Tracking Your Past

Doris Green

Years ago when she was a grad student in creative writing at the University of Minnesota, Milwaukee novelist Lauren Fox discovered a box of letters addressed to her Jewish grandmother Ilse. Written by her great-grandmother Frieda from Germany in 1938 to 1941, the letters were less a complete story and “more like a song, a howl of grief,” Fox writes in the author’s note of her latest novel, “Send for Me.”

Fox incorporated the translated letters into her memoir/graduate thesis, but for decades she couldn’t decide how to tell their full story. Fox’s dilemma of whether to tell their ancestors’ story as fiction or nonfiction is frequently shared by other family historians. This dilemma certainly paralyzed me for decades when trying to write my memoir, “Elsie’s Story.”

Lacking enough information to tell her ancestors’ story as nonfiction, Fox opted for a fictional tale of a Jewish family caught in the everyday diminishments of life in Nazi Germany. The snub of an old friend. Dwindling customers at a previously successful business. A brick through a window. Arrests. Beatings. The disappearances of friends. And the all-but-impossible regulations and bureaucratic dealings involved in getting a visa out of the country.

Told from the perspectives of several generations of mothers and daughters, “Send for Me” doesn’t detail the atrocities of the death camps, though modern readers’ knowledge of those Nazi horrors haunts every page.

Vital statistics, official records and even personal photos and letters often provide only the skeletal structure of long-ago situations. Think about where your ancestor resided during World War II. What were the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and touches of that environment? When particular family stories are significant, searing into memory, what details are available to flesh them out? Sometimes, the answers are found only in fiction. And in life experience that enables the writer to decipher the attachments, protectiveness or fears embedded in relationships from one generation to the next.

Still, fiction demands facts to be believable, and in “Send for Me,” Fox incorporates “You Are There” quotes from her great-grandmother’s letters. As she writes in the author’s notes: “My great-grandmother’s letters weave through [the novel]. The names are changed, but every word of the letters is true.”

Fox previously wrote “Days of Awe,” “Still Life with Husband” and “Friends Like Us.” Published this year by Alfred A. Knopf, “Send for Me” is available at local bookstores, online and through the Southwest Wisconsin Library System.

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Caves, Mines, and Tunnels.” Also available: “Minnesota Underground: A Guide to Caves & Karst, Mines & Tunnels,” co-authored with Greg Brick. Visit http://henschelhausbooks.com.