Tolerance is Key in Pamela Schoenewaldt’s Under the Same Blue Sky
There is much made about the fight for tolerance in today’s society. Social media has a spawned the opportunity for everyone to have an opinion, both good and bad. In some ways, the availability of the internet allows for people to be educated on all matter of topics and perspectives. But nearly a century ago, the average person only received a primary school education that was often entrenched in long-held prejudices and suspicions.
In Pamela Schoenewaldt’s latest novel, Under the Same Blue Sky, she seeks to bring social injustice to light through the eyes of quiet but defiant heroine Hazel Renner. The novel could easily be taken as a commentary on society and its eagerness to point fingers, and in some cases, throw stones. Schoenewaldt says she does not “seek to teach or preach about tolerance. But what I can do is to invite the reader to witness how a particular issue impacts a character.” That character is Hazel. As the daughter of German immigrants, she is raised with the benefit of a rich cultural heritage and a love for learning. But she is also saddled with the expectations of her doting parents–they expect great things out of her. Perhaps she should become a physician, her mother poses. Yet Hazel wants more out of life. She longs to escape the industrial landscape of Pittsburgh and join the artistic avant garde of early 20th-century Paris. But then World War I breaks out and her dreams are dashed. Almost overnight, Hazel’s parents become “Huns” and their successful hardware business is the target of shameful vandalism.
While World War I is a popular setting in the historical fiction genre, Schoenewaldt brings a whole new spin to the subject. She is familiar with the years leading up to the war as her previous novel, Swimming in the Moon, ended in 1912. “I suppose the World War I setting was a natural progression,” she says. She explores the American homefront with gut-wrenching accuracy. Little is said about the fighting taking place so many miles away, but much is made of the unintentional consequences. Hazel’s father is obsessed with tracking the battles and is burdened by the news of so much senseless killing.
For Hazel, the war is the impetus she needs to unravel the truth of her birth and strange childhood memories. This journey leads her first to serve as a teacher in a small town outside Pittsburgh. There she encounters a Spanish American War veteran with mental problems. Through the lens of modern science, the reader can see that the man suffers from PTSD. Yet he is cruelly segregated from local society and ends up the victim of his own inner demons and the townspeople’s prejudices.
Later, Hazel becomes the secretary of a wealthy German aristocrat turned art dealer. As they work to rescue priceless items from the Motherland, she has the opportunity to fall in love with an old friend. But her happiness is shortlived as her employer is ridiculed and reviled for his ancestry, her father is claimed by the deep depression he experiences, and her lover becomes a pilot for the American Armed Forces. Hazel’s inner strength shines through these challenges. The reader is impressed with the notion that Hazel is truly good without being saccharine; she bears the weight of those around her with quiet fortitude, but still longs for true happiness amidst the strife. Her journey takes her far from her fretful beginnings. The end result is not what she pictured, but Hazel learns that empathy and love, in spite of the circumstances, can conquer all things.
Events portrayed in this novel speak to the atrocities endured by German-Americans during this time. The author’s own great grandfather was forbidden to speak German in public, and she explains that other German-Americans faced the destruction of their homes and businesses, ridicule, financial ruin, and physical violence. Some of these people were born in the U.S. Hundreds of patents by German-Americans were confiscated and turned over to “real American” companies, including patents that had nothing whatever to do with the war effort.
“Of course, there are examples of far more virulent ethnic violence in human history [than the rapidity and often viciousness with which many American communities turned against their German-Americans friends, neighbors, and co-workers], but this chapter of the American past is surprising to many and could be better known, if only as a warning of what could happen to a previously well-integrated and generally respected ethnic group,” Pamela Schoenewaldt points out. “As President Woodrow Wilson warned at the start of World War I: ‘Once lead this country into war and they’ll forget there was ever such a thing as tolerance.’”
About the contributor: Caroline Wilson was born and raised in the beautiful upcountry of South Carolina. She studied historic preservation at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, and is currently working on her Master’s degree in Library Science. She is a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and has a self-published romantic historical entitled Rebel Heart. When she’s not reading or writing, Caroline can be found on the road (or in the air) to her next travel destination or savoring a perfectly crafted classic cocktail. She still lives in South Carolina, along with her husband and four very literary cats: Amelia, Watson, Huckleberry (Huck), and Edgar.
Posted by Claire Morris