I'm a serial reader, especially when I am researching a new book. Currently, I'm anywhere from a 20-200 pages into at least five books, and even more articles and found materials. This week I was determined to strike a couple of long-on-going reads off my list.
The first of these, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction by Ruth Franklin, has been in my periphery for a good six months now. In clean, approachable prose, Franklin illuminates the dialogue around fictionalizing the Holocaust by breaking open the pomegranate-like seminal tomes and sifting the rubies from the pith. Each chapter is initially dedicated to a particular writer, and naturally caused me to pop out of the book in order to read the books that she discusses to better understand the arguments therein.
At this point you may wonder why I'm reading about Holocaust Fiction. In order to set my WIP (work in progress) in the 1940s there are just things I need to know. One of my characters spends the war years in Luxembourg and Germany, and though she isn't Jewish, and she currently isn't going into the camps herself, to write around the Holocaust just isn't going to happen. Instead I am attempting to create the shape of the Holocaust by writing along its edges, with threads that tie the story firmly to what we already carry in our collective imagination. We know there was bread and watery soup. We know there were gas chambers and striped pajamas. We know that the brutality and disregard for human life found new and terrifying expression within the barbed wire enclosures. It's what we don't know that interests me, but only in contrast. Still determining what is light and what is shadow.
Sometimes, while I'm digging in deeper to my research, I feel like I must be crazy to take on subjects like the KKK in the Upper Midwest, or the Nazi regime, the anti-semitic upbringing of a child, or the eugenics movement in America. Why not just bank on the Emmy-Jim budding romance and move forward? Because my gut tells me go where the prejudice is, find it, show it, keep shining light where disinfectant can't reach.
To that end, I've also just finished reading Ravensbruck, Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women by Sarah Helm. This is tough stuff. Atrocity upon atrocity that makes you reel just thinking about how 1. Sarah Helm held up under the research part of writing and 2. how the women who survived this brutalized serial killing did it. I've read quite a lot of Holocaust literature (see above), but this journey into systematized hell is quite another level, and confirms my feeling that you really can't fictionalize what happened in the camps because no reader would believe it. To that end, I'll be wending my way in a month to Berlin and visiting Sachsenhausen Camp. More on that later.