Friday, January 13, 2017

Hitler's Dollhouse

A couple of years ago, my husband and I visited Berlin. He’s a serious student of World War history; I’m fascinated by the war, too—maybe, in the beginning, for the simple reason that my mom was an English war bride and if there’d been no WWII I’d never have been born. Before we left, we read a wonderful series of thrillers by John Russell set in Berlin during the war years, which was fun because part of what we did while we were there was explore the stories’ geography, imagining the characters in the places we saw. Reporters hanging out in the Adler Hotel just beyond the Brandenburg Gate, spies meeting in the cafe at Zoo Station ,Nazi soldiers on guard at the Stadtschloss.

I love to visit the places I’ve read about in books that moved me deeply and shaped the way I see the world. Standing where real people or fictional people stood, seeing what they saw, understanding the boundaries of their existence in a visceral way enriches my imagination, and a deeper, more sympathetic understanding of what it means to be human settles into me.

I remember the preserved set of barracks at Auschwitz that showed the evolution from what looked like rustic (if crowded) cabins, one prisoner to a bunk and space for a table and chairs, to nothing but wall-to-wall shelves where prisoners slept head to toe. I remember standing in the space between the barracks and the administrative building, where prisoners were forced to stand, sometimes for hours, freezing in the winter, broiling in the summer, waiting to be counted or punished. I remember entering the gas chamber, never used, but—still. And the moment I looked at the opening of the oven where bodies were burned, realizing that bodies would have had to be handed it through it one by one—by a person, probably a Jew. Somehow I had thought it was less personal than that.

It’s the seemingly small things, like that oven door, that can create what feels like a cataclysmic shift in your understanding of history. Wandering through the German Historical Museum in Berlin, I came upon an exhibit of toys from the WWII era, among them a dollhouse-sized kitchen, its table set with tiny plates and beer steins, tiny bread and salami for the meal, a tiny red candle set into a tiny silver candlestick. There’s a white bowl of fruit on a sideboard, a cuckoo clock on the wall; flowered curtains trimmed with lace cover the windows. There’s a sink, a stove, a tiny vacuum cleaner.

The walls are papered with tiny images of Hitler Youth. Lined up, saluting; marching in pairs, bearing the Nazi flag; sitting around a campfire; hand-in-hand in a circle, playing some kind of game; at work, pushing a wheelbarrow, carrying sheaves of wheat. Between the two windows: a miniature photograph of Hitler in a silver frame; some kind of medallion with a swastika at its base.

I couldn’t stop looking at it, thinking—
Someone had the idea to manufacture this dollhouse. 
Someone designed and manufactured this wallpaper for it.
Someone shrunk and framed the photograph of Hitler to dollhouse scale. 
Someone made the mold for the medallion that hung on the wall. 
Someone bought it for his daughter.
I imagined a blond, blue-eyed girl playing with it on the floor of her bedroom, the perfect Aryan 
doll family that surely came with it. Moving the mother, blond and blue-eyed like herself, to set 
the meal on the table; calling in her pretend-voice, Vater, kommen Sie. Es ist Zeit zu essen.“ 
Picking up the father doll with her little fingers, arranging him in one of the chairs. Then
Kinder, du kommst auch,“ because there would certainly be a little blond boy doll and a little 
blond girl doll to join them, perhaps dressed in Hitler Youth uniforms, excited to tell their 
parents about the important work they’d done that day for the fuehrer. 

Who isn’t horrified by the idea of Hitler Youth, the formal indoctrination of children in beliefs that resulted in terror, cruelty, and the death of more than six million people? I certainly am. But not as horrified as I was standing before this toy that had been designed to corrupt a child’s imagination, to turn healthy play into an exaltation the Nazi way of life, thinking about how many children grew up thinking this was perfectly normal.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how so many terrible things have begun to seem normal to us, and how dangerous that is: the kind of cultural change that happened in Germany didn't happen overnight, it evolved. It took a long time for German people to go from being maybe a little alarmed at Hitler’s message but still believing that nothing truly horrible would happen to book burning and death camps and manufacturing Hitler dollhouses for little girls.

I’m deeply troubled by the escalation of hateful, cruel, threatening, and exclusionary messages from the far right since the presidential election, fearful that we’ll wait too long to heed them, terrified what might happen if we do.

Children are hearing these messages, too, and it makes me worry about the games playing out in their fertile, unformed minds. 



Saturday, January 7, 2017

Mary and Finn

A few nights ago, coming up the Harrietta Hill on the road between Cadillac and Caberfae Ski Area, we came upon a battered SUV with its blinkers on. Steve pulled up next to the driver’s window; I rolled down my window and asked if they needed help.

The man said they’d run out of gas.

No problem, Steve said. We’ll get you some gas.

There was a woman in the car, too, and a baby. It was cold, so we suggested that they come along. She brought the car seat, then the baby—and buckled him into it. She went back for the gas can.

“I’m Mary,” she said, closing the door. “This is Finn. He’s one and a half.”

We introduced ourselves, said we were from Indianapolis.

“Where’s that?” Mary asked.

“Indiana,” I said. “You know, just south.”

“Is it warm there?” she asked.

“Maybe a little warmer than Michigan, but not much,” I said.  

They were from Manton, she told us, which we knew was about thirty miles away. They were on their way to pick up a friend who worked at the ski area because his car had broken down.

We chatted along the way. They had eight children between them, Mary told me. All grown. Finn was the child of a friend who they were raising as their own because she couldn’t care for him.

“You missed having little ones,” I said.

“Yeah,” Mary said, a smile in her voice. “I did.”

Fin was fitful, crying earnestly at times, then that tired, cranky kind of crying, then crying for his daddy. Mary soothed him.

When we got to the gas station, Steve said he needed to fill our tank (which he’d actually filled earlier that day), so there was no need for her to get out. He’d fill her gas can at the same time.

“Can I write you a check for that?” she asked, when he got back in the car.

“No,” Steve said. "Don't worry about it."

She thanked him quietly, we drove on back to the Harrietta Road in silence, but for Finn’s moaning, “Daa, Daa, Daa.”

We pulled up in front of the SUV and Mary got out, unbuckled Finn, and handed him through the open window to her husband, a gargantuan, bearded guy, who engulfed him. She put the car seat back into their car, then went back for the gas can.

“Are you guys going to be okay?” Steve asked.

 Her husband nodded. He put a happy Finn up to the open window. “These are good people,” he said.

And we went on our way, back to our cozy cabin, to our dog and our books and a fire.

"We're so lucky," I said.

Steve agreed. 

The thing is, though, if you asked Mary I'm pretty sure she’d say she was lucky, too. She loved her husband, loved her children. Times were tough, but—

I keep thinking about them. They had to know how low their gas tank was and how few gas stations there were in the thirty miles between home and their destination, yet they set out to pick up their friend, who needed help. They were several miles from the ski area when we came upon them. It was icy and dark so walking there was unlikely—not to mention dangerous. I have no idea how long they sat there, getting colder and colder. Almost nobody travels that road, especially at night.

My point? I wish I knew. I keep thinking a lot about Trump voters, who they are, how they live. Why they chose him. Were Mary and her husband Trump voters? Did they even vote? I don’t know. But I suspect that there are a lot of Trump voters who are like them, living on the edge, doing the best they can.

The gas can: one of those “telling details” fiction writers talk about. People don’t carry a gas can when they have enough money to fill up the tank when it nears empty. 

When I was a kid, my dad would put a dollar or two, at most, in the tank. I thought everybody did that. Only rich people told the gas station attendant, “Fill ‘er up.” I couldn’t imagine what that would be like.

Now I hop out of my car, fill up the tank without a second thought. But I don’t ever want to forget how many people can’t do that. It seems like a small thing. But the world is made of small things, which, when put together so often make a picture that will break your heart.   


Thursday, March 3, 2016

Remembering Harper Lee

I’ve been living in Harper Lee’s world lately to prepare for a library talk I gave last week about To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. I reread both books, watched the film, and saw Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I read Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields, and The Mockingbird Next Door, Marja Mills’s memoir about her friendship with Harper Lee.

I thought a lot about Lee’s struggles with her first novel, Go Set a Watchman, which she never got right, and her struggles with To Kill a Mockingbird, which she go so right that it catapulted into the fame and fortune that most writers dream of—and stopped her in her tracks.

I thought about a 2005 conversation Lee had with a waiter at a party in New York, described near the end of Shields’s biography. “Why didn’t you write another book?” the waiter asked.

“‘I had every intention of writing many novels,’” Harper Lee reportedly said, ‘but I never could have imagined the success To Kill a Mockingbird would enjoy. I became overwhelmed.’”

In the concluding paragraph of his biography, Shields wrote, “Rather than allow herself to be eternally frustrated, she ‘forgave herself’ and lifted the burden fro her shoulders of living up to the book. She refused to pressure herself into writing another novel unless the muse came to her naturally.”

But the muse never comes naturally. Writing isn’t about inspiration; it’s about addiction, obsession. The muse is knowing and needing the way writing will take you away from the real word into a world of your own making, one you have the power to shape and control.

Harper Lee knew this.

In 1964, still struggling with the second novel she never produced, she described herself to an interviewer as someone who must write. “I like to write,” she said. “Sometimes I’m afraid that I like it too much because when I get into work I don’t want to leave it. As a result I’ll go for days and days without leaving the house or wherever I happen to be. I’ll go out long enough to get papers and pick up some food and that’s it. It’s strange, but instead of hating writing I love it too much.”

She spoke about the novels she hoped to write, books that would “…leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world…to chronicle something that seems to be very quickly going down the drain. This is small-town middle-class southern life as opposed to the gothic, as opposed to Tobacco Road, as opposed to plantation life.”

“In other words,” she concluded, “all I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama.”

The sad thing is, she could have been.

In the sixties, a promising writer, one whose first novel had received excellent reviews but sold only moderately well, would have been nurtured by her publisher. If she needed money to pay the rent so that she could get that second novel written, money would magically appear. Her editor would be on call in the case of any crisis or confidence, instantly available for lunch or dinner or a drink to help calm the writer down, to reassure her that of course she would finish the book she was working on in time and of course it would be wonderful. The editor would truly believe this. She would believe it was her job to guide you through the long, harrowing process of birthing a novel.

It is its own kind of weird blessing not to be famous, not to have people waiting to see what you’ve written next, to judge if it is better or worse than what you’ve written before. It is its own weird kind of blessing to keep the carrot of recognition ever before you. Maybe, maybe the next novel will be the one that makes you a “successful” writer. When it’s not, well, you go at it again.

Harper Lee had an editor who believed passionately in her work and guided her through revision after revision of both Go Tell a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird. She had friends who believed in her so much that they gave her enough money to quit her job and do nothing but write for a year.

She knew writing was hard, that it was supposed to be hard. Shields described Lee’s 1966 response to a Sweet Briar College student who asked about her typical workday. “She said she stayed at her desk six to twelve hours a day and ended up with, perhaps, one page of finished manuscript.” Harper Lee told the class, “‘To be a serious writer requires discipline that is iron fisted. It’s sitting down and doing it whether you think you have it in you or not. Everyday. Alone. Without interruption. Contrary to what most people think, there is no glamour to writing. In fact, it’s heartbreak most of the time.’”

What might Harper Lee have written if “Mockingbird” hadn’t been a publishing phenomenon; if instead, good reviews and moderate sales had given her confidence as a writer, a manageable taste of recognition, the courage to go on?

What if she’d never had to occasion to say to her cousin, Dickie Williams, who asked the question she had surely come to dread, “Richard, when you’re at the top there’s only one way to go.”

In his conclusion to Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields wrote, “A little more than a year after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Nelle wrote to friends in Mobile, ‘People who have made peace with themselves are the people I most admire in the world.’ From all indications, she seems to have done that.”

I so hope he’s right. But I wonder.

And now we’ll never know.

Published in NUVO Newsweekly 
March, 2016