New Voices: Louise Fein, Natalie Jenner, Michael L. Huie, and Rita Woods
WRITTEN BY MYFANWY COOK
Memories, tragedy and hope are all interlaced in the past worlds created by debut novelists Louise Fein, Natalie Jenner, Michael L. Huie, and Rita Woods.
Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society (Orion/St. Martin’s, 2020), as the author relates, “is a completely imagined telling of how a group of people, still reeling from WWII, come together to form a society dedicated to preserving the home of one of the world’s greatest writers. It examines the impulse to save and collect history through the lens of eight very different people: a village doctor, a local farmer, a widowed schoolteacher, a town solicitor, a Sotheby’s employee, an heiress on the village estate, a servant girl, and a Hollywood movie star.”
Although the novel is a “fictional account,” as Jenner points out, her book is “the result of very real personal circumstances. On the heels of devastating medical news for my husband, I took a ‘quiet year’ and immersed myself in the works of my favourite author, Jane Austen. As I reread Austen’s books, I became cognizant both of their themes of living with grief, as well as their unique ability to help me with my own emotional pain. I then started consuming books about Austen’s own life, wanting to understand more about these connections.
“My reading journey culminated in a week-long bucket list trip to Chawton, Hampshire, the village in England where Austen had lived and written or revised her six major works. Both her home, the Jane Austen’s House Museum, and that of her brother, Chawton House, have been wonderfully preserved, and I was so grateful to be able to make my pilgrimage due to these efforts.”
As she explains, “That trip also changed me. The weight—and beauty—of all the history around me renewed my energy, my sense of connection to the past, and my appreciation of Austen’s own perseverance in the face of illness and despair. It also renewed a lifelong dream of writing—and there was one thing I wanted to write about most of all. And so, ironically, what had been an attempt at a ‘quiet year’ turned out to be a year of unintentional but most valuable research for the debut novel ahead.”
Louise Fein, like Jenner, was able to draw inspiration from her personal experiences to enrich her novel. Fein’s Daughter of the Reich (HarperCollins, US, 2020) / People Like Us (Head of Zeus, UK), she says, “is a story of forbidden love, set in the tumultuous backdrop of 1930s Leipzig. The novel is told from the point of view of Hetty, a young girl who has grown up on a diet of Nazi propaganda and is hungry for a part to play in Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Until, that is, she encounters Walter, a friend from her past, a Jew. As the Thirties spiral ever deeper into anti-Semitic fervour, Hetty and Walter’s developing relationship puts her beliefs into stark conflict and danger forces them to make choices which will change their lives forever.”
Fein’s book, she says, “was inspired by the experiences of my father’s family, Leipzig Jews, most of whom fled Germany for England or America during the 1930s. Whilst the story and the characters are fictional, the setting is authentic, and it is based around real events. My father died when I was only seventeen, and he never spoke of his experiences of living in Nazi Germany. My desire to learn about my roots, and to write something of it, percolated for many years. The itch grew and grew, and eventually I gave in to it.”
She “instinctively knew,” she continues, that her novel “should be fictional, but its form and content were shadowy. I read Mein Kampf and learned about the experience of growing up under Nazi rule; traveled to Leipzig and met with experts; devoured family papers and listened to the memories of survivors, the characters of Hetty and Walter came to me, and with them their story.”
As she read, she says, “the more interested I became in trying to understand how a democratic, civilised nation could, in just a few short years, overthrow democracy, demonise the Jews (and others), and descend into a violent, fear-filled fascist state who aimed to exterminate the Jewish race. I felt my story would be powerful if told from the point of view of a young, innocent girl, brought up to fear and hate perceived difference. What could possibly change her beliefs?”
The result of Fein’s creative endeavour is “a story of the fragility of freedom, and the ease with which one group can de-humanise another to the extent of un-imaginable horror. But it is also the story of friendship, hope, and above all, the power of love.”
The women whose lives M. L. (Michael) Huie has highlighted in his novel Spitfire (Crooked Lane, 2020) bring to readers’ attention a different kind of the fragile freedom described by Fein in her novel.
For Huie, “a novel can’t grow with just one idea. It’s more a conflux of ideas that form a foundation like the corner pieces of a puzzle. Waiting for the pieces to make a book idea whole can try your patience.
“I started thinking about writing my debut novel Spitfire after reading Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name: Verity. Apart from being beautifully written, it was my first exposure to the WW2 British spy organization SOE and the role women played in it. I’d never been particularly enamored of this period, but after reading Wein’s book, and a few non-fiction accounts of the SOE women, my tune changed drastically.”
Huie realised that if you “look around any bookstore, you’ll find many compelling, successful series featuring daring women set before and during the war, such as Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope or Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs,” he says. “I wanted something different, so I had to wait for another corner piece for my puzzle.”
Then, he continues, “One bright afternoon, I read that Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was in charge of foreign correspondents for The (London) Sunday Times after the war. Fleming claimed—and oh how I pray this is true—that some of his correspondents also worked for MI6. Even better, he had a framed map of the world in his office with little twinkling lights in cities where his reporters were stationed.”
Huie became aware that “in fiction Fleming has often been portrayed as a surrogate Bond, but this showed me a different way. He’s not Bond, he’s M.” He was than confronted by a problem he’d never predicted. “The next puzzle piece,” he says, was that “for the first time in my life I endured a period of unemployment. It does a number on your self-esteem, and I felt betrayed and wondered what the future held. Women who served surely felt the same, to an even greater degree, when they were told after the war to go back to traditional women’s roles and forget serving their country.”
Huie realised that he had “the corner piece for my puzzle.” After that, all he “had to do was fill in the other 80,000 or so pieces” to complete his novel.
Rita Woods’ novel Remembrance (Forge, 2020) dips in and out of history from present-day Ohio to Haiti in 1791 and New Orleans in 1857. She describes how she was inspired to write her novel: imagine as if you were “sitting on a train… Another train is visible just outside your window, on a parallel track. One train begins to move, and suddenly you have that disorienting, slightly stomach-churning sensation of confusion: which train is actually moving? In which direction? How quickly?”
One day, as Woods relates, “I had gone to visit an artist friend. In her bathroom was a book, something like Quantum Mechanics for Dummies. I picked it up because that’s what writers and readers do. If the written word is available, any written word, we are compelled to read it. Most of what was written remained completely incomprehensible, but the train analogy was used as an example of one of the principles of quantum mechanics: that motion, speed and space are relative. And suddenly… what if?”
Every novel, as she points out, “begins with this question. What if?” and “Remembrance was no exception.” For Woods, she says, “that notion of space and movement not being fixed entities became a thought that rolled around and around in my head. I have always been fascinated by history, especially my history. The history of black people in America, their strength, their resilience through the centuries. Not only how they/we survived, but managed to triumph.”
What would happen, she wondered, “if there was a person that could control space and motion? What if that person could use that power to create a place, a sanctuary for runaway slaves, parallel to, but imperceptible to the outside world? Slowly, the idea of a woman—damaged by the brutalities of her world but strong, and a survivor—possessing this ability began to take shape. This woman could use this power to protect herself and ultimately her people.”
As a consequence, “As Remembrance took shape, as Mother Abigail became more fully realized, it became clear that the story was bigger and more far-reaching than just the haven she had created in Ohio on the eve of the Civil War. It was more than her story alone. While slavery frames Remembrance, it is not a story of slavery per se. Rather for the characters, slavery serves as both the source of great tragedy and the catalyst for the fullest realization of their powers. These are women who ultimately refused to be victims.
“The peculiar intersection of science, history and resilience, in the end, became the story Remembrance.”
The importance of love, friendship, loyalty and hope underscores the novels of Fein, Jenner, Huie and Woods and brings a shaft of light into dark moments in history and individual lives.
About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is an Associate Fellow at two British Universities and a creative writing workshop designer. Please do email (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you discover any debut novels you would like to see brought to the attention of other lovers of historical fiction.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 92 (May 2020)