Family History in Truth or Fiction

Back in May 2017 I posted “Writing the Immigrant Story in Truth or Fiction” about Amy Cohen and her family history novel Pacific Street based on her immigrant ancestors’ stories. She explained why she decided to write her family history as fiction. There are a number of other reasons for writers to do this—to avoid hurting family or to protect the guilty and not have to worry about a lawsuit or being disowned, because there’s a bigger story to tell outside the confines of one true story, or just because they want to.

Amy recently published another family historical fiction book based on another set of ancestors. Santa Fe Love Song is about a young Jewish immigrant to the US who became a pioneer on the Santa Fe Trail and settled in Santa Fe. But he wanted to marry a Jewish woman, so he had to go back east to find a wife who would accompany him back to New Mexico. Below are Amy’s answers to some interview questions.

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Amy B. Cohen, Santa Fe Love Song

Your first family history novel, Pacific Street, featured your immigrant ancestors on your mother’s side, so Santa Fe Love Song is about your father’s immigrant side? Tell us a little about the two main characters – were they both immigrants?

Bernard Seligman, my great-great-grandfather, was born in a little town in Germany in 1837. When he was nineteen years old, he decided to leave Germany and follow his older brother Sigmund to the US. After a year in Philadelphia adapting to America and learning English, he traveled the Santa Fe Trail and joined his brother’s dry goods business in Santa Fe. He eventually became a business leader and political leader in Santa Fe.

His wife, my great-great-grandmother Frances Nusbaum, was American born. Her father came to the US in about 1840 and worked as a peddler throughout Pennsylvania where Frances was born in 1845. Eventually her father established a successful dry goods store in Philadelphia, where Frances spent much of her childhood and early adult years.

The story spans the years from Bernard’s arrival in the US in 1857 until 1870, by which time he and Frances and their children were living in Santa Fe.

Did you find a lot of stories about them and where, or did you have to imagine a lot of the book’s storyline?

The story’s timeline came from the research I did into their lives—census records, birth-marriage-death records, and immigration records. I also researched what life was like in Philadelphia, on the Santa Fe Trail, and in Santa Fe in the 1860s so that I could best understand the lives that Bernard and Frances lived in those years and in those places.

Once Bernard and Frances were settled and well known in Santa Fe, there were many newspaper articles about their later lives during the last few decades of the 19th century. I used those news stories to learn more about their characters and interests and then read backwards in time to imagine what they’d been like when they were younger, the subject matter of my story.

My story is focused on those early years between 1857 and 1870: how Bernard adjusted to life in Philadelphia and on the Santa Fe Trail, how he met and fell in love with Frances, and how he persuaded her to leave all she knew in Philadelphia and move out to the frontier. I had no information about any of those matters. I knew when and where they married, where they lived, and when their children were born, but the rest of those early days came from my imagination. The story itself is fictional, the people who inspired it were real.

I find that so interesting that your immigrant ancestor “finally felt at home” in New Mexico, in my mind very different from the landscape of Germany and likely nearly absent of Jewish culture. Do you have a clue why that was?

I don’t really know, and that was the challenge in writing the book. I had to put myself in their shoes and try to imagine what it was like for a young German immigrant from a small town and for a first-generation American woman raised in a sophisticated and cultured city to come to such a different part of the world. Having visited all three places in recent years—Bernard’s birthplace of Gau-Algesheim, Germany, and Frances’s hometown of Philadelphia, and Santa Fe—I could visualize them there and feel their reactions to what they were seeing. As I explore in the book, Bernard found a spiritual connection to the landscape and the natural beauty of New Mexico that helped him feel at home. And Frances? Well, you’d have to read the book to understand her reasons for accepting Santa Fe as her home.

I understand you involved your young grandchildren in creating this book? And so what age range is the book written for?

The book is suitable for anyone from middle school and up. It is not a “young adult” novel as the book industry defines it since Bernard and Frances are not teenagers in the story. But it is part love story, part adventure story. I hope it will appeal to all readers.

My grandsons created the artwork in the book. It was their idea, and I loved the fact that it gave me a chance to share the creative process with them as well as the stories of their ancestors.

What would you say is the takeaway from this adventure-love story?

The book is about the ways we fall in love—with places and with people. How do we reconcile those loves when they conflict? How do we negotiate our needs with those of another when we feel passionately about something but also want to respect and serve their needs as well? In that sense the book is universal because it’s something all human being struggle with in relationships—making ourselves happy and making someone you love happy when happiness can mean different things to each person.

Do you have any other comments about your writing journey for Santa Fe Love Song?

Although this is a work of fiction and not a history book, I’ve done my best to capture the times and places in which Frances and Bernard lived to give an authentic context to their story. I wrote this book for my grandchildren and their grandchildren so that when they get older they will know something about their immigrant ancestors—the risks they took to come to America so that they and their families would have the best opportunities for a good life.

There is something almost magical that happened when I was writing this book. Of course, I didn’t know Bernard or Frances, and I had really had only that skeleton timeline when I started. But by placing myself in their shoes and imagining how and why they ended up together in Santa Fe, I fell in love with them. They became real to me, and I hope my readers will also fall in love with Bernard and Frances.

Amy B. Cohen blogs about her family history and genealogy research on Brotmanblog: A Family Journey Pacific Story and Santa Fe Love Song are available online in print and e-book.

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Happy New Year – traditions, hope, new starts

Happy New Year – surely it has to be better than last year! I did my usual tradition of fixing mochi rice cakes for breakfast, considered by the Japanese a good luck food to start the year off right, if you don’t choke on the super-gooey things. For the first time I also fixed “toshikoshi” soba soup late on New Year’s Eve. Eating soba requires biting (breaking) the long soba noodles, symbolizing the breaking away from the old year. Yes, be gone 2020!

Of course I did the “o-souji” the last days of December. This is the “big clean” of the house to sweep away the old dirt —and get ready for the new! In Japanese Shinto belief, osouji is for deep cleaning the house to welcome the spirit of the new year. This is not just vacuuming and dusting, but cleaning everything that is not part of the normal cleaning routine—curtains, blinds, top of fridge, ceiling fan blades, light fixtures. It’s exhausting! It can also include getting rid of things you don’t use or are tired of. I don’t remember my mother doing much of this, but she did insist on changing the bedsheets on New Year’s Eve day. Osouji also symbolizes putting the past “dirt” behind you to start your life afresh.

While these New Year traditions won’t change anything, they do bring hope and the awareness that a fresh start is possible. During these especially trying and difficult times, this new year brings hope for good health as well as good luck, hope for a miracle that people will behave nicer and with respect for others, hope for the US to not be torn apart (even further) by poisonous politics. Wishful thinking, I know, but I’d be willing to eat more mochi rice cakes and keep finding things to clean if that would help. And I’ll be praying.

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Christmas in the time of COVID19

This year I debated about baking Christmas cookies. Usually I bake traditional favorites and take them along on a visit to family in another state, with some cookies going to my church’s cookie sale. Not this year of COVID19. However, I decided to bake anyway. What is Christmas without homemade cookies! Especially ones traditional to the holiday.

So I baked my usual big batch of extra-gingery gingerbread bears and reindeer. I made my famous extra-strong rumballs, which my co-workers look forward to. I made my famous extra-buttery peanut brittle that my dad loves. Note the adding of extras to make extra tasty. Finally I made eggnog butter cookies, which date back to my early childhood – an “old family recipe” from the Chicago Tribune. I even found the original clipping in one of my mom’s cookbooks, a 3-ring binder of recipes she had saved. I use some of the same cookie cutters I used as a child, and I even use my mom’s old wooden cutting board. Treasured cookies, treasured cookie cutters, a wooden board with a patina of memories.

This year I trusted UPS (vs USPS) to mail cookies to my family. Despite being overloaded by shipments they came through like they had flying reindeer! Only a couple broken cookies. The rest of the huge batch of gingerbread went into the freezer to be enjoyed for the next many months, defrosted and dipped in hot tea – yum! I froze a little of the eggnog cookie dough to roll out and bake for our Christmas.

While this holiday season will be a lot different for most of us, the Christmas spirit can still shine. Decorate, bake, cook as a treat for yourself. We can actually relax and enjoy the season of lights and tasty goodies. Listen to carols, snuggle on the sofa to watch Christmas movies. No traveling or visiting can mean having quiet time to become extra aware of the meaning of Christmas. Extra can be good.

Merry Christmas to all!

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