut, into the water and feels lighter, as if his worries have been thrown away with the crumbs. Susan's suggestion made the perfect ending for the story. As Peter learned about his Jewish heritage and the Jewish faith, I learned as well.
I never know when I start a book what will happen and how it will end. If I did, writing the story would be boring. Joan Didion says, "I write to know what I am thinking." I might add, I write to surprise myself, to enter a world which I create, but don't control, a world where you can make miracles and right wrongs and find out surprising things about yourself.
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Gloria Whelan is the bestselling author of many novels for young readers, including Homeless Bird, winner of the National Book Award, Parade of Shadows, and Listening for Lions. She lives in northern Michigan.