News, views, and reviews on historical fiction, both new and old by Sarah Johnson. Reading the Past is my home on the web for historical fiction. I use the site for writing about historical novels and discussing the genre with my fellow readers.
Robinson’s documentary novel intermingles fiction and family memoirs, period editorials, letters, and journal entries in its penetrating rendition of key moments during the lives of her great-grandparents, Frank and Sarah Morgan Dawson. Their characterizations and strong principles are clearly etched throughout; both were outliers in their time yet inextricably defined by it.
English-born and a defender of the rule of law, Dawson is moved to join the Confederate Navy; he later rises to become a prominent Charleston newspaper editor, whose progressive writings championing African Americans’ rights and civic participation make him unpopular. Raised in a Louisiana family brought low through loss, Sarah is a talented writer all-too-aware of women’s social inferiority. The novel’s suspenseful second half details a disturbing incident involving the Dawsons’ neighbor and governess.
While the patchwork approach means the narrative isn’t exactly smooth, it proves unyielding in its timely themes, with many depictions of how white men’s seething resentment erupts into racist violence and how Southern codes of honor and toxic values, particularly slavery, corroded individual lives and the national character.
Dawson's Fall was published by FSG in May, and I reviewed it initially for Booklist's May 1 issue. When I first started reading it, I realized the characters felt familiar but couldn't pinpoint why. Later on, I remembered it was because the central character in another book I'd reviewed over a decade ago, William Baldwin's A Gentleman of Charleston and the Manner of His Death, was also based on Frank Dawson, although in that book he was called David Lawton, and his family was also fictionalized there. I found Robinson's to be the better novel of the two.
Sarah Morgan (later Dawson) was the author of A Confederate Girl's Diary, a six-volume set of journals first published in 1913, and which has become a key primary source about the Civil War experiences of Southern women. Read more about it at Documenting the American South.
For more background to the novel, read Robinson's interview with Publishers Weekly, in which she addresses her family history, research, and weaving history into fiction ("I made up almost nothing," she says).
Allison Montclair’s The Right Sort of Man sees two unlikely business partners running a matrimonial agency in post-World War II London – and teaming up to pin down a murderer. It’s an inspired pairing. Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge, a tall, elegant war widow, has an intuitive knack for sizing up characters and situations, while Miss Iris Sparks has moxie to spare, a string of past fiancés and lovers, and an analytical mind that served her well in wartime intelligence (which she isn’t allowed to talk about). Their ongoing banter is quick and clever without feeling forced.
In part, think The Bletchley Circle but with cheeky wit instead of creepy suspense. Both women have traumatic personal histories that shape their approaches to life, though, which lends the novel a sense of gravitas absent from more standard cozy mysteries.
Their new business venture, located in upscale Mayfair (which would be a fashionable venue if not for the bombed-out rubble surrounding their building), threatens to derail after their latest client is found stabbed. Tillie La Salle was a shopgirl with aspirations to marry out of the East End, but Iris knows she isn’t fully on the up-and-up (“a shady lady from Shadwell,” she calls her). The police are certain the mild-mannered accountant that Iris and Gwen had set up for a date with Tillie is the culprit, but the pair, suspecting otherwise, set out to clear the man’s name.
Gwen may come from a posh background, but she’s game for expanding her social horizons (her attempts to navigate London’s public transport are very funny). On the serious side, she’s forced to live with her controlling aristocratic in-laws, who took custody of her six-year-old son while she was deep in mourning for her beloved husband. Despite her brashness, Iris has self-esteem issues and is unused to having female friends. She and Iris had met at the wedding of mutual acquaintances and set up their shingle shortly after, but they don’t know each other very well, and part of the fun is seeing how their personalities interact.
Alongside them, Montclair has assembled a terrific supporting cast, from to the women's occasional secretary, who goes by Sally, to Iris’s policeman former lover, to Gwen’s delightful son, Ronnie. The post-WWII era is far more than window-dressing, and the period lingo feels right. Even the acknowledgments at the very beginning are witty. It does strike an odd note that few seem distraught by Tillie's demise, even with her shifty connections, but overall, this is a choice item for your summer reading pile, and a great start to a new series.
The Right Sort of Man was published by Minotaur on June 4th; thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy.
Haddon’s (The Pier Falls and Other Stories, 2016) new novel works on multiple levels: as an entertaining adventure, a creative patchwork of an ancient story’s many manifestations, and an exploration of how women suffer when men control their fates.
Born after her pregnant mother's death in a plane crash, Angelica grows up in luxury, but her father, Philippe, sexually abuses and isolates her, and the staff on his English estate are little help. An attempted rescuer, the son of Philippe’s business associate, is attacked by Philippe and flees for his life.
Aboard the Porpoise, an oceangoing yacht, the young man’s journey turns fantastical as he transforms into Pericles, Prince of Tyre, hero of the Shakespearean play, whose story parallels the modern-day situation. The settings are colorfully rendered, and the fast-paced action is occasionally disorienting as scenes alternate between Pericles’ quasi-Greek world, a gritty Jacobean London, and Angelica’s traumatic life.
Considerable attention is paid to the viewpoints of Pericles’ abandoned wife and daughter. Playful yet unsettling, Haddon’s tale offers timeless themes and should particularly interest aficionados of myths and legends.
The Porpoise will be published on June 18 by Doubleday, and I reviewed it initially for Booklist. Does it count as historical fiction? Sort of. Don't expect absolute accuracy in the ancient Greek aspect (this is deliberate). I did enjoy the different view of Jacobean London. Haddon's best-known book is, of course, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Here's a collection of new and upcoming historical novels from British publishers, with their corresponding cover designs. Please note that the UK focus below reflects the publisher, not necessarily the author's nationality. Some of these twelve books will be appearing from North American presses later this year, while for others, I recommend Book Depository. I'll be traveling to the UK later this year and am hoping to find some of these in person.
A young woman in occupied Tuscany during WWII falls in love with a black American soldier. Bloomsbury, Sept. 2019. [see on Goodreads] Also published by Bloomsbury in the US.
Romantic historical fiction set amid the exuberance of post-WWI England, from the award-winning author of Letters to the Lost. Simon & Schuster UK, May 2019. [see on Goodreads] Also to be published by Thomas Dunne in the US in December.
A shift in historical era for the multi-faceted Harris, whose new thriller is set in a remote town in Exmoor, southwest England, in the 1460s. Hutchinson, Sept 2019. [see on Goodreads] Also to be published by Knopf in the US in November. Thanks to Sarah OL for mentioning this book in an earlier comment.
Another forthcoming historical set in medieval times. Based on a true story uncovered by the Flemish Belgian author, The Convert reveals the life of a young woman from Provence who converted to Judaism to marry the man she loved. Text, July 2019. [see on Goodreads]
I've enjoyed Hislop's novels set in Greece, including The Island, The Thread, and The Sunrise. Her newest also has a Greek setting, this time during the German occupation and the country's civil war, and four decades later. Headline, May 2019. [see on Goodreads]
Australian writer Jones intertwines the stories of two women, one English and one Chinese, during the quest for gold in 19th-century Australia. Head of Zeus, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]
This new offering from an Oxford-based small press is another medieval on the list; it centers on 13th-century mathematician and scholar Michael Scot and his travels on behalf of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Fairlight, Sept. 2019. [see on Goodreads]
African-born Susan, a servant in a Catholic household in late 16th-century England, is on a quest for her lost brother and her lost personal history. It's been blurbed by Miranda Kaufmann, the author of Black Tudors. Jacaranda, May 2019. [see on Goodreads]
Drama surrounding the trio of actor Henry Irving, actress Ellen Terry, and theatre manager (and author) Bram Stoker in Victorian London. Harvill Secker, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]
The final volume in Swift's trilogy about real-life women in the life and diary of Samuel Pepys; the protagonist here is musician-actress Elizabeth Carpenter. Accent, Sept. 2019. Not on Goodreads yet, but you can find it on Amazon UK.
A novel of family secrets kept and revealed, set in Scotland (as you can infer from the title) in the 1950s and decades later. Two Roads, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]
Love, friendship, art and obsession centering on students at the Bauhaus art school in 1920s Germany, from the author of Mrs. Hemingway. Picador UK, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]
The title of Weir’s perceptive latest entry in her acclaimed Six Tudor Queens series, following Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen (2018), signals a new, original view of Henry VIII’s fourth wife, best known as Anne of Cleves.
A princess from the German duchy of Kleve, Anna grows up in her father’s learned court. In a speculative subplot, she is seduced by an attractive cousin-by-marriage, leading to an emotionally difficult secret. When England seeks an alliance with Kleve, Anna grows alarmed about King Henry’s poor marital history, and their first meeting is hardly auspicious.
Weir draws readers into Anna’s sympathetic viewpoint as she adjusts to unfamiliar customs, gazes at Greenwich Palace’s ornate splendor, and puzzles over Henry’s physical rejection even as he treats her kindly. Warm and intelligent, Anna learns to choose her battles, even if it means divorcing the monarch who has, surprisingly, become her good friend.
Political, legal, and religious matters are dexterously illustrated, and Weir devotes ample time to the little-known struggles of Anna’s post-annulment life. A richly satisfying portrait of a woman who made the best of limited choices.
This is the third entry of Weir's series that I've reviewed for Booklist, the first two being Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession and Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen. This review first appeared in the 4/15/19 issue. I'm curious what the full title of the next novel about Katherine Howard will be. The books in this series typically extend for 500-600pp, and I'm also curious how Weir will transform Katherine Howard's short life into an epic of similar scope.
For what it's worth, I think the cover design and title for Anna of Kleve are perfect and create the impression (one fulfilled by the novel) that Weir will be looking at her latest subject in a different way. The model – attractive, youthful, and shown holding a book – even resembles Anne from the famous Holbein portrait that convinced Henry VIII to wed her. The "Flanders mare" nickname that she was saddled with (sorry...) came from a 17th-century source, as mentioned by Weir in her author's note.
Perveen Mistry’s position as the only female lawyer in 1921 Bombay keeps her services in demand. When Sir David Hobson-Jones, the governor’s chief councillor, asks her to investigate a legal matter for the Kolhapur Agency, a British civil service branch, she’s wary of getting into bed with India’s colonizers. It’s a lucrative, prestigious short-term opportunity, however, and she feels compelled to accept.
The maharaja of the small princely state of Satapur is a ten-year-old boy, and his widowed mother and grandmother disagree on his education. Because they live in purdah, a woman lawyer is the best choice as mediator. While this premise is similar to the series opener, The Widows of Malabar Hill, Perveen quickly finds herself in a very different situation that tests her physical strength and negotiating skills and lands her into danger.
Massey devotes ample time to illustrating the politics and culture of a remote Indian princely state and the personalities of a new cast before introducing the mystery, which emerges midway through. This may unsettle genre readers who expect a more standard detective story, but it lets the investigation unfold organically. The maharaja Jiva Rao’s older brother and father both died well before their time; the palace servants blame a curse. Perveen comes to suspect a more human cause, and she worries for the boy’s safety.
Even before the mystery begins, a sense of uneasiness arises because Perveen is out of her element. She must travel by palanquin through the jungle to the palace, which she finds awkward and embarrassing, and endures the dowager maharani’s rude comments on her Parsi customs. The characters, even the unpleasant ones, are all intriguing, from the snobby royals to compassionate political agent Colin Sandringham. Perveen clearly wants to see more of him, her complicated marital status notwithstanding, and readers will too.
The Satapur Moonstone was published by Soho on May 14th. Its predecessor, The Widows of Malabar Hill (see my earlier review) has won multiple awards, namely (taken from the book's Amazon page): the 2019 Reading List Award from the ALA in the Mystery category, the 2019 Mary Higgins Clark Award, the 2019 Lefty Award for Best Historical Novel, and the 2018 Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel.
Needless to say, I'm on board with following the entire series. I reviewed this one for May's Historical Novels Review and am looking forward to seeing what Perveen does next.
The eight stories and one novella in Holladay’s collection prove that it’s possible to capture the essence of a place, characters, or event (or all three) in a concise format. Three stories are contemporary, but historical fiction readers should find themselves sufficiently compelled to read them all. Taken together, the theme of women’s relationships resounds: the ties between mother and daughter, or between sisters (blood, sorority, or in-laws).
The title story is named after the Pleiades, the “seven sisters” in the heavens, a constellation that Kate and Olivia Christopher glimpse as they, along with their new husbands and others, venture along the Oregon Trail from Virginia to the Willamette Valley in 1854. It’s impressive how Holladay compresses the epic scope of the journey into 22 pages, including the arid landscapes and accompanying hardships, shifting group dynamics, and one sister’s fateful choice.
“Comanche Queen” recounts the well-known frontier story of Cynthia Ann Parker, captured in a Comanche raid and returned to white civilization—unwillingly—two decades later. While her story hews closely to history, that of her family is partly imagined; it incorporates the themes of communication and random chance.
“Interview with Etta Place, Sweetheart of the Sundance Kid” is exactly that, a raw-voiced, too-brief narrative imagining their romantic partnership and what really happened to the pair. “Ghost Walk,” set in 1899 Philadelphia, tells a disturbing domestic story with a welcome, surprising twist. The final novella, “A Thousand Stings,” is written for adults but envisioned perfectly from the viewpoint of eight-year-old Shirley Lloyd. It combines a nostalgic look at childhood pastimes in 1967 Virginia with her observations on local dramas (the controversial minister is a hippie and antiwar protestor), her mother’s ennui, and her older sister’s adolescence. Each story is centered in its era, evoking life’s unexpected joys and hard edges.
Cary Holladay's Brides in the Sky: Stories and a Novella was published by Swallow Press, the imprint of Ohio University Press, in January. Historical fiction readers often prefer longer books and shy away from short-story collections, and if you're one of these, I recommend that you give this collection a try anyway! I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and range of these stories. I reviewed the book for May's Historical Novels Review based on a NetGalley copy.
Saturated with beautiful images of the natural world in mid-18th century rural England, Bailey’s third mystery evokes a time when people regulated their lives according to the change of seasons and were fascinated by mechanisms, scientific and not, used to predict future events. It takes place during a pivotal period rarely seen in fiction: the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, when eleven days were “lost.”
A young woman named Tabitha Hart is robbed by her latest bedmate while traveling from London to her home village of Netherlea at her ailing mother’s request. Alas, she arrives too late: the Widow Hart lies cold in her bed, presumably having drowned in the river. Although she is shamed for her loose behavior, and for leaving behind an infant girl for her mother to raise, Tabitha is well-educated, and she takes up her mother’s former post as village searcher. She also picks up her mother’s favorite Almanack, and the scribbled marginalia in the little book, along with a threatening note, convinces Tabitha she was murdered.
Nat Starling, a poet newly arrived in town, helps Tabitha in her search to avenge her mother’s death, and the main clue is the purported killer’s initial, “D.” Although at first Tabitha suspects Nat is “all verse and no purse”—one of many fun expressions—she soon grows as beguiled by him as he is by her. Meanwhile, some dire predictions in the Almanack appear to be coming true.
Adding to the intellectual puzzle, each chapter begins with a riddle from the era (the answers can be found at the end). The writing has an authentic period richness, and while the mystery unfolds slowly, there are moments of fast-paced excitement and several real surprises on the way to the big reveal.
The Almanack was published by Severn House in May; I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review. I'd previously reviewed the author's first novel, An Appetite for Violets, a culinary mystery set also in Georgian times.
Kate Braithwaite's newest novel The Girl Puzzle, published by Crooked Cat this week, provides an insightful look into the exploits and motivations of famed investigative reporter Nellie Bly (real name Elizabeth Cochrane). In addition to taking us into the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum along with her in 1887, the novel gives us the viewpoint of her secretary Beatrice Alexander, who, decades later, types up notes about her employer's groundbreaking experiences. I'm happy to welcome Kate back to the blog today. You’ve given your novel an intriguing structure, with the story moving between Elizabeth Cochrane’s undercover expose of the conditions on Blackwell’s Island in 1887, for which she became famous, and her later life in the 1920s, which isn’t well known at all. How did you come up with this idea?
My starting point with writing about Nellie Bly/Elizabeth Cochrane was very much the asylum expose. I found that adventure fascinating: I wanted to write about it, and I knew it was something I’d like to read a novel about. But I felt there were obstacles. Firstly – she’d already written about it herself. What would I be adding to that? Secondly, many potential readers would begin the story already knowing that Nellie was released from the asylum and went on travel solo around the world. I was concerned that might mean the story lacked suspense.
My view changed, though, when I discovered there were contradictory accounts of her time in the asylum – contradictions given by Nellie herself, as well as in other competing newspapers. And by that time, I’d also learned how much more there was to Nellie Bly’s life story and was keen to somehow share that too. When I read that in her fifties, Nellie Bly lived in a hotel suite in New York City and ran an informal adoption agency for children, I decided to structure the novel with two timelines.
Is Beatrice Alexander based upon anyone in particular?
Beatrice Alexander was the name of one of Nellie Bly’s secretaries in 1920. She was interviewed in an unpublished thesis, Nellie Bly: A Biographical Sketch, that I was able to read thanks to Columbia University. That told me some things about Nellie Bly’s later life, but nothing really about Beatrice. So although based on a real person, she’s a fictional character who – in some ways – walks in my shoes. She’s impressed by Nellie Bly. She admires her. She wants to know more about her and understand her character. She even goes to look at the Temporary Home for Women on 2nd Avenue and tries to imagine Nellie Bly there. I have Beatrice doing that in October, 1920, just as I did it myself in October, 2018. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but looking at it now, I’d say that if Beatrice is based on anyone, she is based on me.
What was your reaction, upon first reading what Elizabeth and her fellow patients endured in the asylum?
A weird sense of disappointment! There were many shocking details, but Nellie’s writing is very matter of fact and abrupt. She evens says herself that she tells her story “as plainly as possible,” because she was there as a journalist and tasked with reporting on facts, not feelings. The beatings, the hair-pulling, the bullying incidents and acts of violence certainly make for difficult reading at points. But at the end I didn’t feel that I learned very much about Nellie Bly herself. I wanted to know more. How did she get the assignment? What journalism experience did she already have? She was only 23 at the time. How did the asylum experience affect her? Did she ever see anyone she met there again? What happened to the other patients? How did the doctors and nurses in the asylum react when Nellie’s story was published?
How did you research Nellie Bly’s character during her later life?
My main source for Nellie’s life, outside her own newspaper reports, was Brooke Kroeger’s comprehensive biography, Nellie Bly: Daredevil. Reporter. Feminist. It’s over 600 pages long, amply illustrating by that fact alone that there was much more to Nellie Bly’s life than the asylum expose and her solo trip around the world – amazing as both those feats were. Kroeger’s biography is incredibly detailed and also meticulously indexed. I was able to obtain source material for many of the episodes she details – for example, the thesis I mentioned earlier where Beatrice Alexander was interviewed. My local library helped obtain some of Nellie’s later articles, too. For anyone who wants to know more about Nellie’s life and writing, I’d recommend Kroeger’s biography as well as Nellie Bly, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings, edited by Jean Marie Lutes. This collection includes her first article, "The Girl Puzzle," her two original madhouse reports, her round the world expedition and some much later stories during and after World War I.
author Kate Braithwaite
As a British author writing about American characters, are there any language differences you had to pay attention to?
Although I have lived in the U.S. since 2010 and am a naturalized citizen, I grew up in Britain and lived there for most of my life. I’m very aware of the differences between U.S. and U.K. English and approached writing The Girl Puzzle with this very much in mind. Nellie Bly was a proud American woman – in fact she disliked the British! – and I was as keen to be true to her story in this aspect as much as any other. Spelling was obviously a starting point. Then there are many everyday words that are different – you say purse, I say handbag, you say bangs, I say fringe, you say two weeks, I say fortnight and so on. Hopefully I kept my British vocabulary firmly under control. If I was setting out to write a contemporary novel with modern Americans as my main characters, I actually think my task might be harder than it was here. As I wrote I read and re-read Nellie Bly’s work across her working life and have the hope that my British educated writing style fits with that period fairly comfortably. Of course, I could be wrong! I did ask early readers to look out for ‘British-isms’ and have my fingers crossed that American readers are not disappointed in the book.
Did you get to travel to any of the sites covered in the novel?
Absolutely. Although I’d love to go to the haunts of Nellie’s early life in Pittsburgh, Cochran’s Mills and Apollo, I didn’t make it over there, choosing instead to focus on New York where all the action takes place. The Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum still stands, at least in part. It’s now an apartment building and the wings are new, but the central octagon is the same, in its exterior at least, as it was in 1887. Standing outside the asylum and looking over the East River at Manhattan, just as Nellie Bly did, was a really memorable experience for me. I also followed in her footsteps on the day she began her adventure, walking from her boarding house on West Ninety-Sixth Street, through Central Park and all the way down to 84 Second Avenue. Bellevue Hospital, a location Nellie visits in both timelines, looks very different now but her home in the 1920’s, (now Herald Towers, then the McAlpin Hotel) is just next to Macy’s Department Store. I spent some time there, imagining Miss Bly and her staff coming and going, although I had to remember that the Empire State building, which looms up behind it, wasn’t completed until 1931.
Kate Braithwaite grew up in Edinburgh but now lives with her family in the Brandywine Valley in Pennsylvania. Her daughter doesn’t think Kate should describe herself as a history nerd, but that’s exactly what she is. Always on the hunt for lesser known stories from the past, Kate’s books have strong female characters, rich settings and dark secrets. The Girl Puzzle is her third novel. For more information, see her website at www.kate-braithwaite.com and on social media as follows:
A warm welcome and happy release day today to Julie Zuckerman, author of the novel-in-stories The Book of Jeremiah. I read her post avidly since I seek out fiction that's connected to family history research. Hope you'll appreciate her essay as well.
~ Uncovering Little-Known Chapters in History Through Family Lore
From an early age, I was fascinated by the family tidbits I’d hear from my mother and other relatives. I made elaborate family trees, thrilled I could fill in the names and birthplaces of at least eight of my great-great-great-grandparents. Like most Jews of Eastern European descent, my relatives were born in shtetls, small villages, in the Galicia region of what is now Poland, or in areas of Russia or Lithuania. The migration to the United States of my immediate ancestors began with one set of great-grandparents, who arrived in the 1880s on their honeymoon, and finished in 1929, when my then-17-year-old grandmother and her two younger brothers joined their father and an older sister already in America.
I captured micro-details in hand-written notes or early word processing programs (“He was tall and had a sense of humor” or “Her three children were very bright”). Some bits had slightly more narrative to them, such as this note from a conversation with my great-uncle, who never lost his thick Galician accent: [sic] “There was no problems. We had no problems, but in 1919 there was a pogrom and 22 people died. The pogrom was on a Thursday morning…”
With so many family details and characters filling my head, naturally I used many of them as inspiration for various plotlines and backstories in my new novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah. There is mention of someone dressed as a woman and smuggled out of Russia to avoid the Czar’s army (inspired by my great-grandfather), civil rights volunteers in Mississippi during Freedom Summer (after writing the story, I learned my uncle was one of them); and Jeremiah himself, who serves in the U.S. Signal Corps during World War II (inspired by my grandfather).
The Book of Jeremiah spans eight decades, from the Depression to the modern age, with stories jumping back and forth in time. Conducting research was one of the highlights of the writing. I’d delve into a historical event, or Google things like “Depression-era Bridgeport” to see photographs and get an idea for a detail, and I’d come away with new ideas for characters or the plot.
One example that unfolded this way was the knowledge that my relatives were—and are—Zionists who believed Jews should have a homeland. For example, David Ben-Gurion, who later became Israel’s first Prime Minister, stayed with my great-grandparents on an early fundraising trip to Albany. The need to realize this vision became more acute, of course, once the horrors of the Holocaust were well-known.
Photo of the author's grandfather in the Army
In 1947, the United Nations approved the Partition Plan to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but it was clear the surrounding Arab countries were gearing up for war. Shortly after the UN vote, President Truman—urged on by his formidable Secretary of State George Marshall—invoked the Neutrality Act, making it illegal to supply arms to either side of the brewing conflict. Frightened by the prospect of what would happen to the 600,000 Jews in Palestine, not a few of whom had already survived the concentration camps, American Jews mobilized their support behind The Jewish Agency, the highest political body of the Jewish people, and its defense wing, the Haganah. My great-uncle and my cousin, a teenager at the time, became part of network of gunrunners, smuggling arms and supplies to the Haganah.
My uncle and a friend would pack up guns, their wives serving as lookouts, and they’d make deliveries of the packages to somewhere in Queens, with “Hadassah” written on the boxes. My cousin remembers walking through Grand Central Station, nervous as hell, carrying a stash of guns in his gym bag. The gunrunners were helped by dozens of non-Jews as well: Irish-American longshoremen and police officers, even the mayor of New York, who sympathized with their cause.
In researching this chapter of American Jewish history and working this family tidbit into my story “Clandestiny,” the most fascinating character I came across was Adolph “Al” Schwimmer. Schwimmer was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force in World War II and awarded a medal of valor for his service. In 1947, at the request of Ben Gurion, he left his job as a flight engineer at TWA to recruit fellow airmen and buy planes for the Israeli Air Force-in-formation. He headed a vast aircraft smuggling operation, which included purchasing and refurbishing used aircraft, including U.S. military planes, which were flown to Israel via Florida and Czechoslovakia under the guise of a fictious Panamanian airline. Over 30 bombers and cargo planes were acquired in this manner. Schwimmer was nearly arrested several times before fleeing to Canada and then to Israel, where he continued to help the nascent Israeli Air Force during the War of Independence. Schwimmer – Ben Gurion said at the time – was the Diaspora’s single-most important contribution to the young state’s survival.
author Julie Zuckerman
Shortly after his return to the United States in 1949, Schwimmer and five others were tried and convicted of violating the Neutrality Act. The judge stripped Schwimmer of his voting rights and his veteran benefits and slapped him with a $10,000 fine, but he did not sentence him to any jail time. Schwimmer went on to move to Israel, where he founded Israel’s largest aerospace company. Though Schwimmer never asked for a pardon – he worried that a second Holocaust might be perpetrated should Israel lose the war—but President Bill Clinton granted him one in 2001.
A few months after I wrote the first draft “Clandestiny,” in which one of plotlines takes inspiration from Schwimmer’s story, he passed away on his 94th birthday. The full story of how American Jews like Schwimmer and my relatives helped the young Jewish state is too complex for the space allotted, though I remember thinking at the time of my research that if I should ever write a biography, I would be honored to write his. According to one obituary, Schwimmer resisted all appeals to write his memoir, asking, “Who would be interested?” From the small amount that I learned through my research, I can imagine many who would be.
Julie Zuckerman’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of publications, including The SFWP Quarterly, The MacGuffin, Salt Hill, Sixfold, Crab Orchard Review, Ellipsis, The Coil, and others. The Book of Jeremiah, her debut novel-in-stories, was the runner-up in the 2018 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, and is due in May 2019. A native of Connecticut, she resides in Modiin, Israel, with her husband and four children. Learn more at https://www.juliezuckerman.com/