I have spent the past six years of my life studying the six years that preceded my life, which means I have been writing and reading about World War Two. A decade ago, with story ideas jelling in my mind, I tried to pull the narrative forward into my lived experience but the war—that war—WW2—would not let me go.
I was conceived in August 1945 in the days between Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the formal surrender of Japan while the staggering horrors in Europe and Asia were being uncovered and documented. Nine months later I was born into my father’s family homestead in Montana, a brown-eyed child in a blue-eyed family. They call my mother a gypsy, though her dark hair and eyes are Sami/Swede. It is spring 1946, and 500 colonies of bees are making Baldwin & Sons Beeline Honey. I am laid out on the greening lawn, baptized by my grandfather, a Methodist parson as well as beekeeper. That autumn I am carried East for my father to start graduate school. We enter the myth that the war is cleanly over. The Marshall Plan has kicked in. The United Nations is chartered. America is the most benevolent “victor” in the history of the world.
In the early 1950s, LIFE magazine published a Pictorial History of World War II. It weighs over five pounds, is fourteen inches along the spine: a coffee table book left on our coffee table. As though reading by brail, my small fingers brush over photographs of death camps, emaciated populations, exhausted soldiers. I study these scenes and the faces of those standing in them. Questions wake in me that accompany me all my days: How did this happen? What in human nature allowed such horrors?
And these very days, while I type in the safety of my island home watching autumn leaves drift off my neighbor’s maple tree, similar horrors are being repeated in Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza, in more African countries than I know to list, and in uncountable pockets of violence. I still ask: How does this happen? What in human nature allows such horrors?
At its essence, story is how we make meaning of life. Story is how we link one human experience to another and weave our narrative threads. Story is how we learn vicariously. Story illuminates human circumstances and allows us to imagine what we would do. Writers and readers know that imagination increases empathy, resilience and capacity to act in real life. Story matters, and what stories we tend to matters.
In the middle of writing my novel, taking place 1941-1943, I asked several friends why they keep reading about this time period. One said, “The nature of good and evil seems so much clearer. These stories inspire me to see how ordinary people can become extraordinary in the cruelest situations.” Another said, “My father died without telling me his story of the war, so I extrapolate it from books. Through reading, I can grieve for him.”
And why did I write about WW2?
Because I believe that they/then have something to teach us/now about the getting through chaotic times. I focused on the Homefront because most of us live away from actual battlefields but are compelled to pay attention to images of suffering and raw story unspooling in real time. In this immediacy, we (or at least I) experience vicarious trauma without story’s meaning-making perspective. In the early 1940s, the US was madly shifting from Depression era isolationism to global leadership and fighting force. The outcome of the war was uncertain. It was, in the living of it, a far more volatile, strenuous, and tenuous transition than myths have made it. In life, and in my story–
- People are fighting fascism with the belief it can be eradicated from the world.
- The community faces real issues of injustice simmering under settlement of the West.
- The war’s pressures, realities, and suffering intrude on their personal lives.
- They must decide how to work together despite all differences.
- They deal with eruptions of violence, evil, murder and secrecy.
- They are wounded and healing. They make love and babies.
- They leave their unsung courage like seeds in the ground for us to harvest.
So maybe I read and write about WW2 because the story is so huge, encompassing so much human and inhumane experience that we haven’t been able to make meaning of it. And maybe because “the war” isn’t over but has splintered into the conflicts that surround us today casting its shadow of horror and the light of human spirit.
New York city is home to the largest Jewish community of any city in the world—larger than the combined populations of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Mid-October 2023, my book, The Beekeeper’s Question, is sitting in the inboxes of fifteen NY publishing house editors. I can imagine their paralysis to face everyday work: I feel that paralysis in myself. We are in global crisis. We cannot foretell what happens from one day to the next. We are caught in narratives with no idea of the climax, or how the situation will resolve. Yet, story is a map and the story that gets one person through helps to get the next person through. I hope the tale of the beekeeper’s family may find its publishing home and take up its task to help us map pathways through the immediacy of life in the now.
“The dark around us, come,
Let us meet together here,
Members one of another,
Here is our holy room.”