Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Dancing for Life

My research into the era of Slogans: Our Children, Our Future took me into some very dark places.  The horrors people endured during Russia's war and revolution were beyond description. The most heart wrenching ordeals were those heaped upon children.  Since my main characters are two orphaned boys, I gathered information from the period and imagined what their lives may have been like.  In several instances I uncovered photos and films of street urchins attempting to survive by playing music and dancing.  I tried to place myself in their minds where a performers' skill is the difference between life and death.

A prime example is the boy in the following photo.  I wondered if he was a prodigy who in another life may have been another Mozart.  Or was he like my character, Stepha, a performer of limited talent desperately scratching out a humble child's tune in hope of a coin? Was he performing for himself or did his family's livelihood depend on his talents?

Young violinist in the Warsaw Ghetto - Circa 1942
And what of the raggedy dancer in the following film clip?  Why did he smile?  Did he enjoy being filmed like so many of today's children when they view themselves on DanceCam duriing an athletic event?  Or had he no choice but to smile at the cameraman in hopes of a favor?
Since my character, Stepha played a concertina and his brother Vanya danced, I had them survive by using what talent they possessed.

 Young Russian entertaining Nazi soldiers - Circa 1942
* * *

“Ya know how to play this?” Ryzhy said pointing at Stepha's concertina.

Stepha answered with an unsteady, “Da.”

“Can ya dance?”

“Nyet,” said Vanya pushing his brother aside.  “But I can.”

Ryzhy rubbed his hands together.  “Good, good.  We need someone to attract a crowd.  If ya can play, ya might get a few coins and we might even do better.  Let's hear a tune.”

Stepha strapped on the instrument and belted out the first three bars of The International.

“Stop,” Ryzhy shouted waving his hands above his head.  “Are ya crazy?  Do ya know where ya are?  Ya play that at the market and they'll kick yar Bolshevik ass from here to Kiev.  Can ya play anything else?”

Stepha squeezed out his old standby My Little Duck and Vanya squat danced across the dirt floor.  Before the first stanza was over, the whole gang was hooting and clapping to Stepha's rhythm.
 * * *
We must also remember the homeless waifs were not pitied or helped.  They were called "street Arabs" and were despised and beaten by many like Constable Gerous who saw them as vermin to be exterminated.
* * *
Rats.  Rats by the dozens, hundreds, and thousands swept through his mind with every word she uttered.  He envisioned a carpet of the filthy, gray vermin sweeping across the market place and train station knocking over kiosk, grabbing food, stealing whatever they could, and mocking his authority.  Constable Igor Gerous, once Commander Gerous of the Konarmia, scourge of the steppes, had been reduced to chasing hordes of children. 
* * *
There are no recorded images of young Stefan and John performing, but I did find this film clip from the 1950's.  It was taken on the river bank which bordered Stefan's dacha.

Stefan and John performing

It appears the brothers' dancing genes have been passed down several generations. There does seem to be more than a passing similarity in their moves.
Stefan's great-grand children displaying their talent

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Leo Frank

One of the more intriguing exercises in writing historical fiction is tying seemingly unrelated events into the plot.  Such was the case of Massey and Leo Frank in Slogans: Our Children, Our Future.

In the early 1920's fear of Bolshevikism washed across America leading to the Red Scare and strong anti-immigrant feelings (Sound familiar?)  I wanted to make this threat intimate by having my protagonist a target of Wolford W. Scott's American Protective League. 
Originally founded to combat German spies, the APL turned its sights on Bolsheviks
My original draft had Massey a passive victim saved only through the efforts of others.  In the rewrite, he became an active participant in his defense.
* * *
Massey shook the contribution jar before putting it on the shelf and peered inside.  Sure enough, there were two quarters.  Maybe it’s time they knew the difference.  As he stared at the coins Massey decided to do something that would be unthinkable in Russia.  He would speak to the police.
 * * *
This still left the problem of how do these powerless immigrants successfully take on the government?  The answer was Abraham Minsker.  The banker used his influence to obtain lawyers from the Civil Liberties Union to appear at the Will County courthouse during immigrants' arraignment.  But I still needed a connection, good reason for Abraham to do it.
 * * *

The seven eyed at one another.  “But why?” Massey asked.  “Why would a group of Jew lawyers help us?”
Abraham took off his spectacles and wiped them on his vest.  “I am the president of this bank,” he said and placed his glasses back on the bridge of his nose.  “A small bank to be sure, but a bank none the less.  I’m a Jew, and for too many in this country being a Jew is all that matters.  That's why I want to help you.”
“I don't understand,” Massey said.  “What does being Jewish have to do with helping us?”
“Because of Leo Frank.”  Abraham Minsker scanned the room seeking some reaction to the name and saw none.  “You do remember Leo Frank in Georgia?” 
* * *
Abraham went on to explain Leo Frank was a factory superintendent who was lynched by a mob in Merietta, Georgia, in 1915.  National newspapers attributed his murder to antisemitism and resulted in many well-established Jews realizing regardless of their status, to many they were just a Jews. 
Leo Frank lynched by a mob outside Atlanta, Georgia
But Abraham's desire for justice went deeper.
* * *
Abraham let out a sigh and clasped his fingers together.  “Gentlemen, I do not take anyone’s rights for granted and I will defend them wherever and whenever they are in danger.  What it amounts to is this: if I allow your rights to be violated, I have lost mine also.  Believe me, if certain powers in America get away with ignoring the rights of immigrants, it won't be long before they come after Jews.  All Jews, no matter their station.  This is not just your fight, it's also mine.”
* **
Memorial to Leo Frank
In the last section of this scene, I closed with dialogue from my first book, Ikons: Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker, when Abraham and Massey first met.
* * *
Massey stopped twisting his cap and glanced down at it.  “Do you believe we have a good case?”

Abraham smiled at Massey and recalled a similar question Massey had asked many years ago.  “Yes, thanks to your little chat with the sheriff, I do,” Abraham answered.  “A very good case indeed.”
* * *
In researching the lynching of Leo Frank, I wondered how such an event could have taken place and if it could happen today.  I believe the same circumstances occur daily.  A lynch mob provides one with anonymity and the same anonymity exists on social media.  While the targets of hatred my not be strung up from a tree, the internet mob has no qualms about destroying their reputations and livelihood.  Woe be those who stray beyond the boundary of accepted behavior, regardless of which side of boundary the mob may reside.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

My Inner Child

My two characters, Stepha and his little brother Vanya (In real life my father Stefan and uncle John), occur in all three of my novels.  I had no trouble developing both their personas since I sculpted theirs on mine.  Stepha's goal was acceptance by the village's older boys, while Vanya wanted nothing more than to win the admiration of his big brother.

Growing up in Rockdale in the late 1940's and early 50's, I experienced both boys' goals.
I was the youngest of the gang of children that caused havoc in my little village and I volunteered for any low level job that would earned me praise.  If it meant being a lookout for orchard raiders or the all-time catcher* in pickup baseball games, I would do it.  In the summer of 1949, my only claim to fame was being flattened at home plate without dropping the ball.  In Slogans: Our Children, Our Future, Stepha was desperate to be a member of the Brati gang as illustrated in this excerpt. 
* * *
Maksim fingered his budding chin hairs and pondered his most important decision of the day.  What would the great Lenin do?  Should he trust this youngster with the discovery?  Everyone else who knew was at least three years older than the pesky little sputnik.  To the Brati, as they wanted to be known, the secret should be shared by them―”the brothers”―and not with this little tag-along.  If the wrong ones found out―well that would never do.  True, Stepha was just seven summers and had a family but he was tough, very tough.  He stood up to wolves and kept his word about Old Rosina.  Toughness counted for much to the Brati―perhaps the only thing that really counted.
* * *

Andy, Donna and Me
Stepha's role required dual personalities.  In addition to his role as the youngest gang member, he was also a big brother who had to put up with a younger sibling.  While I didn't have a little brother, I did have a little sister, Donna.  As can seen in the above picture, Donna wasn't one to shy away from the rough and tumble world of boys.  But, like Vanya, she could be a problem and ditching her was often my main goal. 
* * *
“No.  You're too little,” Stepha said and pushed his brother away.

“You said if I went to school, I could go with you everywhere.”  Vanya screwed up his face.  “You lied.  I'll tell.”
Stepha bared his teeth and pulled Vanya to his face.  “You're not going.  And you better not tell, you little rat.  If you do…”  Stepha slid his finger across his throat.  “Just like Chornik, Vanya.  Just like Chornik.”
* * *
While I relied primarily on the my memory of boyhood interactions, I was also fortunate enough to have a pair of grandsons approximately the age of my characters.  The two provided me with real incidents on how Stepha and Vanya's roles may have played out.  
* * *
As always Stepha led and Vanya stayed a respectable two paces behind.  In a different lifetime they may have walked side-by-side, but years of war, exile and life without a father had made Stepha the man of the family and he was not about to relinquish his exalted role.  He was the man and Vanya was the child and as Glorious Chairman often stated, “That was that.”
 * * *
Stefa and his Great-Grandson
Vanya and his Great-Grandnephew
The two cousins' relationship fluctuated between best friends and thinly veiled tolerance echoing the relationship I attributed to their bygone male relatives. The boys' imagination and exuberance also reflected those from nearly a century ago and verified many of Stepha and Vanya's reactions  to the perils I presented.  In a side note: I could not find a photo of my grandsons without smiles.  It's a much different world today in many ways.

* All-time catcher was a baseball position invented to provide a spot for the player nobody wanted, usually me.  It meant I spent the entire game behind the plate shagging errant curve balls and sliders thrown by inept nine-year and ten-year olds.