A father’s escape inspires gripping war tale
Although they are Jewish, 11-year-old Gustave's parents believe they are safe in Paris—until Nazis occupy the city in 1940. Now Gustave must leave his best friends behind as his family flees to Saint-Georges, where life isn't much easier: Food is scarce, a classmate bullies Gustave and the Nazis are getting closer. After befriending a young girl in the French Resistance, Gustave develops a plan that could reunite him with his friends—and maybe even get them all to America, where they can finally be safe.
This suspenseful first novel was inspired by author Susan Lynn Meyer's father, whose own family escaped from the Nazis in France. Meyer, an English professor at Wellesley College, answered questions for BookPage about Black Radishes (recently named a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for its authentic portrayal of the Jewish experience), touching on her family's fascinating history, her obsession with research and what's up next for Gustave.
“I was always fascinated, as a child, by the glimpses my father's stories gave me of what then seemed a faraway culture and time. I thought that other children might be as interested in both the humorous and the somber aspects of his French childhood as I was.”
That email made me ecstatically happy for about 48 hours and then completely panicked for the next 48—because I hadn’t actually written the novel yet and didn’t know if I could do it! Then I got over my panic and just sat down and wrote. When I finished the book I sent it to the editor who had wanted to see it. I didn’t hear anything for about 12 months, so meanwhile I started contacting agents and I also hesitantly started sending it out to two other editors. When it landed on the desk of Rebecca Short, editorial assistant at Delacorte (Random House), the magical “click” happened. Rebecca got the manuscript on a Friday afternoon. She read the manuscript over the weekend, sent it to her executive editor, Françoise Bui, who also read it on the weekend, and then it was sent on to the publisher, Beverly Horowitz, and on Monday, to my absolute astonishment, Rebecca called me to make an offer on the book! In the end, the original editor who had judged the contest decided to pass, but I am tremendously grateful for the email he sent me because it gave me the confidence and the boost I needed to make me write Black Radishes. Black Radishes was inspired by your father's experience during World War II. When did your father tell you the story of his childhood in France? I have vivid childhood memories of sitting with my five brothers and sisters at our round white dinner table and listening to my father tell stories about his French childhood. He is a great storyteller, and he told us lots of funny anecdotes about tricks that he and his friends and sister and cousins used to play, trouble they got into, funny details about French life, etc. Once, for example, he was severely rebuked by an adult for breaking himself a piece of bread at the table but then putting the loaf back on the bread board upside down—bread is so sacred in France that you must always treat it with respect! Only gradually, over the years, did I learn, bit by bit, why his family left France—that as Jews during the war their lives were in terrible danger. He didn’t say much about this aspect of his life—it was hard for him to talk about those things. I was always fascinated, as a child, by the glimpses his stories gave me of what then seemed a faraway culture and time, and I was stunned, when I understood it, to learn that anyone had hated my father and his family and people like them so much that their lives were threatened. I thought that other children might be as interested in both the humorous and the somber aspects of his French childhood as I was. But I want to make clear that Black Radishes is a novel, as my father would be the first to tell you. I felt that his life story was his to tell, and the events in my novel are fiction, although the historical situation is real. I borrowed (and transformed) some anecdotes of his, and my characters do follow the same route that my father’s family took in their escape from France—from Paris to the tiny village of St.-Georges-sur-Cher to Spain, through Portugal, and from there setting sail for the United States. Although life for Gustave and his parents is quite bleak while they live in Saint-Georges, Gustave maintains his adventuresome and brave spirit. Was this your father's attitude during the war? For my father, the biggest emotional challenge was actually leaving France. Although to some extent as a child he understood how grave the danger was, it was wrenching for him to leave behind his whole world—his country, his language and his close friends and relatives. Gustave in Black Radishes also experiences something of that loss. What is the biggest challenge in writing historical fiction? How do you know that you've done sufficient research? I absolutely love doing historical research. The hardest thing is getting myself to realize that it is time to stop doing research and to write! I’m also a literary scholar, and I often write about literary texts in relation to history. It was a surprise to me to realize how much more deeply and intimately I needed to know history in order to write historical fiction. I needed to know not just what big events occurred, of course, but the texture of daily life. For example, I needed to know just what the streets of Paris looked like in March of 1940, whether shops were open, what sort of mood people were in, in what ways war preparation and the absence of men of military age had affected daily life. That is much harder to find out about than what one might call “large-scale” historical information. I discovered that reading daily newspapers from the time was extremely helpful. I also interviewed people and read lots of memoirs. I felt a compelling need to get all the details right—like what chocolate bar wrappers looked like, what color the postcards issued by the Germans were, exactly what sort of papers you needed to cross the demarcation line, and where you would go to make a phone call if you didn’t have a phone in your home. (The answer to that last question is that you go to the post office.) I kept reading and reading as I wrote the first draft, and from time to time I went back and changed things when I realized I had made a slight slip-up. For example, at one point in the manuscript I mentioned that Gustave pushed up a window—but then I realized that French windows open outward! Also, the Germans periodically closed the demarcation line between the occupied zone of France and the unoccupied zone, in order to punish the French and show their power, and I wanted to be sure I didn’t have my characters crossing the line during a particular month when it was impossible to do so—although probably no one except me would ever notice a mistake like that. I was not familiar with black radishes prior to reading this book, yet they play a crucial role in the plot—Gustave and his family use them to bribe the Nazis guarding the demarcation line. You’re not alone—most Americans have never seen or tasted black radishes. I try to bring some along when I do a reading of the book so that people can see and taste one.
Black radishes are a delicacy in the region of France where the novel is set, and, as one of my father’s older cousins discovered during the war, they are also very popular with Germans. That aspect of the plot comes from something that really happened. This older cousin of my father had a Swiss passport, so he was able to cross the demarcation line between the two zones of France in a way that other French Jews could not. He was also something of a daredevil. He spoke fluent German, having grown up in Switzerland, and he would chat and joke in German with the guards at the line, in order to make them feel friendly toward him. He discovered that the Germans loved black radishes. On some occasions, he smuggled food or people across the demarcation line, making sure that he always had a few black radishes on hand to distract the Germans on guard. What other books would you recommend that children read if they are interested in the lives of Jewish children during World War II? It is hard to choose, but a few particular books come to mind. One very powerful book that I read recently was Fern Schumer Chapman’s Is It Night or Day? Chapman’s novel was inspired by her mother’s childhood—she was a Jewish girl in Germany whose parents sent her alone to the United States to live with relatives in a little-known program that allowed one thousand Jewish children (but not adults) into the United States during the war. The story of Tiddy’s terrible separation from her parents is wrenching, as is her courageous struggle to find a way to live in America. I was also very gripped by Nicole Sach’s A Pocket Full of Seeds and Renée Roth-Hano’s Tough Wood, both realistic, vivid and believable accounts of French Jewish girls who must go into hiding during the war. I loved Annika Thor’s A Faraway Island. It is about the experiences of Stephie, a Jewish girl from Vienna, who is sent to Sweden with her little sister to escape the Nazis. Thor delicately renders Stephie’s sadness and longing for her home and parents as she tries to adjust to a very different life on a Swedish fishing island and to the reserved, stern woman who has taken her in. The novel’s climax uncovers one heart-rending incident that happened to Stephie in Vienna and also reveals new emotional depths in her foster mother. It is beautifully done. Your “day job” is teaching Victorian and American literature at Wellesley College. How do you make time to write fiction, as well? It is hard—especially because I am also a mother. Sometimes I feel as if I am trying to juggle parenthood with two other full-time jobs! But I feel an urgent need to write, so I do it. I need blocks of time to focus on writing. I work best when I can write for 2-3 hours of uninterrupted time in the early morning, and I also need a lot of space before and after I write with a clear head in which to focus and work things out in my mind. The research and reading I can do in smaller interstices of time here and there, but I need a certain amount of space and calmness in my head to write. This spring, I am taking an unpaid leave from Wellesley College in order to work on my next novel. I won’t make nearly as much money from the book as I would from teaching, but I’ve worked full-time ever since I graduated, except for a few months after my daughter was born, so I keep telling myself that it is not irresponsible to my family to earn less for half a year. We’ll still manage to pay the mortgage and cover health insurance! You have already signed a deal to write a companion novel to Black Radishes, to be titled Green and Unripe Fruit. What will this story be about? The new book follows Gustave as he and his family come to New York in 1942. Gustave struggles to adjust to life in this strange new country. He has learned that in America “all men are created equal,” and he is shocked and uncomprehending when he discovers racial segregation and prejudice in America too. He struggles to learn English, to adjust to his family’s new poverty, to accommodate to American ways and to find friends at his school in New York. Gustave also worries about his friend Marcel, left behind in France, and rumored to have been taken to a camp. He begins a tentative friendship with an African-American girl named September Rose—a friendship that causes intense reactions from both families and from other people in their school and their neighborhood. My editor and I may not stick with the title Green and Unripe Fruit, but this possible title comes from a French expression “en faire voir des vertes et des pas mûres,” which means to give someone a lot of grief or, literally, to “make [someone] see green and unripe fruit.” I find this expression amusing and evocative. The French love produce so much that just seeing green and unripe fruit, not even tasting it, is a metaphor for grief and trouble! It fits the new book, I think, because Gustave suffers a lot when he comes to America, but the image of unripe fruit also contains the possibility that, over time, the fruit will ripen, that grief will turn to fruition. That’s one of the guiding ideas of the new novel.
Eliza Borne, assistant web editor of BookPage, was a student of Meyer’s when she attended Wellesley College.
Author photo by Hannah Meyer-Winkler.