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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.

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Before Pearl Harbor

Monday, April 11, 2016 | Permalink

Kim Brooks is the author of The Houseguest: A Novel, out tomorrow from Counterpoint Press. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Most modern conceptions of history America’s involvement in World War II begins with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, and, certainly from a military perspective, that is where the story—our part of the story—opens. Anything that came before that seems consigned to trivia or AP History-level miscellany: the Lend-Lease Act; Americans who fled to Canada in order to fight with the British in 1939 and 1940.

From a social standpoint, though, the war—and with it Germany’s actions against Jews—has a much more complicated prehistory, as far as America is concerned. That there was a substantial part of the population that was resistant to America having anything to do with the war (and the not-so-subtle anti-Semitic undertones to that resistance) is hardly a secret. (Philip Roth’s nightmare fantasia The Plot Against Americadepicts this sentiment in extremis.) We know about the America First movement, the isolationist popularity of Charles Lindbergh, the hateful radio sermons of the Detroit priest Father Coughlin.

Less known, however, is that in February of 1939, twenty thousand members of an organization called the German American Bund—many wearing brown shirts—marched to a rally at Madison Square Garden. Or that Congress and even President Roosevelt flatly refused to make any efforts to allow European refugees to resettle in the United States. Or that The New York Times would not refer to victims of Hitler’s persecution as Jews but as “displaced persons.” Or, as I found most striking while doing research for my novel The Houseguest, a series of full-page advertisements supporting a campaign for a Jewish army to assist in the war effort, appeared in the Times with banner headlines reading “Action, Not Pity—Can Save Millions Now” or “This Is Strictly A Race Against Death.”

The Houseguest takes place shortly before America was violently pulled into World War II. Two of its central characters, an activist named Shmuel Spiro and a young rabbi called Max Hoffman, are to varying degrees involved with the group who was responsible for those ads, the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews. The Committee really did exist: they were Revisionist Zionists, who were inspired by the early Ukrainian Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky. (Their story is told in some detail by the historian David Wyman in The Abandonment of the Jews.)

Certainly other groups and individuals agitated for any sort of American support for European Jews. Yet there was something about the Committee that I found compelling to a point where they forced their way into my novel’s plot. They weren’t unambiguously heroic: their ranks were filled with members of the Irgun, the militant group that terrorized Palestinians and tried to bomb the British out of Palestine. In a way that only heightened their allure for me, though: not so I could craft an homage to the bombers of the King David Hotel but so that I could capture the chaotic moral landscape of this particular moment in history.

To me, this forgotten group with questionable motives almost perfectly symbolizes the matter of America and its relationship to Hitler’s Jewish victims before Pearl Harbor.

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

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