by Gary Slaughter
Author Gary Slaughter has been writing historical fiction based on his hometown of Owosso, Michigan, since 2004. The five novels in the Cottonwood series have been finalists for the Benjamin Franklin Award, the Next Generation Indie Book Award. In a behind-the-book story, Slaughter shares some of the memories from his childhood that inspired the series.
Would-be novelists are always advised to write about what they know. So luckily I chose to write about the time and the place, the events and the people that I experienced firsthand growing up in Owosso, Michigan.
You see, I grew up right in the middle of World War II and right in the middle of America. That’s right! Back then I was positive that Owosso was right in the middle of America because we were the only Americans who didn’t speak with an accent.
This bias had something to do with the fact that I found little reason to venture far beyond the Owosso’s city limits until I was off to the University of Michigan at age 17. And, as just I suspected, many people there spoke with an accent.
The five Cottonwood novels encompass the last five seasons of World War II, beginning with the D-Day invasion in June 1944 and ending with the surrender of Japan in September 1945.
The Cottonwood novels are set in a fictionalized version of Owosso, a small Midwestern town that I called Riverton, Michigan. Like all Americans at the time, the hard-working people of Riverton are coping with life on the home front. The shortages. The ever-present casualties of war. And fears and concerns about loved ones facing a dangerous enemy in Europe and in the Pacific.
The five Cottonwood novels encompass the last five seasons of World War II, beginning with the D-Day invasion in June 1944 and ending with the surrender of Japan in September 1945. That period impacted America—and the rest of the world, for that matter—like few others in history. And the larger-than-life events of that time provide a powerful historical background for the Cottonwood series.
THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD
My personal history was greatly enriched by the fact that I was born in the world’s most fascinating neighborhood. I shared my childhood with an army of neighborhood kids just like me. However my very best friend and fellow adventurer was Billy Curtis, on whom the character Danny, the star of the Cottonwood novels, is based.
Ours was a blue-collar neighborhood where you could walk down the street and hear families speaking German, Polish, French, Hungarian, Serbian—and even English on occasion. And I’ll never forget the smells that wafted out over Frazier Street as the neighborhood women prepared suppers for their families. The wide variety of simmering ethnic food from all parts of the Old World filled the air with tantalizing aromas.
The neighborhood men were either serving in the Armed Forces, or were, like my father, a tool and die maker, draft-exempt because of their critical skills. Our mothers also worked long hours in Owosso’s defense factories. So we kids were left in the care of the neighborhood bubbas, babushka-clad, Eastern European grandmothers who largely let us run free.
My bubba was Mrs. Mrva, the widowed Slovak lady who lived next door. Two Gold Stars hung in her front window to honor her sons Eddie and Cy who’d been killed in action: one in North Africa and the other on the beaches of Normandy.
She loved me and tried to fatten me with her delicious and exotic cookies and cakes. She spoke little English, so I spoke Slovak. It wasn’t until a few months into my Kindergarten year that I learned enough English to communicate with my parents. (At least, that’s how they liked to tell the story.)
Today, I suppose our bubbas would be considered irresponsible childcare providers. But not back then. Not in our town. Children were raised much differently than they are today.
If we got in trouble or misbehaved anywhere around town, we could expect a good pinch-and-twist, followed by a severe scolding delivered by some adult we might not even know. And that adult didn’t have to worry about complaints from our parents, either. In fact, if our parents ever got wind of the incident, we were in trouble all over again when we arrived home.
So we were completely free to roam our town provided we were home when the street lights came on. With War Time (Daylight Savings Time) and the Northern latitude of Owosso, we were not expected home until well after ten o’clock at night. So roam we did, even at the young ages of five or six.
This is the fertile ground onto which I sowed the seeds of wonder and imagination that grew into the award-winning series of all five Cottonwood novels. I was very fortunate indeed to have been born and raised in Owosso, Michigan.