In 2010, attorney Ronald H. Balson self-published his first novel, Once We Were Brothers, a haunting, fast-paced tale originating in Nazi-occupied Poland. The book opens in 2004, though. Philanthropist Elliot Rosenzweig is accused of being former SS officer Otto Piatek. The accuser is Ben Solomon, whose family took in the orphaned Piatek as a child, only to be brutally betrayed by him during the war.
Inspired by Balson's travels in Poland, Once We Were Brothers became a runaway hit, selling more than 120,000 copies. Three years later, the film rights have been optioned, and St. Martin's Press has published a new edition—released today—that will introduce this enthralling page-turner to an even larger audience.
In this guest blog post, Balson discusses how he was originally inspired to write the book:
In the early 2000s, I was hired by a small Chicago company that had an exclusive license to install telephone service in the Nova Sacz province of southern Poland. Unfortunately, they couldn’t deliver the project on time, and they lost their license. They, in turn, sued the manufacturing company. Although the lawsuit was filed in Chicago, the witnesses, the documents and all the evidence were in Poland. So, off I went. Many times.
I had read a lot about Poland during World War II, but I didn’t really know what to expect on my visits. I knew that Hitler had bombed 80 percent of Warsaw, and I knew the city had been rebuilt under the Soviet regime. But I failed to anticipate how much of the landscape would still show the wounds. Bullet holes remain in buildings. Plaques on brick walls commemorate ruthless murders that took place there. And the monuments. So many monuments, statues and memorials. Memorials to the fighters of the Polish Uprising, the Warsaw Ghetto, the Polish airmen and even the code breakers. And then there are the heartbreaking memorials to the camp victims.
Poland never stood a chance. It was facing the world’s largest, most menacing war machine. Yet, here and there, all across Poland, are glorious monuments in praise of heroism—to those who resisted, to those who fought in the uprisings and in the underground, and to those ordinary families who just tried to carry on and maintain their dignity in a time of insanity. They were heroes, all. That’s what the monuments tell us.
I became fascinated by the monuments and spent more time than I should have thinking about the people to whom they were dedicated. It was an easy step from there to Once We Were Brothers. My novel opens dramatically: A prominent philanthropist, Elliot Rosenzweig, is accused of being a former Nazi SS officer known as the Butcher of Zamosc, Poland. His accuser, Ben Solomon, claims that they grew up together in the same household, only to be betrayed by Rosenzweig during the war.
The underlying message of Once We Were Brothers, though, is one of heroism. Like the monuments, it lies in praise of the ordinary families of small-town Poland, who tried to live their lives in the face of the Nazi scourge. When their dignities were stripped from them, piece by piece, they did their best to carry on. The book’s message is also praise for the courage of those who resisted and those who served in the Polish underground.
An important section of the novel concerns a Catholic priest who risks his life to save the Solomon family. In a time when many averted their eyes and showed moral indifference, others, in the face of extreme consequences, displayed extraordinary courage. They are the ordinary folks—families, clergy, businessmen—who are honored at Yad VaShem as the “Righteous Among Nations.”
Ben Solomon seeks the help of a young lawyer, Catherine Lockhart, to bring Rosenzweig to justice. Over a series of interviews, he narrates the moving story of his family and of Rosenzweig’s betrayal. Although overmatched by Rosenzweig’s powerful team of lawyers, Lockhart must find the courage to confront them. To do so, she draws strength from Ben and his story. And isn’t that akin to the residual effect of the monuments? They are there to remind us of courage and moral conviction. Do we not draw strength and resolve from remembrance of these heroes?
If Once We Were Brothers entertains and informs, I am pleased with the result. But if the message of heroism is conveyed as well, then I have accomplished something that was born out of my visits to those emotionally powerful monuments several years ago.
Marlen Suyapa Bodden was working at the Legal Aid Society in New York when she stumbled upon the story that would turn her from a lawyer to a novelist. She first published The Wedding Gift herself, but intense reader interest led to it being picked up by St. Martin's Press, who will re-release the novel next week. In a guest post, Bodden shares the inspiration for her compelling debut.
In 1999, I was reading a nonfiction book on runaway slaves and came across a few lines and an endnote about an Antebellum divorce case from the Circuit Court in Talladega, Alabama (the city’s lovely courthouse, built in 1836 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is still in use and is the oldest working courthouse in the U.S.). A slaveholding man sued his bride for divorce because the child she gave birth to was not his. The court ruled in his favor and granted him all the property his wife brought to the marriage, including a young slave woman, who was a wedding gift from her father.
The fact that a person was given to another as if she were china or a tea service is shocking to our 21st-century minds, but what I learned while researching slavery, historical and modern, is that dehumanization is the chief tool that slave owners have used throughout time to control people and keep them enslaved. It was common for wealthy Antebellum slave owners to give their daughters maids as wedding presents, so the brides would have familiar faces in their new homes.
Though the Talladega case captured my imagination, I did not begin drafting The Wedding Gift until 2003, when another real-life story shocked me into action. A social worker at a women’s homeless shelter in New York City contacted me about a resident of the shelter who wanted to sue her former employers for unpaid wages. I found out that she had been brought from an Asian country to New York as a slave, and eventually escaped with the help of police. It occurred to me then that, like most people, I had thought slavery was in the past—but there I was, looking into the eyes of a former slave.
When I started writing The Wedding Gift, I was not predisposed to write a novel that cast White people as villains and Black people as heroes. As a novelist and reader, I think characters who are either complete demons or saints are boring. Sarah Campbell, the young slave who is given to her half-sister as a wedding present, is a heroine, but she is not perfect. Similarly, Theodora, wife of master Cornelius Allen, may be kind to Sarah, but she remains a slave owner. Even Cornelius, the villain of the novel, engages in acts of kindness, although he is motivated by keeping his slaves in good health so they can reproduce.
I first went to Alabama in 1997 to work on a civil rights case (I am also a lawyer) and since then have traveled throughout the state, including Talladega, Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile. The people of Alabama, of all races, have Southern charm and could not have been kinder to me. In The Wedding Guest, I hope to have done their complicated history justice—and to have given voice not only to the more than 27 million slaves of today but also to my own ancestors who, beginning in the 16th century, were kidnapped from Africa and enslaved in the New World.
Thanks, Marlen! For more on The Wedding Gift, on sale September 24, visit her website.
I am so excited to share news of The Plum Tree with readers of The Book Case. This is a historical novel by debut author Ellen Marie Wiseman, a first-generation German American who was inspired by her mother's experiences in Germany during World War II. The book is on sale now.
In the novel, Christine lives in a German village and works for the Bauermans, a wealthy Jewish family. She falls in love with son Isaac Bauerman—but their lives are complicated in very painful ways when Isaac is arrested and sent to Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp opened in Germany. But Christine is desperate to be with him as she's left on the home front.
Ellen's publicist shared with me why the author had to tell this story:
Ellen grew up listening to her German relatives tell tales of poverty, hunger, bombings, and constant fear—a time when the country was made up of women, children and the elderly struggling to stay alive while the men were drafted and sent off to fight. In writing the book, Ellen’s hope was to put a face on the countless destitute German women and children who lived and died under Hitler's regime, most often as victims of their government’s actions.
Here, you can see how the author's family history inspired the book. These are her own family photos and the captions and explanations are in her voice.
This photo was taken to send to Opa while he was off fighting on the Eastern Front. At one point during the four years Opa was gone, he was captured by the Russians and sent to a POW camp in Siberia. For two years my mother and her family had no idea if he was dead or alive until he showed up on their doorstep one day. Opa and his stories were the inspiration behind Christine’s father in The Plum Tree.
For years, Oma rang the bells every day to call the farmers in from the fields for Mittag Essen (the midday meal); every evening for prayer; and every Sunday morning for church service. During the war, the army took the bells down to be melted into bullets, a bomb hit the steeple, and the congregation, afraid to assemble without fear of being labeled traitors, met secretly in their homes. In The Plum Tree, this is the church were Christine attempts to expose an SS camp guard during the first service after the war was over.
My aunt’s face is bandaged because she tried to swallow fire after watching a fire-eater at a carnival. In The Plum Tree, Christine remembers her sister, Maria, doing the same thing.
My mother is wearing one of her best dresses; the rest were made from printed cotton sheets. The tall door behind them led to the goats’ indoor enclosure, which shared a wall with my great-grandparents’ first floor bedroom. The neighbor’s house (to the right of the tall door) shares a roof with my mother’s childhood home. This is the setting for Christine’s home in The Plum Tree.
In her debut novel, Kelly O’Connor McNees imagined the life of Louisa May Alcott. It was "a compelling, heart-wrenching story about the difficult choices women face," wrote reviewer Susan Schwartzman back in April 2010, and a "bittersweet, stirring debut."
More than two years later, McNees is back with her second book, another historical novel about extraordinary women. Called In Need of a Good Wife, this book takes place in the American West of the 19th century and stars Clara Bixby, a woman who works as a broker of mail-order brides. (How's that for an unusual profession?)
One of my favorite aspects of good historical fiction is that it drops us into situations and eras that seem very unusual to us today. Have you ever wondered why women from New York would have shipped off to Nebraska as mail-order brides? Here, McNees shares fives reasons why a woman would go down this path.
Five things mail-order brides hoped to find on the American frontier
by Kelly O’Connor McNees
Before match.com there was the Matrimonial News, where, for about a quarter, prospective brides could place an ad describing what they were looking for in a husband. In the aftermath of the Civil War, many young women had lost a sweetheart to the battlefield and others still waited for their first chance at love. For the starry-eyed, nothing was more romantic than the idea of a lovelorn man sending letters from the prairie. Of course, things didn’t always work out quite the way these young brides hoped.
Other brides were more practical. Women with few prospects for marriage in their own social circle had scant hope of financial security unless they found a way to make a match elsewhere. Many arranged marriages were little more than business compacts—a husband agreed to provide food and a place to live, and in exchange his wife would clean, cook, work the farm and give him children. Mr. and Mrs. aspired to be on friendly terms (there was the matter of producing those children, after all), but often love was a luxury neither of them could afford.
In 1867 the newly completed Union Pacific Railroad finally joined the east to the frontier and made rapid travel a real option for most Americans. Suddenly, places that had seemed impossibly far away were within a day’s journey. Women who had believed they had no choice but to spend the rest of their lives cooped up in the same old towns, trying to live up to the rigid standards of the day, found themselves with new prospects. They could escape and go west, in search of gold, in search of new vistas, in search of a new way of life.
These days people wear pajama pants to the grocery store, so it’s hard for us to imagine just how many rules governed the choices women made every day about their behavior and speech and dress in the well-established cities and towns of the east. But for women weary of these strictures, the frontier offered freedom. Homesteading required a great deal of back-breaking physical labor, and women worked right alongside men. They were dirty, calloused and sunburned, perhaps, but also free of stiff petticoats and corsets that kept them sitting uncomfortably on the edges of chairs back east. For those with the means to hire workers, the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed single women to claim land of their own, which meant they might not need a husband at all—a kind of freedom most women never dared to hope for.
Many of the men and women who traveled west to homestead hoped to leave the past behind and start again, or yet again. Failed businesses, blighted reputations, the unwanted destiny of a family name or a country or religion of origin—all of the disappointments of the past would stay there, in the past. These brave pioneers set out to write a new destiny for themselves, and for the nation, one hard-won page at a time.
Kristina McMorris' debut novel, Letters from Home (Kensington) is a World War II love story with a twist: It's based on McMorris' own grandfather's letters to his sweetheart—her grandmother. Here, the Portland author writes about the unique challenges this premise created for her work.
The challenges of writing historical fiction—when those who lived it are around to correct you!
guest post by Kristina McMorris
Finding inspiration to write my first novel, Letters from Home, was relatively simple. My grandmother had saved every one of the love letters my grandfather sent to her during World War II. Based on those beautiful pages, I imagined a Cyrano de Bergerac twist to their story, and voila! I had the premise of my book.
I brainstormed. I outlined. And then—oh, yes—I researched. A lot.
At first, my main motivation for accuracy stemmed from my fear of critics' feedback—namely from those ever-scary "anonymous" Amazon reviewers who supply their lengthy critiques in the form of bullet points. The deeper I delved into research, however, the more responsibility I felt to do justice to our humble veterans, whose sacrifices secured the freedoms we too often take for granted.
Writing historicals about any era poses a great number of challenges. In my case, I was featuring a period in which many of those who lived through it are still alive to call me a "nincompoop" over potential errors. (Not saying they'd use that word, precisely; but it's a great word, isn't it?)
On the upside, I eventually realized I had a wonderful opportunity that most historical authors don't: the possibility of hearing true accounts of the era firsthand. Before I knew it, my research process gained in-depth momentum. I had the pleasure of interviewing a wide variety of veterans, and even befriended a few members of the famed "Band of Brothers."
While I've gained an enormous amount of knowledge from textbooks, archivists, docents, and memoirs, no experience has compared to listening to tales from men who actually fought in the trenches. I'll never forget the Japanese-American vet who grew teary as he described the day that, unknowingly, he watched his own brother—an airman for the Japanese Empire—being shot down in a fighter plane overhead.
Sadly, two of the vets I met have passed away. Estimates claim we're losing a thousand of them daily, likely more. Hopefully, though, their amazing accounts and, perhaps more importantly, the lessons they've shared will live on through the written word. For that, I feel honored to contribute. And if, in the end, I still earn the label of a "nincompoop," it certainly won't be for lack of trying to get their stories right.
Kristina McMorris resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their two sons, bundles of energy who take pride in transforming any cylindrical household object into a weapon. She is a former host of "Weddings Portland Style" and a winner of the Golden Heart. Find out more on her website.
Writer Tasha Alexander and her Victorian-era novels featuring the intrepid, ahead-of-her-time Lady Emily should be well-known to BookPage readers—see our reviews of them here. The fifth in the series, Dangerous to Know, came out last week. Here, Alexander gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of the research required for Dangerous, making us even more jealous of the life of an author!
I spent much of last summer housesitting in rural Normandy, writing and doing research for my latest book. It was heavenly. The landscape is extraordinary, like walking through an Impressionist painting, and the food is everything you’d expect from France. I’d do just about anything right now for the village boulangerie’s still-hot croissants. Spending a significant amount of time in the place your novel is set enriches the story in ways you can’t anticipate—and in ways that would be impossible if you limited your research to reading.
But the thing that surprised me the most about my time in France was driving. Or navigating, really. And that was something that couldn’t go into a novel set in 1892.
To start, let me say, for the record, that I absolutely adore France and the French. Always have, always will. Until I came to Normandy, I’d not spent much time in France outside of Paris (it’s pretty hard to tear yourself away from Paris), and I was looking forward to exploring the coast, the crumbling châteaux, and the lush countryside. Armed with directions printed from Google Maps, I set off for my first excursion, to the seaside town of Étretat.
Within about half an hour, I was hopelessly lost.
Google Maps, you see, doesn’t quite fit with France. I was approaching the trip like an American—an American planning to follow numbered highways to numbered exits.
Now. The French have both numbered highways and numbered exits. But to get to them isn’t quite so easy as you might think. It requires a different frame of mind. You don’t want to look for the number—instead, you need to go through each roundabout in the direction of the next village that’s on your way to your final destination. Knowing you need the N15 or the D8 isn’t enough. From that day on, I abandoned Google for a real, hard copy map, and made lists of towns before setting off. In the end, it made for much more pleasant excursions. How lovely to look for Pierrefiques or Fauville-en-Caux, wondering what you’ll see there, rather than fixating on numbers. Sure, you may eventually wind up on the N15, but more likely, you’ll never see the entrance and will spend a gorgeous afternoon meandering through charming places you’d never have seen otherwise.
Once you get accustomed to it, switching back to taking I-80 to exit whatever seems pedestrian and crass. I’m already looking forward to my next trip along the back roads of France.
Thanks, Tasha! Next time you go to France, take us with you. :) Visit her site for more about Tasha Alexander and the Lady Emily series.