Prairie Hill – New Profile on BookGoodies.com

Hello everyone,

My novel, Prairie Hill, is featured on the BookGoodies.com website here: Prairie Hill Profile

Along with information about the novel, I answered a few questions about writing, including the perennial, “What advice would you give aspiring writers?” Below, find my answer, although I know that I could write (and talk) at much greater length about this topic!

Read for pleasure and read as a writer. I’ve learned so much from reading widely, discovering what I like, what I don’t like, figuring out what works, what doesn’t work. and why.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing in notebooks (and on the computer). I have a long-time diary/journal which serves many purposes, but especially as a way of learning how to write. The journal helps me capture the life around me, gives me the opportunity to think about and ponder people, play with dialogue, experiment with description, tell the story of a given day or event. I also have more topical notebooks – dreams, memories, and “people,” and I carry a pocket notebook wherever I go. That concentrated, but informal writing – not intended for publication – resembles sketches for a painter, practice for a musician, rehearsal for an actor. It all pays off by making you a much better writer. Each writer, though, must find his or her own path and best methods.

For my earlier thoughts on the writing process and more, see my “self-interview on BookGoodies.com here: BookGoodies Interview

Thank you for taking a look.

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Thoughts on Writing – New “Self-interview” on BookGoodies.com

I recently filled out a “self-interview” on the BookGoodies.com website. Click on this link BookGoodies Interview to check out some of my thoughts on the writing process, writing advice, publishing, and about my novel, Prairie Hill

Here is a sample:

What inspires you to write?

I can’t really imagine not writing. When I was a little kid I adored listening to my father and grandmother tell amusing tales and I loved their reading bedtime stories to me. I began reading as soon as I could and then my teachers complained that I would get lost in books. I found diary/journal writing a wonderful way of capturing the world around me, slowing it down, allowing me to ponder and try to understand. I began to write fiction in my teens, at first autobiographically, but after a time using my imagination more and more. Editing literary magazines taught me so much about writing. My son, who constantly craved “pretend stories” on our walks together, inspired me. Now, my journal is ever more narrative and I dream stories. I feel happiest when writing. There is nothing I like better to do.

Prairie Hill – the Prairie Blooms – novel excerpt with photos

A Prairie In Bloom

A few months ago I featured several beautiful wildflower photographs taken by naturalist Rob Baller. Now, as flowers begin to carpet the Wisconsin prairie, I thought I would share some further gems, alongside an excerpt from my novel, Prairie Hill.

Prairie Hill unfolds from multiple viewpoints, but its two main characters, Jimmy Lathrop and Jenny Diggles, relate much of the tale. Nineteen-year-old Jenny, who works as a waitress at popular local inn, the Pullet Surprize, is passionate about wildflowers and heirloom gardening. Jimmy, a loner and a stranger in town, works at the Pullet as a dishwasher, while also serving as Cock-a-doodle-do, the feathered mascot of the local minor league baseball team. The following scenes take place at the remnant prairie they’ve discovered. The undisturbed virgin prairie faces destruction as part of the expansion of the local Prairie Hill Industrial Park.

For those interested in reading more, Prairie Hill is available as an eBook at Amazon.com. See Prairie Hill tab above for further information.

Purple Coneflowers and Wisconsin Farmland

Jenny

…Where to find Jimmy? I knew he liked to walk, but there could be a hundred places he’d go. I wandered the neighborhood nearby, since I remembered he’d explored it once before. No luck. I practically galloped down the railroad tracks, every minute thinking I’d spot his tall form loping along up ahead, or maybe hear the clanging sound of a far-tossed rock nicking the rails. I walked at least two miles and saw nothing livelier than a stalking cat on the hunt. So I mulled it over, tried to calm myself down, and backtracked all the way home, where I pulled out my bike and rolled away to try some country routes. If I hadn’t been in such a darned hurry I might have enjoyed the beautiful May afternoon, with baby corn plants pushing up in the fields, red-winged blackbirds calling and swallows darting after insects. But I kept my eye peeled for pedestrians and bikers and only chanced on a lone, puffing, sweaty middle-aged jogger. I crossed the creek and realized that I was nearing Hulda’s house. I felt my pulse quicken, knowing I’d see that awful sign in a couple of minutes. Would I feel the rumble and hear the roar of big diggers churning up unplowed earth? Would the hill and sloping field still be there?

Gentian

Jimmy

I wound my way through woods and fields and found myself on the hill overlooking Jenny’s prairie, where I sat down. I call it Jenny’s prairie because when I’m there I think of her excitement and joy at finding untouched land with its rare plants and flowers. It’s a peaceful spot if you keep your eyes on the view straight ahead. Beyond the prairie and the road below, you see old farm fields cut through by lines of trees and a meandering creek. But I couldn’t avoid the constant whine and drone from the interstate a mile to my left and the noise of trucks stopping, starting, loading and unloading at one of the warehouses nearby. Nothing’s changed since workmen installed the sign way down below. The song sparrows and indigo buntings and monarch butterflies have no idea that their field of tall grass and sunflowers and milkweed is about to disappear forever. I told myself not to feel anything. Land grabs happen everywhere and the second you get emotionally involved, you’re thinking about it all the time and then it gnaws at your heart. I’ve had enough of that pushing and pulling of emotions over the last few years, maybe enough to last a lifetime. But there I sat anyway. Apparently, my feet didn’t agree with my mind. I watched the occasional truck or car zip by and finally a jogger who ran slower than he could probably walk it. Even that was more civilization than I wanted today. Just soak in a little more sun and then in a minute I’d look for an even remoter spot.

Prairie Grasses, including Big Bluestem

Jenny

I forced myself to pass the thin stand of trees and looked left at the prairie, up the slope to the hill. There was a man up there sitting in the grass and I could tell it was Jimmy by his red checkered flannel shirt. It didn’t take him long to spot me. He stood up and turned as if he was about to head away, but he changed his mind and stood his ground. I dumped my bike and followed an animal trail up the hill. I couldn’t help noticing the long-stemmed blooming Shooting Stars and felt a quick flash of delight when I spied coneflowers and sunflowers and Black-eyed Susans coming up, though it would be awhile before they’d bloom. I wish I knew the names of the grasses – those at the prairie don’t look like anything you’d see on your standard lawn or baseball field, not even crabgrass.

Purple Coneflower

When I reached Jimmy he stood with his hands in his pockets, looking tight and uncomfortable and with an unreadable expression on his face. “You’re a hard man to find,” I said. “I’ve searched all over town, every spot I think a Jimmy Lathrop might hang out.”

“You thought wrong about a lot of places, then,” he said, voice low and thick.

“I should have realized you’d be here.”

“Why?”

“It’s where I’d want to be.”

I sat down and he joined me, sitting about two feet away. “Jimmy, you said you’d found something out about the Extru-ThermaTec Corporation.”

It took him a long minute to say anything. “I was concerned for Hulda,” he said and I only half believed him. “She’s lived near here for a long time and it seems as if one by one the surrounding fields are going and she’ll have prefab on all sides.”

“Hemmed in,” I said. “She doesn’t want to sell her land, but the offers keep getting more and more attractive.”

“At some point, she may have no choice. Somebody might persuade the city to try eminent domain.” His hands tore at a stem of grass. “Anyway, I looked through about six months worth of papers at the public library, searching for anything to do with this property. All I found was a lot of hype about the industrial park and how pleased the city fathers are that the park’s stimulated new growth, including sale of property to the extrusion company. They gave them a whole lot of incentives to build here, too. Tax breaks, that kind of stuff. Buried way deep in the article they announce plans to break ground by mid summer with their facility opening by early December. Other than that, not a word. The paper obviously boosts this sort of thing – growth and expansion is necessary, they say. I thought there might at least be a letter to the editor from some concerned resident or other.”

“Not too surprising. Most of the farms are gone and the few country people around here are old.”

Shooting Star

We sat in silence for awhile. I kept expecting him to say more but he didn’t or wouldn’t. I blocked out the man-made sounds and tried to concentrate on the sounds of a prairie in May, imagining myself back in time to when there were fields and fields for miles, no sounds from cars or airplanes or lawn mowers, no industrial hum or roar. A flash of blue startled me, and a bird settled on a bit of brush off to our left. Jimmy swore softly. “Bluebird,” he said. “See that reddish orange on its breast, a little bit like a robin. Same family. My father said he used to see them all the time when he was a kid and then they became incredibly rare. Supposedly they’re on their way back now.”

“I’ve never seen one. I guess they don’t visit backyards.”

“No, they’re field birds. They like open spaces. They used to nest in old wooden fence poles as well as tree hollows.”

“But now the fences are metal and everyone cuts down trees that aren’t perfectly healthy.”

“You got it.”

“So how come they’re reviving?”

“Well, they may not be coming back everywhere. I don’t know. But a lot of birders have set up bluebird houses, mostly wooden boxes, along fences out in the country. My dad liked to build them and I liked helping him set them up. We had boxes all around the perimeter of our property. Tree swallows liked nesting in them, too, but we’d see one or two bluebirds every year when I was younger.”

“You lived in the country?”

“Yeah.”

I waited, but he didn’t say anything else.

Spiderwort

A few more cars had passed below. Now a brown car with county sheriff insignia on its door crept by, pulled to the side of the road and stopped. A man in uniform stepped out and peered up at us. He must not have had anything pressing to do because he hitched up his pants and began to trudge up the trail toward us. I stood up and after a moment Jimmy did too. “We could make a run for it,” I joked, but glancing at him, I was surprised by how serious Jimmy looked, concerned and troubled. He took a few steps toward the officer and I followed.

He was middle-aged and pudgy around the middle and the climb had broken him out in a sweat and he was breathing heavily. “Folks,” he said, though he addressed Jimmy. “Are you aware this is private property?”

“We’re just admiring the view,” said Jimmy.

“Well, we’ve got parks for that, you know. You don’t have permission to be here, you got to go. Sorry.”

“Isn’t it a lovely place, though?” I said.

The officer looked back down the hill and across the flowering and grassy field and nodded. “My wife would call this one big hellacious patch of weeds, but I see what you mean.” He pulled out a pad from his pocket, stared at it a moment and then put it back. “I should take down your ID’s, but we’ll let it ride for now. Just scram and don’t let me catch you up here again. There’s been vandalism in the industrial park, graffiti and so on.” He eyed Jimmy again. You wouldn’t know anything about that would you?”

“No sir,” he replied. “Alright, we’re out of here.”

We followed the officer down to the road. I picked up my bike and we headed back to town…

Common Milkweed Seeding – make a wish

Prairie Hill – pondering the sources of fiction

Prairie Hill cover

Now and again people ask me whether my novel, Prairie Hill, is autobiographical. I answer “no” but it’s not strictly true. Looking over the novel I find all sorts of odds and ends of details which come from my life – a dingy, cobwebby basement I once explored, pigeons flapping from rafter to rafter inside an abandoned building, a ruby-crowned kinglet taking me for a walk along the railroad tracks, and a man dressed in an oversized rooster costume waving to passersby, advertising the best chicken in town.

I like to think about the sources of fiction. These tidbits from “reality,” close observations of friends and family and strangers, overheard conversations and glimpses through the windows of daily life, combine with an author’s perceptions and imagination to create setting, characters and story. None of the characters in Prairie Hill are exact replicas of people I know or have known. However, even when a writer describes a real person as accurately as possible, the filter of his or her own sensibilities moves the writing a step or two toward fiction.

I’ve kept a journal since the summer I turned ten. It evolved from an account of my activities from breakfast to bedtime, to seemingly endless declarations of teenage angst, to a more conscious attempt at capturing life around me – people I encountered, places I spent time in, daily life lived through. The many thousands of pages made me a more thoughtful observer and a better writer. The journals also provided me with a huge amount of useful material. Have I used any of it in my fiction? Not directly, but I have a good example of how what I absorbed long ago proved useful when writing a novel many years later.

In my 20’s I knew an old woman named Franny who spent much of her day pushing a mop across what seemed like acres of linoleum floor. Her feet hurt her and she’d need to rest and so she often came by where I was working and talked with me, or “chewed the fat” as she liked to call it. She was bitter and given to scowling, but the lines would soften on her face when she reminisced. We became friends and she’d bring me little presents such as apples from a local orchard. I liked her colorful way of speaking and I began to write down what I recalled. Her voice stayed with me for many years and it is Franny’s voice and a touch of her appearance and personality that I gave to Hulda Bjorklund, the old farm woman who becomes friends with and even a mentor of young Jenny Diggles and Jimmy Lathrop in Prairie Hill.

Here, for comparison, is some of Franny’s dialogue, taken from my journal, followed by an excerpt from Prairie Hill told from the perspective of Hulda Bjorklund.

A journal from the late 1980’s

11/21/88

“I still miss that of my mom, her bread. Every Sunday at noon she’d fry some bread dough before puttin’ the bread in. My girlfriends, they all knew when she’d be makin’ bread. They could smell it outside the house.

“My dad gave me a licking I’ll never forget. They gave me a brand new snow suit, and we went to the hill for sleighing. I tore a hole in that snow suit and my sister went and told my dad before I ever got home. He was waitin’ at that back door for me with a razor strop. He took my snow pants off and whipped me till my mom told him to stop. They said ‘money don’t grow on bushes around here,’ that’s what they says back then. It was the Depression. I was young then, maybe that’s why I didn’t like him. My mom said he and me we’re too much alike.

“One time up at our cabin he showed us where he went huntin’, way down in what they called a hog’s head. We girls got bored and walked back and got lost in the marsh, and we had to call him when it was dark to find us.”

“He had enough guns ta buy a house. He wouldn’t clean them guns once a year. He’d just take ‘em out of them three gun cabinets and rub ‘em down with a rag. There weren’t ever no fingerprints on them guns. That son of a bitch up at Taco John’s, he got most of my dad’s guns. My nephew chased him home once and told him never to come to his door again. He wasn’t gonna get no more guns.

“Before he passed away I had to drive him around. He liked to drive fast, too. But the doctor said he couldn’t drive no more. He had cataracts in both eyes. But did he like the way I drove?

“He was stubborn, and I ain’t saying I’m not.”

From Prairie Hill:

Hulda Bjorklund

I’ve lived a long time in this house, seventy-three years from the day I was born. In them days there weren’t too many farmer kids born in the hospital and I was no exception. I had a real good childhood, better than them kids today. Daddy was tough on me, no doubt about that. I weren’t good enough to suit him, he said, but I could tell deep down I was. They said I wasn’t that all fired good looking, but I coulda married. There were a couple fellers hanging around, even after Daddy gave them the third degree, but they didn’t hang around long enough to catch me. I grew older and lost what looks I had and the folks needed me more and I just stayed on, working the place until I was the only one left. Every now and again I wonder what will happen to this old house and barn and what’s left of the acreage. My brother’s family don’t want nothing to do with it. They’ll just sell it. “Hulda,” they say, “nobody vacations in Prairie Hill. Nothin’ there.” But that just makes me mad. You don’t hear the whippoorwills like you did when I was a little girl and the foxes are gone – good riddance if you ask me – but I still feel awful good on a spring morning listening to them birds, eyeing them pretty flowers and knowing I got food on the table I grew on my own land. It hits me sometimes that they’ll tear my home place down and pave it over like all the rest. You know, I couldn’t believe it when they put up that shopping center, Fox Hollow (ain’t been no foxes there for thirty years!) on the edge of town where the Nilsson farm used to be and they kept the silo right there sticking up like a big corncob at the end of the parking lot, with a bed of petunias planted all around it. Looked damn silly. I asked Norman Cobb about that silo and he said the shopping center people wanted it for atmosphere. I craned my neck to look way up at that silo and remembered how tickled the Nilsson’s were when they got it ‘cause it stored a sight more corn than the old cement kind. I wondered if there was a single kernel left in that big old thing. The pigeons found the silo before the shopping center came and they never left.

Jimmy rapped on my door and I opened up, old Ollie bursting past me and jumping up on the poor fellow. “Get back you crazy fool,” I says, “get back.”

Jimmy don’t care none. He gives Ollie a big ole hug and pats him all over and I can’t remember the last time I saw Ollie’s tail tick so fast, back and forth, back and forth. Anybody Ollie likes is alright by me. “You know dogs, Jimmy, dontya.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I had a Labrador retriever named Shadow, the sweetest-tempered dog you could ever meet. She was alive last I knew, but old. Her muzzle was turning gray, but she still couldn’t wait to go out for long walks.”

“You ain’t been home in awhile,” I said, knowing it was true.

He nodded.

“Your folks must miss you.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, Hulda.”

“Ain’t you in touch with them?”

“No.”

“Ain’t they in touch with you?”

Again he said no.

I gave him my best scowl. The Lord’s blessed me with a face that’s good at ‘em.

Prairie Hill – Find me on Goodreads, Librarything, Facebook and more


Hello everyone,

I’ve set up author pages at a few popular book oriented sites. Please feel free to connect with me at your favorite sites and help spread the word about Prairie Hill – and future books! I look forward to sharing books and talking about writing and reading with you. Thank you!

Here is a link to my author page at Goodreads:

Fred Burwell at Goodreads

At Librarything:

Fred Burwell at Librarything

At Facebook:

Fred Burwell at Facebook

At Shelfari:

Fred Burwell at Shelfari

Amazon’s author page:

Fred Burwell’s author page at Amazon.com

A Writing Family Pt.2 – My Grandmother, Eda Hoode Sadler (aka: Ida Fingerhut)

Ida Fingerhut, skating at Central Park in New York, circa 1910.

“Grandma, tell me a story.” I was six years old. My mother’s mother, Eda Hoode Sadler, sat in her comfy chair, reading. She looked up, distracted for a moment and then smiled. She placed her book on the coffee table, took her glasses off and then gave the familiar pat on her lap. I climbed up and heard her groan as I settled in. How many times had I asked her for a story? How many times have I wished I could go back and hear her words that are lost forever? Within a year and a half, she was gone.

Eda Hoode Sadler with grandson, Fred Burwell. Note pad on grass and pencil in hand, ready for a writing session.

My grandmother’s life included more twists and turns than most plot-driven novels, but she didn’t talk about her eventful childhood. She told tales of magic and mystery. I remember an underwater world visited by two children – my age, of course – and populated by clever porpoises and other wild creatures. As much as I craved her stories, Grandma always made a deal. “I’ll tell you a story and then you tell me one,” she’d say. And so, from early on, I had the notion that you could pluck a story from the air.

At first glance, Grandma’s early life seems hidden behind an impenetrable bank of fog and yet there are tantalizing scraps, half-remembered stories from my mother, confusingly inconsistent “facts” from census records and naturalization documents, and autobiographical accounts in her unpublished novel, Jessica Brown, and in short stories. Ida Fingerhut was born in Poland in 1888 and traveled with her family to the United States just a few years later. Her father Abraham was a rabbinical student who contracted consumption while selling Christmas tree ornaments on the streets of New York and died soon after. In a letter to my mother, Grandma described him as “the quietest man imaginable,” and yet he, too, told stories. “My mother just absolutely adored him,” my mother Nancy told me during an oral history session. “One of the things she used to tell about him was, she had this fantastic doll, well, the only doll she ever had. And it was given to her, and the doll fell and broke and it didn’t seem reparable, so her father gave the doll a really grand funeral and told her all about the imaginary, wonderful place the doll was going to, and he consoled her.”

Her mother Mary, with five children in tow, went to work as a milliner. In order to make ends meet, she placed Ida and her brother Herman in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York, a place that included many “half-orphans” of poor Jewish immigrants. My mother recalled Grandma’s tales of the orphanage: “She got the nickname of ‘Princess’ because she wouldn’t eat the thick yellow gruel…She remembered they had a fence around the orphanage and the parents had to be on the other side of the fence to see their children. There was a playground of sorts. My mother remembered seeing her mother outside the fence, watching the children at play.”

Eventually, after her mother had opened her own establishment, Ida returned home. She loved learning, but like so many others of that era, her schooling ended after eighth grade graduation, when she received a prize, a two volume set of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass that she kept all of her life. She had no feeling for the millinery business and after a year working in a factory, she got a job at Brentano’s, a famous bookstore. “She used to spend an awful lot of her time in Brentano’s, when she wasn’t busy, curled up with a good book, a Brentano’s book, and she read up a storm,” my mother told me, also noting something true of more than one member of my family: “In fact, her mother really got very annoyed with her because she always had a book at every meal, open at the table, whatever the meal was, and Mother was reading and paying no attention to anything that went on.”

Ida Fingerhut 8th grade graduation, circa 1902

Even in her mid teens she knew that to get ahead in the world, to get out of the tenements of the lower east side of New York, she would have to hide her background, even change her identity. While at Brentano’s, she learned to type, and she learned the old-fashioned Pitman method of shorthand. She became a topnotch stenographer, working her way up through jobs at banks to a position with New York City Chamberlain, Henry Bruere, a charismatic man who helped mold the new Ida, teaching her proper deportment and even helping her shave off all traces of a New York accent. She became involved in some of the issues of the day, helped found a stenographers union and hosted a suffragist tea.

Ida Fingerhut plans a union for stenographers, 1915

She also married Dr. Herman Seidler, a troubled man with a voracious passion for the arts – music, theater and books. Their marriage ended in separation and divorce and Grandma brought up my mother on her own, making a good living as a career woman. She also changed her name. From Ida Fingerhut to Eda Hoode to Eda Seidler, to Eda Hoode Sadler. She followed no religion and rarely if ever brought up the fact that she was Jewish, although she had Jewish friends. “See, Mother went a whole different way,” my mother commented. “She became something else completely than what she might have, because she didn’t follow any of her background.” She claimed that she didn’t know any Yiddish and yet in unguarded moments she’d drop a Yiddish word or phrase into conversation. Tucking my mother into bed at night, she’d sing songs from the old country, remembered from childhood.

And she’d tell my mother stories: “Mother was wonderful at storytelling. I never could tell a damn story in my life. You know, you have to make it up? But I used to love my dolls and she’d make the most wonderful stories up about my dolls. She was really full of all kinds of imagination and used it. There were two fairies that she made up, Peeps and Conundrum who took my doll Annabelle-Lee around the world. Imagination, yes, tremendous. Her stories were delightful.”

Eda Hoode Sadler with her daughter Nancy, mid-1920's

At some point Grandma began to write. Perhaps her success writing advertising copy spurred her on. Or perhaps Peeps and Conundrum had something to do with it. She took courses on the short story and attempted to tailor her pieces for the slick women’s magazines of the day, without success. By the 1950’s she was working on Jessica Brown, a long novel based on her own life. She entitled a shorter version, Lamplighter Days, which focused on rich details of her childhood. Her literary agent and friend, Bertha Klausner, sent them out and they received “positive rejections.” Publishers found them “charming” and “delightful” but too old-fashioned for changing times and so the aging manuscripts sat for decades in a desk drawer and then in cartons. They moved whenever we moved and today they reside in my Wisconsin study, awaiting rediscovery.

In loving tribute to a spirited member of my “writing family,” I post the following excerpt from Jessica Brown, a work by Eda Hoode Sadler which shows that Ida Fingerhut, an identity so long discarded, wasn’t so far below the surface after all.

Ida Fingerhut in 1911, age 23

Jessica Brown

The employment office was crowded with men and women whose faces showed worry, hope or resignation – anything but expectancy. For the older ones, with their firmly pressed lips that had thinned and puckered with the rancid taste of their lives, Jessie felt pity rise in her and a vague sense of guilt for her own advantage of youth.

The printed application blank appalled her. So many questions, so many vacant lines like hungry mouths that she must fill with bits of herself. The print swam in a jumble before her apprehensive eyes, and to steady herself she looked around, then back to the shabby long oak table at which she sat. A girl opposite her was writing industriously, with no hesitation, as if it were all a familiar process, her dark hair neatly coiffed under a small-brimmed blue hat that matched the color of her short tightly buttoned jacket out of which billowed a white frilled jabot. She saw the girl suddenly hesitate, lift the paper in well-kept square-tipped fingers as if to tear it, her dark face taking on an angry frown.

What made her angry? Jessie wondered, and glanced over the form before her.

“Why did you leave your last place of employment?” caught her eye. Because – stop it, Jessie, she warned herself. Stop it or you’ll cry. Get to work. Begin at the beginning.

“Name.” Jessie (No, Jessica is more dignified) Brown. Fill in the easy things first.”

“Age.” She hesitated and glanced up. The girl opposite her was at least twenty-five. Everybody seemed older. If she said seventeen they would think she was a beginner. Nineteen, she decided.

“Experience.” Think of the experience and see how it adds up. Four jobs in the first six months. No, that would give an impression of instability. Just the last job would be better. Two and a half years on the last job. She could be truthful about the job.

Her eyes followed the girl as she rose and went over to the clerk. What a lovely suit she wore, how trim and business-like she looked.

“Mmm.” Jessie saw the clerk appraise the girl, her smooth black hair, the sloe eyes and highbridged nose. “You’ve had nice experience, but the only job I have I’m afraid wouldn’t suit you…”

“I’ll take anything,” the girl interrupted.

“No,” the clerk shook her head. “The bank won’t take Jews. You’re the kind of girl they want, but – your name, and – well,” she shrugged, “there’s no use sending you.”

Jessie averted her eyes from the girl’s bitter face as if she had been caught peeping into the privacy of her room.

Surprise and fear, like a sudden spasm, cramped her stomach. Names made a difference! She looked down at the application blank. Jessica Brown. The name she had been given in school by some indifferent clerk suddenly seemed fraudulent. But lots of foreign names were changed in school, were accepted as the first step in Americanization. That’s the way even mama had taken and used the name. Now Jessie felt a sense of disloyalty to her father, a sense of shame as if she were being dishonest. And yet she felt grateful for its anonymity, as if it were a shield against an enemy.

“Religion?” The question leaped up at her challengingly. Religion…Once she had answered that question she would be discarded like the girl before her. She remembered her father’s words on that long ago Christmas Eve. “In America you are free…to be what you want to be…to take your place anywhere…Freedom and opportunity – they are your birthright.”

Saul’s voice echoed in her ears while she stared at the word “Religion” until each letter formed iron bars closing her in, imprisoning her. Saul’s words beat at her with hammer strokes. “Be what you want to be!” He had believed in the freedom of America. “Freedom and opportunity are your birthright!” He had been willing to starve for that belief. If she let herself become a prisoner of prejudice, she would betray all his hopes for her, his faith in the country of his adoption.

And mama. Mama’s eyes were afraid. Remembering the fear in mama’s eyes, desperation filled Jessie. Shutting her eyes for a moment as if she felt the impact of the word as a blow, she wrote “Protestant,” then sat frozen and grieved.

“Are you ready?” The clerk’s voice cut sharply into the fog of her distress.

Jessie nodded.

“Let me have it,” the clerk said. “There are others waiting, you know.”

Others waiting…Mama waiting, frightened, remembering the early days after papa died. Mama must never know such need again. Stiffly, Jessie handled over the application blank, and waited. It seemed to her that the clerk glanced at one item only.

“Don’t be so nervous,” the clerk said. “You’re just the type of girl they want. And it’s a large bank, lots of room for advancement…You didn’t put down any salary.”

“I…”

“They’ll pay seventy-five a month to start.”

Jessie nodded. It was more than she had hoped for. It would take care of mama and herself. Mama would not have to draw on her last few dollars. She would no longer be haunted by fear. But Jessie found no satisfaction in the thought. Her throat was parched. She felt empty of all emotion save a sense of shame for herself and for the country she grew up in.

“All right. Here, take this card. You’ll like the people, and you’re just the kind of girl they want,” the clerk repeated.

I’ll hate the people, Jessie thought savagely. I’ll hate them. I’ll never be happy with them. And I’ll never forgive them.

A Writing Family Pt.1 – My Father, Basil Burwell

Basil and Fred Burwell and Friend

Where did my passion for words come from? I think back to my childhood and find many sources, from the intriguing typeface and old-paper smell of a 1920’s hardback book to a dog-eared copy of the mysterious Dr. Strange Marvel comic left around by my brother Jeremy, to the fresh ink glow of a Dell paperback bought at the local department store. As much as I loved reading words, I also loved the sounds of words and so I became a listener. Every night my father read to me as I slurped up Cheerios and scraped sugar from the bottom of the bowl. When I pull The Phantom Tollbooth off the shelf today, I half hear the echo of my father’s booming voice merging with the bell-like clink of spoon on ceramic bowl.

Basil Burwell reading to Fred and Jeremy

Or we’d be out driving, my father at the wheel, my mother beside him, me in the back, gazing through the window at the passing scenes, then –

“Flug!” my father would say.

My mother would wake out of her reverie. “What?” And then she’d look out the window as we rolled past a busy Gulf station. “Oh, Basil!”

A block later he’d intone, “Deeps Timil,” in his rich actor’s baritone.

My mother would present him with one of her patented scowls. “Oh don’t be ridiculous!”

I’d pinch myself, trying not to burst out laughing when I realized that “Deeps Timil” was “Speed Limit” backwards. My father adored backwards words. A father in one of his novels – probably an alter ego – named his daughter, “Devorppa Klim,” which of course was “Approved Milk.” Magical backward words appeared everywhere, even in our own names. Sometimes, his blue eyes twinkling but with a straight face, he’d introduce himself to strangers as “Lisab Llewrub.” I learned that if I ever felt bored with plain old Fred Burwell, I could always switch it around to Derf Llewrub and pretend I was Welsh.

If you wonder where my Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary comes from, it’s the spirit of Basil Burwell perched on my shoulder, whispering into my ear.

My father once confessed to me that he thought of himself as an unsuccessful man. That surprised me. How many fathers did I know who could say they’d acted professionally for more than a decade and appeared in films with such oddball names as Park Avenue Logger and I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany? But in the 1940’s he left the world of Hollywood and summer stock and became a master teacher, both of the theater and of English literature and creative writing.

He’d always loved to write and he couldn’t resist telling stories. How many times had I bugged him for the further adventures of “Georgie Kleenex?” Especially after the beloved, flimsy character had somehow floated all the way to the moon? He liked to point out that one of his first published stories, “The Flag that Set Us Free, published in the famous Story magazine in 1944, was based on one of his schoolboy stories that had received a C+, possibly due to his incorrigibly bad handwriting. Story editor Whit Burnett urged him to “think long” and in 1954, the historical epic, Our Brother the Sun, became his first published novel.
A Fool in the Forest
, which appeared in 1963, was his personal favorite. It was an autobiographical novel about a young man fresh out of high school in 1929, experiencing a wild summer with a troupe of actors at a summer theater set in an old fashioned amusement park.

When I first became interested in writing, Dad would take my penciled rough draft and cover it with red pen corrections, comments, and suggestions. Then we’d sit down and talk about it. I knew I was getting somewhere when less and less red marked up my work.

Perhaps Dad had so many strong passions he couldn’t simply hue to one path. To my mind he was an extremely successful man – a fine actor and director, brilliant teacher, published author, delightful storyteller, and a warm and generous father and mentor.

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