Copies of the original letters

Copies of the original letters

Long after the War, one of my California cousins came to visit me in Massachusetts. I remember we were having lunch, sitting in the kitchen at my square oak table, when she mentioned the letters her father had saved. I asked, “What letters?”

Matter of factly, she replied. “Aunt Sondra’s letters. You know the ones she wrote during the War, when she worked for Mayor LaGuardia.” 

Puzzled, I said, “I never heard anything about them.” That was the beginning of the long  journey to the novel LOVE, SARAH. There were more than 700 pages, written on tissue-like paper. My uncle sent them to me. After the letters were hand copied, I returned the originals to him. He had one request.  “When you write the book, maybe you’ll make me a mensch.” When you read the book, you can decide if I did.

All those years ago when I found the letters, I knew the material had the potential for a novel, but I was working full-time and many years passed before I could devote myself to writing.

After my initial, personal response, I became fascinated by the worlds the letters revealed. I had not been aware of the internment camps until I read the letters. In one, Nate, the character based on the uncle who saved the letters, had written, “Interning the Japanese-Americans is the stupidest thing America ever did.” I imagined what someone who felt that way, and was assigned to be a military policeman in one, would have done. The Camps became an important part of LOVE, SARAH.

Anti-Semitism became explicit through the experiences of the younger brother. Before he was drafted, he had spent his whole life in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. He is devastated by the prejudice he faced in the Army. Anti-Semitism is also a factor at the organization where Sarah volunteers during the War. Towards the end of the War and the book, I created stories around children, smuggled out of Europe. Secretly brought to America because the fear was that like many of their parents, they would be denied entry. Anti-Semitism was alive and well in America at that time.

Those scenes are fiction, but they could have happened. We don’t know what the historical figures thought, intended or said, so poetic license filled the gaps in this section and throughout the book.

Before I became engrossed in the book, I knew about the Holocaust in a peripheral way, too upset by the details to focus on it deeply. If the setting for the book was going to be the period of the Second World War, I needed to include the fate of Europe’s Jews.  One way was through the fictional character of Eli and the agony of his father trying to locate his brother in Poland. Another was through the (fictional) volunteer work Sarah does. In addition to the children’s stories which she hears, adult refugees share their painful experiences with her.

Until I read about LaGuardia from my aunt’s view of him, the “Little Flower” had been an interesting character, in a black hat, who read the funnies to children during the truckers’ strike. Through the letters I saw a man driven to do good, often trampling over the feelings of others in his hurry. In the end, I saw him as a tragic hero, who did so much good for his City, but never could take his talents to another level, as he had hoped to do.

The novel, LOVE, SARAH evolved over a period of eight years. Several incidents in the letters became the inspiration for mini-dramas in the book. Historical events found their way into the lives of the characters, revealing more about each of them and giving greater meaning and insights into the events. Weaving the stories of the five main characters together offered a larger picture of a complicated time.

While this is a novel, I hope my research, discoveries and insights shed light on a complicated period. My goal for the research was to provide subtle, not intrusive, background. Many of my discoveries found their way into the book. Others, too interesting to be discarded, appear in REFLECTIONS. And, the extensive research will be itemized in the RESOURCES section.

The most important insight I personally gained is that seeing the War through the eyes of people who lived it is a powerful experience. Hopefully, you’ll feel that, too.