Sunday, November 30, 2014

The more I read...

...the more I realize just how much I don't know.
This morning, I finished "The Girls of the Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II" by Denise Kiernan. This fascinating book focuses on the real-life activities of nine women who worked at the Clinton Engineer Works in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the 1940s. The women were employed because of their particular skills - secretaries, a statistician-mathematician, a janitor, a chemist, a pipe inspector, two machine operators, and a nurse. Later revealed to be one of the main manufacturing sites for the Manhattan Project, none of the employees at the time knew exactly what the plant made - they just knew that it was part of the war effort. None of them saw the whole operation, and each employee signed a pledge of secrecy (and were reminded repeatedly) regarding how vital their silence was regarding the small bits of information they did know. Folks who talked about their job to other employees or to townsfolk were immediately dismissed. Somehow, the secret held. Amazing.

Even more incredible to me was the way these women were recruited.They were approached individually, usually by a boss, an acquaintance, or a military official, and asked if they would like to be part of a special project to help the war effort. Their new job would require that they leave their current work and home setting. They would board a train and travel to an undisclosed location, live in an unnamed town for an uncertain amount of time, perform tasks that must remain secret, and never speak to anyone about what they did all day long, not even their own family or spouse. The work would be steady and the pay terrific. Everything would be arranged for them. All they had to do was say yes.

And they did. Eventually, tens of thousands of women with an adventurous spirit and a desire to work for a quick end to the war leaped into these jobs. Makes me wonder how many of us today would leave the comforts of home for such a big unknown.

I never heard of Oak Ridge Tennessee or the contribution of these women until I read this book. Thank you to Denise Kiernan for shedding light on these women's personal experiences and on those of the dozens of other women mentioned, but not closely followed, in the book.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

What was it like?

I've always been fascinated by tales from another era. When a person speaks about a particular time and place in their personal experience, I'm even more intrigued. I try to picture the setting, the sights and smells and try to envision myself there with the morals and norms of the time and culture, but without the insight given by history at this distance. It's hard to strip away who I am and consider who I might have been during that time.

Among the most amazing resources I found during my research of 1938 Germany are the oral histories documented and shared with the world by those who lived through the time in that place. The United States Memorial Holocaust Museum and the Holocaust Memorial Center in Michigan are two of many who have created these priceless archives, available for free. When we ask ourselves, "What was it like to live there then?" we can turn to these preserved accounts.

I've heard it said that historical fiction is like time travel, but without the hazards. The implication is that as the traveler, you later re-emerge in your own time intact and unchanged.

But our experiences shape us. If we allow ourselves to go back in time with a story and view the experiences of others, real ones in oral histories or fictitious ones in books, we can be shaped by them as well. Their experiences will serve an ultimate good.

And that makes me smile.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Primary sources = connections

Earlier this month, I participated in a 'local author' event at Elk Lake Elementary. It was organized by the PTO and gave 7 or 8 of us authors a chance to connect with potential readers and others who love stories. Folks who attended the event wandered from table to table, browsing and chatting with the authors. For a couple authors, it was their first public event ever! Exciting, right?

Some of the author tables had only their books on display with the smiling author waiting nearby, ready and eager to discuss their work with anyone. Others had trinkets or manipulatives on display in addition to their books - reasons to engage longer at the table. Now I have no stats to back me up, but I suspect that folks who spend more time interacting with an author's materials are more likely to ask questions about their work, read the jacket back, and possibly buy the book.

Those who stopped at my table typically asked permission to pick up my 1930s camera and then engaged in a Q&A with me about it. The generation who grew up with digital photography is amazed at the mechanics of a camera from that era, the bellows, the hinged back, the spool, advance knob, and counter for the film (film??), and the general bulkiness compared to the cameras they're familiar with. Nothing like holding history in your hands to let you know how totally cool it is.

At other author events, I've also brought a 1938 Sears-Roebuck catalog, copies of photos I got during my research at the March of Dimes, the Library of Congress, and the Stadtarchiv in Munich, photos I took of various Munich settings in the book, and reprints of Nazi propaganda about Hitler Youth and the Tag der deutschen Kunst, the procession at the end of the novel.

Primary sources. Those materials draw people in and invite them to linger and chat. That's the best way I know to open a connection with a reader.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

This date in history, 1938 and 1989

A strange pair of historic anniversaries fall on this date, November 9th. Both relate to Germany and to the freedoms we hold dear.

In 1938, the stillness of night on November 9/10 was interrupted across Germany. Working under official Nazi Party orders, SA and Hitler Youth took part in Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a wave of terror inflicted as a pogrom against Jews in the newly expanded German Reich. During the overnight rampage against Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, and individuals, 7500 shops were targeted, their windows broken and goods looted.
Upwards of 267 synagogues were damaged or destroyed, and 91 people were killed. Countless numbers of Jewish citizens were dragged out of their beds and beaten in the street in front of their home. Some historic accounts of these events indicate that Kristallnacht was a reality-check for the Jewish people still living within Germany. They now knew that the Nazis would stop at nothing, not even large-scale murder, to push them out of the country. Lines at emigration offices bulged. Thousands of letters were sent to overseas relatives begging for help. In foreign newspapers, German Jews took out ads describing their skills, hoping against hope that someone in a safer country would hire them so they could obtain a work visa and get out before it was too late.

On a very different note, November 9th also marks the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This year, tens of thousand of people flocked the area around Brandenberg Gate, taking part in a fabulous celebration of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Wall was built literally overnight in 1961. It's estimated that 100 people died trying to escape over its 96 mile length during the 28 years it stood as a divide between East and West.

To me, both events serve as reminders of how precious our freedoms are, and how desperate people become when their freedoms are threatened or removed.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Media frenzy, again

Ah, the media loves a sensation - a once rosy political career shot down by lewd behavior, a superstar athlete with steroids in his blood, the diva who is in and out of rehab, the car chase/overturned train/mudslide/worst-winter-in-decades Armageddon story-to-end-all-stories. Viewers tune in. Ratings go up. The execs are happy.
The media spoon feeds the American people sensationalism, and we gobble it up. Office workers spread it at the cafeteria. Soccer moms talk it up while the kids practice. The constant input of bad news and impending disaster weighs us down and pulls our focus away from reality. Away from facts. That's called propaganda.

Here are some facts. There are over 319 million people in the US today. About 1.5 million will have a heart attack or stroke this year and 600,000 will die from heart disease. An average of 20,000 will die from complications of various flus. Over 10,000 will die as a result of drunk driving and another 3000 will die from accidents caused by distracted driving such as texting while driving. Obviously, prevention of these public health threats deserves whatever light the media can shine on them. And the media does a basic job covering those.

Then there are those odd occurrences which seem to capture the media's and the public's imagination.
Like the six or seven people in the US who have been infected with ebola. One has died.

Does ebola need the kind of US media-blitz coverage it is getting? Of course not.
Reminds me of the hype surrounding HIV in the 1980s. Know how many people were infected with HIV just by being near someone with AIDS? None. Thank God for informed adults like the late Princess Diana, shown here shaking hands with an AIDS patient.

Get a grip, America. Stop the frenzy. Turn off the TV/radio/computer/iphone and go for a walk. Live an informed life. Don't let the media propaganda turn you into a quivering mass, unable to see the truth for yourself.

Use your common sense. You'll be fine.