The ProsenPeople

Beautiful Because It Simply Is

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 | Permalink

Barbara Kreiger is the author of The Dead Sea and the Jordan River, a chronicle of the natural and human history of two of the Middle East’s most iconic bodies of water. Barbara is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I was raised in a multi-generational Jewish family with firm roots in southern Connecticut, to where my great-grandfather Abraham had immigrated from Russia with his wife, fittingly named Sarah, at the start of the twentieth century. My earliest memories are of living in his home with him, a house he had built on a small street in Shelton. We were three children by then; my great-grandmother had just died, and Abraham asked my parents to move in with him. My grandparents lived next door, making my childhood very cozy and fulfilling, and very Jewish.

There weren’t many Jewish families in the small towns of the Naugatuck Valley between New Haven and Bridgeport, and we Jews were a tight community. There were two Orthodox shuls, one in Derby and one in Ansonia, and in the mid-1950s the two congregations merged. I remember the groundbreaking, when we kids ran around with our little shovels to participate in the ceremony. Before long, the building was ready for us, and my life from that point through high school was focused on Beth Israel Synagogue Center, the yellow brick structure in Derby. Friday night services, Hebrew school twice a week, Sunday school for history, culture, and Israel, and a long string of bar and bat mitzvahs, then confirmation, all served as the glue that kept each class together until we went our separate ways to college.

It’s an understatement to say that it was a rich and intensely meaningful experience, growing up in a small town amid generations who were committed on behalf of the community itself, Jews worldwide, and Israel. It has served all my life as a template for fulfillment. These days it’s impossible to replicate that model, with generations scattered, aspirations divergent, and identification so individual rather than communal. But those years taught me what I needed to know about what it means to be a Jew.

To be a Jew is to value our particular way of living because we love it, not because we have to. We love it because it’s beautiful, and it holds certain truths for us. In my family we spoke always about fair play, rooting for the underdog, loyalty, responsibility to those who have less than we did. It’s beautiful because the Shabbat table was set with a white tablecloth, our best china and crystal glasses, the brass candlesticks my great-grandmother had brought from Russia, the shiny silver wine cup a bar mitzvah gift to my father, the challah tucked under my grandmother’s satin cover; beautiful to hear my grandfather with his Ashkenazi Hebrew chant Jonah on Yom Kippur; beautiful to hear the old folks speaking Yiddish; beautiful because it simply was.

But our particularism never obscured a larger worldview where we were taught to embrace a universal system of values based on justice and fair play. To be a Jew is to be inclusive, to understand that once we were strangers in Egypt, and millennia later in America, and that it was our obligation to treat the real or metaphorical stranger with compassion. To be a Jew meant to question the status quo and never take our comfort for granted. To be a Jew meant that when we opened the door at our seder, it was not a mere symbolic gesture but would be fulfilled in our sensitivity to others.

So when I think about my connection to Jewish life, I don’t see it as something I created but rather as a birthright, part of my genetic make-up you could even say. I admire those who create a sense of Jewishness for themselves and their families. But I can’t take credit for myself. To be Jewish was to be human, was one of the wonderful ways to be human. And with that understanding, I was sent out into the world.

Barbara Kreiger is adjunct associate professor and chair of creative writing in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

Related Content:

Mort, May 1947

Tuesday, April 26, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman

The domestic, feminine scene unfolding before Mort did nothing to improve his spirits. Upstairs, in his brother’s apartment, substantial preparations were being made. Not just the brushing of hair and the tying of sashes. Serious words were being spoken from man to man, from father to son. Mort pushed away his breakfast plate and frowned.

Thirty minutes before they were supposed to leave, there was a thudding of footsteps down the stairs and a quick knock on the door. “Got to go! See you there!” Abe’s voice rang with excitement. Mort had assumed they would all walk over to the synagogue together. “What do they need to get there so early for?” he grumbled at his wife. Knowing better than to defend her brother-in-law, Rose shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she answered.

Mort had been dreading this day, the day of his nephew’s bar mitzvah, for months. In the weeks leading up to it, the increased noise and activity of his brother’s family overhead agitated him. He found himself imagining different scenarios to go with every thud and thump he heard. Was Abe’s wife, Helen, testing out a new cake recipe? Was his nephew Harry trying on his new suit? What were the other boys laughing about? Mort tortured himself in this manner for several weeks. He was a sharp, thin man, and in the month before the bar mitzvah he had lost at least ten pounds. His increasingly angular appearance alarmed his wife, but everyone else was too busy to notice.

Rose had been up earlier than usual that morning to make sure the girls were ready on time. Hair ribbons were neatened and his three daughters, clad in matching yellow dresses, were lined up in front of him after breakfast. “They’re like a row of spring daffodils,” Rose entreated. “Don’t you think so?”

Mort looked up, but he was an unappreciative audience. Judith was almost twelve and seemed too old for matching dresses. She was fidgeting in the line, anxious to get back to the book she had been forced to leave on the kitchen table. Every week, Mort insisted that Judith present him with her chosen pile of library books for approval. Every week, Judith asked Mort if he wanted to read one of her books too, so they could discuss it. Every week, he declined.

Mimi, the prettiest of the three, was the most comfortable on display. She was only eight, but already she carried herself with a stylish grace that Mort found unfamiliar. Mort thought she looked the most like Rose. Mimi was forever making cards for friends and family members with pencils and crayons that she left all over the house. Last year, she found her father’s card in the kitchen trash pail the morning after his birthday. She ran crying to him with it, waving it in her hand and asking why he had thrown it away. “My birthday is over,” he explained. “I don’t need it anymore.”

Dinah, the baby of the family, had the most trouble keeping quiet during Mort’s inspection. She was only five, and though she had been taught not to ask her father too many questions, she couldn’t seem to help herself. “What’s your favorite color?” she blurted out, eyes wide with anticipation. Mimi, hoping the answer might give her some insight regarding the design of next year’s birthday card, seemed eager for the reply. But the response was of no help. “I don’t have one,” Mort said.

After Mort nodded his silent endorsement of the girls’ appearance, the family was ready to go. He usually took the lead during outings like these, leaving everyone else struggling to match his quick strides. The girls knew better than to try to walk alongside him. Even Dinah had stopped trying to hold his hand years ago. Instead, they had taken to walking single file on family outings, like unhappy ducks in a storybook, with Rose bringing up the rear.

Continue Reading »

Copyright © 2015 by Lynda Cohen Loigman. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press.

Related Content:

Discovering the Dead Sea from a Different, Not-So-Distant Shore

Monday, April 25, 2016 | Permalink

Barbara Kreiger is the author of The Dead Sea and the Jordan River, a chronicle of the natural and human history of two of the Middle East’s most iconic bodies of water. Barbara is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

When I started writing my book about the Dead Sea, I was somewhat tentative in my approach because the subject was so large and there were so many possible ways to begin. Yet, mesmerized as I was by the landscape and history, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I was awed by the beauty and uniqueness of this strange landscape, where the barren cliffs towered above a long and narrow lake. I was intrigued by the fact that the Dead Sea was shared by Israel and Jordan, two nations that were then in a state of war. I looked out at the crisp blue water, salt crystals sparkling along the shore, and I wondered how it could be that an international border was somehow demarcated. Who could tell where 50% ended and enemy territory began? I looked at my map, where a soft lavender line, painted in a pleasing curve, indicated the border. It was not at all intimidating.

To start the project, I spent several weeks in Israel, where I divided my time between the Rockefeller Library in East Jerusalem and hiking around the Dead Sea to become better acquainted with the surroundings. One day as I was exploring the shore, I happened to meet a team of scientists who were going out in a boat to gather samples of water and sediment to bring back to their laboratories. When they heard I was writing about the Dead Sea, they invited me to join them for the day. It was an unprecedented opportunity. I gathered my notebook and camera, quickly packed my backpack, and jumped aboard.

It was a very exciting day. I was out on a forbidden lake, and looking first to the Israeli side, then to the Jordanian, I was struck by the contrast between the tranquility of the scene and the turmoil of the political world. At the same time, I was with a group of scientists whose work knew no borders and who were committed to one thing only: a greater understanding of this corner of the natural world.

I instinctively knew that on both sides, on all sides, were people with shared goals and a passionate attachment to the region. Indeed, later I became acquainted with a trilateral organization consisting of Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians whose focus was their shared environment. Working together to promote regional cooperation as they strive to protect their collective resources, EcoPeace/Middle East inspired me with their commitment to education and cross-border initiatives. Undaunted by political obstacles, they continue to draw support from all sides and internationally. Of course I couldn’t help but be drawn in by their devotion to social and environmental teamwork.

So when I speak about my influences, I think about the dedication of all the people I eventually met—Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians; the scientists on the boat, the nature lovers whose careers were devoted to protecting the fragile environment, the hikers who trekked across the desert for a view of the Dead Sea from the heights—in other words, all who feel drawn to this unique landscape and compelled to keep returning. I considered myself very fortunate to have become aware of this network as I started out: their devotion inspired me, and my own commitment, which was to do justice to theirs, had to be expressed in a book worthy of their collective contributions. I felt I had to write as engaging and evocative a book as possible, to attract an audience with a huge variety of reasons for wanting to read my narrative, to highlight the work that so many others had done in various fields over the years, and to find for myself a quiet intersection between my values and the natural world, too often threatened, but, we hope, resilient and enduring.

Barbara Kreiger is adjunct associate professor and chair of creative writing in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

Related Content:

New Book Reviews April 22, 2016

Friday, April 22, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

Featured Content:

Jews in the Rubble: A Reading List

Wednesday, April 20, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Polly Zavadivker wrote about S. Ansky, Isaac Babel, and Vasily Grossman’s chronicles of the catastrophe of the Russian twentieth century. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Gussakov, Galicia, during World War I. Photograph taken by Bernard Bardach. Leo Baeck Institute, New York

My husband likes to say that I specialize in rubble. He is only half-joking.

I study the history of Jews in Russia and the USSR during the First and Second World Wars. Over the years, I have encountered many texts written by eyewitnesses that stood out to me for their historical insights, literary styles, and the compelling personalities that animate them. Originally written in Yiddish and Russian, the majority of them have unfortunately not been translated into English. Among those that are available in English, here is a brazenly biased list of five of my favorites:

1. The 1915 Diary of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Writer at the Eastern Front: I found this diary so compelling that I translated it in order to share with others. Approximately five months’ worth of diary entries, written from January to March and September to October, 1915, are what remain of the diaries that S. An-sky kept during World War I. They later became the basis for a 600-page Yiddish memoir that he completed in 1920, Khurbn Galitsye (The Destruction of Galicia). In simple, stark words, he recounts wartime experiences in the capital cities of Moscow, Petrograd, and Kiev; his travels across Russian-occupied Galicia as an aid worker among Jewish civilians; his encounters with Russian and Cossack troops on trains; and his close encounters with death and destruction. To my knowledge, this is the only eyewitness account available in English by a Jewish writer on the Russian side of the Eastern Front lines of World War I.

2. Isaac Babel’s 1920 Diary: Babel, a Jewish literary genius born and raised in Odessa, recorded his experiences as a bespectacled Jewish Communist traveling with a Red Army detachment during the Polish-Bolshevik War in summer 1920. A secular Jew who intended to make a place for himself in the new Soviet order, he was nonetheless deeply troubled by the prospect of what that new order had in store for the Jews. His diary provides evidence of his emotional reactions to encounters with Hasidic rebbes, centuries-old synagogues, and violent Red Army troops. The diary remained a hidden source for Babel’s famous Red Cavalry story cycle for nearly seventy years, and resurfaced in the 1990s, with multiple printings in Russian, German and an excellent translation into English by Carol Avins.

3. The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe, edited by David Roskies: This is an indispensable tome of literary sources written by East European Jews from the First to the Second World War. Roskies culled translations from Yiddish, Russian, Polish, and Hebrew texts from a variety of genres, including poetry, memoirs, diaries and journalism.

4. The Road: Stories, Journalism and Essays by Vasily Grossman: This collection includes three deeply moving texts that are essential to understanding the lesser known aspects of the Holocaust: Grossman’s essay about the death camp at Treblinka, whose liberation he witnessed as a journalist traveling with the Red Army in 1944; his 1943 short story “The Old Teacher,” about the mass shooting of Jews in an unnamed village in Ukraine; two brief but powerful letters that Grossman wrote to his mother in 1950 and 1961 on the anniversary of her death in the city of Berdichev, where she was killed by Germans in a mass shooting in September 1941.

5. Regrowth: Seven Tales of Jewish Life Before, During, and After Nazi Occupation: Beautifully crafted Yiddish short stories by Der Nister, or “The Hidden One,” pseudonym of the Soviet Yiddish writer Pinhas Kaganovich. A native son of Berdichev, like Vasily Grossman, Der Nister’s stories describe the destruction of Jewish families and communities under Nazi occupation of Soviet territory. His psychological insights and imagery convey the depth of damage done to the inner lives of victims and those left in the aftermath.

Polly Zavadivker is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Delaware. She is the editor and translator of the recently published 1915 Diary of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Writer at the Eastern Front.

Related Content:

Let My People In

Monday, April 18, 2016 | Permalink

Liane Kupferberg Carter is the author of Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism. This week she continues her exclusive series on celebrating the Jewish holidays in a family with special needs as a Visiting Scribe guest contributor on The ProsenPeople.

Each Passover, I struggle with the Hagaddah passage about the Four Sons. We’re told there is the Wise Child, the Simple, the Wicked, and the Silent. I know they’re meant to be symbolic, but would you want someone labeling your child as the smart one, the stupid one, the trouble-maker, or the one who has nothing to say?

Admittedly I’m sensitive when it comes to labeling children. My son Mickey has special needs. People have been labeling him for more than twenty years. Mickey is autistic. He has epilepsy. He didn’t learn to speak for a long time. So you can see why I cringe when we read that bit about the Simple or the Silent Child. My son is disabled, but he’s not silent, and he’s certainly not simple—in fact he is astonishingly complex: he makes profound observations, and asks startling questions. When his brother Jonathan first left for college, Mickey was disconsolate. “My brother doesn’t live here anymore? We’re divorced?” he asked.

When Mickey was small and the diagnosis new and painful, I used to feel as if other, “typical” families were feasting in a great restaurant, while my family of four stood outside, our noses pressed longingly to the window. With time, that feeling abated, but it resurfaces every Passover, when I think about how many special needs families don’t feel welcome at the table, their synagogue, or in their community.

At the seder, we fill a cup with wine for the prophet Elijah. We set him a place at the table. Elijah, we’re told, roams the earth disguised as a stranger, so during the feast we open the front door. If we should find a stranger on the doorstep, we are told to welcome him in kindly. It’s a metaphor for inclusion: everyone deserves a place at the table.

Mickey loves Passover so much he talks about it for months before. He doesn’t need a calendar—for him, family celebrations and holidays punctuate the passing of the year. At the seder, he’s proud when it’s his turn to read aloud from the Haggadah. He scarfs down the matzo, the only traditional Passover food he tolerates. He’ll peek to see where the we’ve hidden the afikoman. His diet is limited, so my thoughtful sister-in-law always puts aside the plain meatballs he likes; his cousin Lauren bakes his favorite flourless brownies for him.

Still, Mickey has yet to make it through an entire seder. There’s too much noise, and too many people. The spirited singing drives him from the room. “I’m out of here!” he announces. He retreats to a sofa, fits headphones over his ears, and cocoons with his iPad.

I used to be embarrassed about that behavior. But one of the things we say in the autism community is, “Behavior is communication.” When he isolates himself, he’s letting us know his sensory system is overloaded, which can trigger a seizure. Fortunately, our family understands, accepts, and accommodates. His place at the table is secure.

I like to remind myself that Moses, the hero of the Passover story, had special needs too. He stuttered. Sometimes he needed his brother Aaron to speak for him. Each of us, if we live long enough, will probably have special needs of our own. We may need a wheelchair, or a hearing aid, or, like Moses, someone to speak for us. Disability is part of the human condition.

Inclusion isn’t just something to talk about during Jewish Disability Awareness Month in February. Each year, as we end the seder with the words, Next year in Jerusalem, we give voice to the hope that tomorrow will be better. My hope for next year: a place for everyone at the table.

Liane Kupferberg Carter is a nationally-known writer and advocate for the autism community and a co-author of the Autism Speaks Advocacy Took Kit. She will be touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her book Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable through the JBC Network.

Related Content:

On Writing Catastrophe: Jewish Chroniclers of War in 20th-Century Russia

Monday, April 18, 2016 | Permalink

Polly Zavadivker is the editor and translator of the recently published 1915 Diary of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Writer at the Eastern Front. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

An-sky’s notes taken in Tarnow, Galicia, February 14, 1915

What does it mean to write in a war zone? For Russian Jewish writers during the first half of the twentieth century, this was not a hypothetical question. Some of the best known writers of the Russian Jewish literary canon—among them S. An-sky, Isaac Babel, and Vasily Grossman—witnessed and survived massively destructive wars of the twentieth century as they wrote about them. An-sky traveled across the western Russian Empire and Austrian Galicia as a relief worker from 1914 to 1917; Babel crossed from Ukraine into Poland as a political officer and journalist with the Red Army in 1920; and Grossman served as a war correspondent behind front lines from Stalingrad to Berlin for the Soviet newspaper Red Star between 1941 and 1945.

These writers entered the war zones with the intention to write about them. They undertook journeys across the cities, towns, and villages of war torn Eastern Europe at great personal risk. Like disaster tourists at a time of almost global disaster, they became witnesses to colossal human catastrophes that unfolded before them. As writers, they turned aside from the horror they saw in order to document it in ink and pencil, on the small pads of paper and notebooks that they carried on themselves. They wrote while sitting in military trucks, trains, and horse-drawn carts, and in hotels, military headquarters, and civilians' homes. From the notes they hastily scribbled at the time of war, they created stories about what they had seen and remembered. Their notes and later stories became first drafts of history.

As Jews, writers like An-sky, Babel, and Grossman also felt compelled to represent the experience of Jews in Eastern Europe during wartime. Their war writings are therefore also histories of the Jewish experience of watershed events in twentieth-century history. Jewish chroniclers of catastrophe traversed the heartlands of devastation, along the frontier that lies between historic Poland and Russia (the Pale of Settlement, as it was known before 1917). These borderlands—in today’s Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and the Baltic states—were home to the largest segments of Europe's Jewish populations until 1945. Consequently, they became the places where the largest segments of Europe's Jewish population fell victim to violence in each war. During World War I, the Russian military deported nearly half a million Jews from northwestern Russia and Galicia to the Russian interior and carried out hundreds of pogroms; in 1919 and 1920, the Jews of Ukraine and Belarus fell victim to devastating massacres at the hands of Russian, Ukrainian, Cossack, and Polish troops during the Russian Civil War; during World War II, German Einsatzgruppen units shot 1.5 million Jews just in occupied Ukraine alone.

Russian Jewish war writers chronicled each of these catastrophes, and they were able to gauge the extent of destruction to Jewish life and culture in these regions not only because they had witnessed the effects of war firsthand, but also because they possessed intimate knowledge of these places. They were native sons, born and raised in the shtetls and cities of the territories that became war zones between 1914 and 1945.

These writers knew what war meant, then, for the Jewish people. They understood that battles between armies result in more than the death of human lives; war also destroys culture and civilization—it destroys history. How will the Jewish people's experiences of war be remembered if the victims’ stories are lost? If their stories do reach audiences in the future, will readers believe what they read? And will they have the capacity to comprehend what has taken place? The writers pursued these questions with a sense of urgency during and after the different wars. The diaries, letters, poetry, stories, journalism, and notes they left bring us as close as we can come to those dark moments in history, the starting points for understanding the Jewish experiences of the series of wars that ended with the total destruction of Jewish civilization in Eastern Europe during the first half of the twentieth century.

Polly Zavadivker is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Delaware.

Related Content:

New Reviews April 15, 2016

Friday, April 15, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

Featured Content:

The Best Books about Jerusalem from Memoir, Fiction, and the Bible

Thursday, April 14, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Chanan Tigay shared his 5 favorite books to re-read. With the release of The Lost Book of Moses: The Search for the World’s Oldest Bible, Chanan is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I am an American, Jerusalem-born.

Which is to say that, while my parents—born in Buffalo and Detroit, respectively—spent a Sabbatical in the Holy City a few decades back, I happened. Ever since, Jerusalem has maintained a powerful grip on my imagination. I love the mix of old and new, east and west, Arab and Jew. I love the hidden alleyways. I love the hidden history. And I’m fascinated by the history that’s not so hidden—the ancient walls, the bullet-scarred buildings. And the hummus—I’d move to Jerusalem just to eat lunch each Friday at Pinati.

I can get around Jerusalem without a GPS, know where to have copies of my keys made, and still refer to the Inbal Hotel as it was previously called: the Laromme.

I thought I knew a lot about the city. But in writing my new book, which is set in part in Jerusalem of the nineteenth century, I realized there was much I did not know. According to the archaeologist Eric H. Cline, the much-contested City of Peace has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. Squeezing onto the Number 4 bus at 9:00 on a Sunday morning, it can sometimes feel like every day in Jerusalem is a microcosm of the city’s tumultuous history—a series of small battles to be faced down and overcome. But strolling the street s of Rehavia on Shabbat, it’s hard to imagine a more peaceful spot on earth.

Jerusalem has always been, and remains, dynamic—it is a symbol, yes, but also a strategic asset. A beacon on the hill, and also a bunker. And no matter how much I think I know about the city of my birth, there is always more to learn.

In that vein, here are three of my favorite books about Jerusalem:

A Tale of Love and Darkness: Although Amos Oz’s classic memoir is not strictly about Jerusalem (as a young man, Oz leaves Jerusalem for a kibbutz), the City of Peace is the stage upon which the unforgettable drama of the author’s difficult childhood plays out, complete with cameos by literary luminaries like S. Y. Agnon and Shaul Tchernichovsky. This isn’t an easy book, but it’s a beautiful one—training its unparalleled lens on Jerusalem as the British Mandate came to its end and the State of Israel emerged in its place.

The Book of Kings: Although archaeological remains of Jerusalem’s past are a constant feature of its present—walk through Jerusalem for an hour and try not to stumble over some relic or site of historical value—there’s one important spot where that’s not the case: Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. We’ve got its western retaining wall, of course, but that’s about it. If you’re interested in conjuring a vision of what the Temple looked like way back when, though, the best place to start is the Bible’s Book of Kings. The writing’s not quite Amos Oz (The porch in front of the nave of the house was twenty cubits in length, corresponding to the width of the house, and its depth along the front of the house was ten cubits…) but it’s full of specifics.

KeCheres HaNishbar: Shulamit Lapid’s wonderful fictional treatment of Moses Wilhelm Shapira, the Jerusalem antiquities dealer at the heart of my own nonfiction book. Shapira was a highly complex man—at once obsequious and pompous, honest and deceitful, loving and self-centered, brilliant and naïve, Jewish and Christian, European and Middle Eastern—and Lapid captures him with style and sophistication.

Chanan Tigay is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Middle East, 9/11, and the United Nations for numerous magazines, newspapers, and wires. He is a professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.

Related Content:

Setting a Story in the Shell of a Rust Belt Boomtown

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Kim Brooks divulged the little-known American history of World War II before Pearl Harbor, which inspired her novel The Houseguest. Kim is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a man who had seen my novel advertised in a bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky.

“Dear Kim,” he wrote. “I have not read The Houseguest yet. But I was wondering—how did Utica get selected as a location in the book? My first wife’s grandfather, Barney Levitt, who came from the Ukraine around 1918, ran a scrap yard and hardware store called Barney Levitt & Sons in nearby Rome with his sons Sonny, Billy, and Joe Levitt. Sonny and Billy lived in Utica, and Joe, my late father-in-law lived in Clinton. The big scrap yard in Utica was Kowalsky’s, which was founded in 1916. Empire Scrap is now Empire Recycling and run by my friend Steven Kowalsky.”

This message delighted me, though I knew nothing of Barney Levitt & Sons or Kowalski’s scrap yard, enterprises on which the junk yard of my protagonist, Abe Auer, might have easily been based. It delighted me because it suggested that the strange intuition I’d followed in setting parts of my novel in Utica, New York, was based on something, if not factually, then emotionally true.

The emotion or impulse that led me to this unlikely setting arose, like so much of my fiction, from barely-remembered childhood memories. My father and both his parents were born and raised in Utica, a town that could not be more different from the one where I grew up—a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, the heart of the Sun Belt, the sort of city that sucked the economic life from places like Utica. Once or twice each year, I’d visit my grandmother there. We’d visit the zoo, take a tour of the old brewery where kids could get root beer floats, visit the various parks. Sometimes we’d visit the downtown, a stretch on Lafayette Street where daily trains had once arrived at the main rail station, where people had once eaten and shopped at Woolworth’s and The Boston Store, where visitors had lodged in the shabbily elegant Hotel Utica. Now, the old buildings were mostly closed, the sidewalks empty. And yet still it seemed a beautiful, small, quintessentially American place.

The summers I spent visiting my grandmother there remain among my fondest childhood memories, despite—or maybe because of—the fact that I was so struck, even as a child, by the haunted, abandoned aura that hung over the town. The rural suburb of my Virginia home had been literally built on a swamp. It sprung from the inspiration of a seventies developer: woodland-cleared, reservoir-filled, a few thousand single-family homes plopped down as quickly and as economically as possible in a location where there was nowhere to go and nothing to see and nothing to do without a car. It was a place without history, or rather, a place that existed completely outside of the history of the land on which it sat. Utica, by contrast, seemed to exist almost entirely in the past. Like so many Rust Belt cities, it felt not so much like a living, breathing place as a remnant of the community it had once been, a shell of a turn-of-the-century textile boomtown. I suppose this ghostly quality penetrated my subconscious. It lurked and shifted and re-emerged, eventually making Utica seem like the correct setting to begin a novel that is largely about what it means to hold onto or let go of the past, how it feels to abandon and to be abandoned.

Kim Brooks is the personal essays editor at Salon and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The Houseguest is her first novel.

Related Content: