The Story Behind My Blog's Title

The Story Behind My Blog's Title
Why is my blog named "My Father's Oldsmobile"? Click on the car and find out.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Learning About History Through Historical Fiction

The winner of Sarah Sundin's Historical Romance, A Distant Melody, is Julia Reffner. Congratulations!

Below is a recent post I wrote for another blog about what I learned while researching "No Other." I wanted to share it here too.

Learning About History through Historical Fiction.

"No Other," my new release, is a 20thCentury historical romance. The story actually came to me in a dream, so in many ways I feel like it was given to me, more so than made up. There are certain things I've always know about this story because of the dream. I always knew my characters' names – though I played with variations on the spelling. I always knew that Meri was a little bit older than Jakob, and was his teacher by some odd circumstance. I also always knew the time period when the story took place, and that Jakob's family had endured hardship due to their heritage. What I didn't know was how all of these details fit together to form a complete story.

As I began to research the time period, many of these details found their place in the puzzle fairly quickly. For example, I discovered that a fair number of GI's quit school to serve in the war. Some turned eighteen early in their senior year. Some had been held back and were a year behind, and some lied about their age to join. When they returned there was the occasional circumstance of a school giving them a diploma for serving, but many had to finish the old-fashioned way. It made sense that if Jakob's life was somehow interrupted by the war, this would be the case for him too.

One aspect I wasn't satisfied with from the early draft was that discrimination alone counted for the hardship endured by Jakob's family. Whatever happened to them had to be extreme enough to necessitate his need to quit school, and since people of German decent are common in American society, discrimination from this alone didn't seem enough.

One night my husband and I were watching a documentary on the Japanese internment, and it hit me. Had citizens from other cultures associated with the Axis Powers during WWII faced anything similar? My answer was one Google search away. Yes.

Italian Americans and German Americans were both singled out. Because their ethnic appearance blended easily into American society , their discrimination was less frequent than that of Japanese Americans. But if they did find themselves under suspicion, it was harsher.

The internment process was different in that it was treated more like an arrest, complete with a trail. Though evidence in these trials often consisted of things like, a postcard from a relative still in Germany, speaking German where others could hear, or belonging to a German social club (these were clubs where the German culture – music, holidays and food, were the primary focus). These trials rarely resulted in a person being released. Once arrested, the citizen, and often their entire family, was taken to an internment camp. Some of these camps had facilities such as schools and hospitals, but they were surrounded by fifteen foot barbed wire fences, with guard towers stationed every fifty feet or so, and search lights roaming the area at night.

Also, the property of internees was confiscated and sold at auction, bank accounts frozen, and even upon release these things were not returned. The internees were made to sign papers of secrecy, with threat of imprisonment if they spoke of their experience. Many were also harassed for years after the war, with phone calls made from the FBI to employers and landlords.

One of the most disturbing things I learned while researching this topic was about a program called Repatriation. The offer was for volunteers to be released and returned to Germany in exchange for American citizens held abroad. Since many internees had no desire to return to Germany, and in fact feared it, this volunteer was unsuccessful, and soon coercion through various means was necessary to make Repatriation work. Sadly, those that were repatriated were often killed shortly upon return.

This is a dark time in American history, of that there is no doubt. And it's not my wish to make any political statement in conveying this knowledge. But what has surprised me, was that I never knew of any of this until I was 37 years old and took it upon myself to discover it. And as I've promoted my book, I've come across many other Americans, older than me – and some even alive during WWII -- that had no knowledge of this either.

I have many hopes for my book – to encourage, entertain, and hopefully move the reader emotionally in some way. But I also want it to educate. This is a piece of history that should not be lost. If you're curious about individual stories, this is the best place to look.


  1. There are few books that are historically accurate enough to actually learn from them. Many times I find errors in them. I even found one last night in a non-fic where they spelled Birkenau (from Auschwitz-Birkenau) Birdnau. :::shakes head::: Who is editing these things?

  2. Hi Shawna,
    Interesting post! I've given your blog the "Creative Writer" Blogger Award. You can pick it up at my blog:

  3. I LOVE to learn history through historical novels. Thanks for all you do!

  4. I knew very little about this also. My grandfather was German-American. He was born into a German-speaking group in Rhode Island - but his parents served as missionaries to German ex-pats living in Brazil! He was born in Brazil and grew up speaking English, Portuguese, and German. His parents returned to RI just before WWI, and experienced great persecution. He became a professor of German and used his language skills during WWII to help train American spies to serve behind German lines. He was medically unable to serve, so this work probably took some suspicion off him.
    We forget just how much US culture has changed! I'm doing research into the Port Chicago Explosion for my third book - which killed hundreds of black sailors and led to a racially charged mutiny trial. Some of the racist things said in public documents - they make your toes curl!

  5. Sarah, what I also found very interesting was that some of the families interned had children serving overseas.

    Your third book sounds really interesting!


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