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.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh, a novel that was one of the most buzzed-about releases of 2003—it sold within a month. Tackling the difficult subject of why women think they have to marry with elegant writing and plenty of insight, Haigh's ambitious debut is well worth looking back on (and her later work has fulfilled its promise and then some).
"Ken Kimble is what I call a serial marrier," Haigh says by phone from Boston, where she moved after graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop last year. "He has these serious character flaws, but he has no problem finding women to marry." Haigh has firm opinions about why such a man can always find a bride. "We're raised as women to value marriage and family," she says, "and to believe that unless we've achieved those things, the rest of our accomplishments don't really count for very much."
Read the full interview from our February 2003 issue here.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent. Set during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, the story follows the real-life Carrier family, whose sharp-tongued matriarch is accused of consorting with the devil.
A descendent of the Carriers, Kent relates the story quietly, with moments of beauty that give way to horror, then to redemption. The Heretic's Daughter not only chronicles the insanity of the witch trials, but a family learning—maybe too late—to truly value each other.
Read the full review from our September 2008 issue here, and keep a lookout for Kent's next novel, The Outcasts, coming in October.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean, a historical novel set during the 1941 Siege of Leningrad. For months, the city was cut off from supply routes, driving its residents to desperate measures. One young woman, Marina, takes refuge in the Hermitage, wandering the bare halls while preserving in her memory the artwork that used to hang there. Near the end of her life, her memory failing, this time returns to Marina, and she begins to share her wartime experiences with her own daughter for the first time.
Dean merges past and present in prose that shines like the gilt frames in the Hermitage. The story shifts seamlessly from 1941 to the present, just as Alzheimer's shifts time within Marina's mind. The heart of the story is its flashbacks, when we walk the Spanish Hall with Marina, aching with loss and hunger. As she commits scenes, colors, even brushstrokes to memory, the paintings come alive. Chapters narrated by her daughter Helen show us the present, when Marina slips away at a family gathering. During the search, Helen, herself a mother and an artist, wonders about the memories parents choose to tell their children and the memories they keep secret.
Read the full review from our April 2006 issue here.
The Rosatis thought they were safe from the war hidden away in their ancient villa, until two soldiers walked into their lives. Twelve years later, the Rosatis are being targeted by a serial killer. Serafina Bettini begins investigating the case, but every step closer to an answer brings back her own hidden past. In a world that is trying to recover from the pain of war, Bohjalian expertly knots the threads of his characters, creating a story of love and revenge.
Chris Bohjalian, New York Times best-selling author of The Sandcastle Girls, delivers another mysterious novel, this one set in the beautiful hills of Tuscany. Our reviewer calls The Light in the Ruins "a brilliant blend of historical fiction and a chilling serial killer story."
Be sure to read the full review here and check out the trailer below from Knopf Doubleday for more:
Will you read The Light in the Ruins? What other mysteries have you read during Private Eye July?
Amor Towles' surprise bestseller, Rules of Civility (Viking), has sold some 500,000 copies since its 2011 publication. But fans were left wondering what happened to one of its most compelling characters, the glamorous and secretive Evelyn Ross, who got on a train to Chicago—and never disembarked.
Digital-only sequels and epilogues are common in genre communities, but rare for literary authors. But nevertheless, Towles is publishing a digital-only book imagining the further adventures of Eve in Hollywood, her ultimate destination:
The book will be available from Penguin on June 25, wherever digital books are sold, for just $2.99. Will you read it? Which literary novel do you most wish an author would continue?
As for what's next for Towles, he is working on another full-length novel, which he tells us "is set in a different time and a different place." We'll be sure to report back with more details when they're available.
I'll Be Seeing You by Suzanne Hayes & Loretta Nyhan
MIRA • $15.95 • ISBN 9780778314950
published May 28, 2013
Two very different women are linked by a twist of fate—and begin a life-changing correspondance—in a heartfelt historical novel set during World War II. Funny coincidence: Like their protagonists, co-authors Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan haven't met in person, either!
As the war rolls on, Glory and Rita's letters remind us that everyday life must go on even against the background of such historic events. The two trade recipes, share stories of their family and their fears that the men they love may not return. And they wait breathlessly for one another's letters.
May 16, 1943
Two letters from you in one day! They feel so solid in my hands. That's such a nice feeling with everything so faint and weightless around me now. And the truth is, I'm beginning to wait for your letters with bated breath. They are like talismans for me. . . .
Keep strong, Rita. I'm happy to hear I'm not alone in my growing fondness to old-lady neighbors. Don't let anyone else bully you or I might just have to take a train and wave my wild little son around. "Take THAT!" I'd say.
He's been so naughty that he'd send any bigot running.
Yours in true friendship,
What are you reading this week?
Fellow fans of Valerie Martin, I've got good and bad news. The good: She has a new novel on the way, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste (Nan A. Talese). The bad: You have to wait until January 28, 2014, to read it.
But the wait should be worth it. The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is centered on the cultural fallout from a legendary real-life incident. When the Mary Celeste was found adrift off the coast of Spain in December of 1872, her cargo was intact—and there was no sign of her crew. What happened?
Martin blends this mystery with the sensation caused by the Arthur Conan Doyle story it inspired; the vendetta of a journalist against a possibly fraudulent medium; and the tale of the captain's family, who must add his loss to a long list of seafaring tragedies. From the catalog:
In a haunted, death-obsessed age, a ghost ship appearing in the mist is by turns a provocative mystery, an inspiration to creativity, and a tragic story of the disappearance of a family and of a bond between husband and wife that, for one moment, transcends the impenetrable barrier of death.
Though Martin's writing is always topnotch, her historical novels are my favorite of her works—and her 2003 novel, Property, set in antebellum New Orleans, is one of my favorite books of all time. She is one of those rare authors who are able to fully inhabit the past, warts and all. There are no anachronistic attitudes among her characters—even if that means, as it does in Property, that they give you the shivers. Can't wait to read this one.
Since its publication in 2009, Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Ballantine) has sold 1.3 million copies. That's some debut!
Well, Ford is finally following up on his success: Songs of Willow Frost will be published September 10. Like Hotel, Songs of Willow Frost is historical fiction and features a Chinese-American character and a childhood friendship. This time, though, the story is set in the 1920s and 1930s, where a lonely young boy looks for the mother he longs for. From the publisher description:
Twelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese-American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.
Determined to find Willow, and prove his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte. The pair navigates the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive, but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star. The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.
Did you read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet? Will you be looking for Songs of Willow Frost?