Sunday, June 15, 2008

Literature, and Family History




My great great grandmother was a profoundly unhappy woman.  Born in 1844 into an upper class Jewish family in Bavaria, in 1865 she married Abraham Staab, an American immigrant who had come back to Bavaria in search of a bride.  Abraham had come to America in 1854 at the age of 15.  After two years working in a grocery store in Norfolk, Virginia, he lighted out for the territories, traveling to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he had some cousins, and where the prospects looked more promising for an industrious young man.  There he went into the dry goods business with his brother, and by 1860 their company was the largest wholesale trading and merchandising company in the southwest.  Abraham was a shrewd businessman, and became a pillar of the community.  Due to the lack of commercial banks, he kept cash for many of his customers, and was known for his honest dealings.  When my great great grandmother, Julia, married him, it was surely a promising match.  Abraham built a large, three-story mansion in Santa Fe for her, and the ballroom there became the center of Santa Fe's social scene, with Julia as the elegant host.


But despite the promise, her troubles were great.  She bore Abraham 7 children, and lost her health due to problems with the pregnancies (she also had several miscarriages in addition to the successful pregnancies).  She traveled back to Europe several times in order to be nursed back to health by her sisters, which meant a difficult and dangerous stagecoach trip along the Santa Fe trail.  When her last child, Henriette, died shortly after birth, she apparently entered into a spiral of depression which she never overcame.  Furthermore, while he was a successful and wealthy man, Abraham was apparently a tyrant when it came to his family, even disinheriting one son after he married a gentile, despite the fact that the rest of the family found the woman charming and elegant.  Julia spent her last few years as a recluse and an invalid, never leaving her bedroom, and she died at the age of 52.  The Staab mansion is now part of a hotel in Santa Fe, and it is said that Julia's ghost still haunts the place.


Interestingly, Abraham Staab had a brush with literary history.  He was a good friend of Archbishop Lamy of Santa Fe, who inspired Willa Cather's "Death Comes for the Archbishop".  Which brings up an interesting story:  Staab and his friends had a weekly Friday night poker game.  Archbishop Lamy would regularly attend these games; never to gamble, but simply to sit and converse with his friends as they played.  One night Lamy seemed quite glum, and Abraham asked him what was wrong.  Lamy replied that it was the new Santa Fe cathedral...it was about half built, but they had run out of money and he didn't think they could raise any more.  Abraham asked how much more was needed, and when Lamy replied, Abraham wrote him out a check for the balance, saying "You can pay me back later".  Well, the cathedral was built, but as it was being finished it became apparent to Lamy that he would never be able to raise the money to pay back Abraham.  When Lamy confessed this to Abraham, the jewish merchant told him it was not a problem, but asked if Lamy would do him one favor...in the keystone over the door to the cathedral, he asked him to carve, in Hebrew, the name of God, Yahweh.  Lamy readily agreed, and to this day, you can see the Hebrew carving in the keystone above the door of the Santa Fe cathedral.


OK, maybe that all makes an interesting story, but what does it have to do with book blogging?  Well, here's the deal:  a few years ago I was contacted by a writer, Joanna Hershon, who wanted to write a book about the Staabs.  She was looking into the history of Santa Fe, and asked for my help.  So we talked, and I shared what I knew. A year or two later I heard from her that her book about the Staabs had turned into a novel, and was now only loosely based on the real history of the family.  Well, the book came out a couple of months ago, and I read it this past week.  And I have to say, it was quite an interesting experience for me, and made me think about the nature of both fiction and history.


Joanna Hershon's "The German Bride" tells the tale of Eva Frank, who was born into an upper class Jewish family in Bavaria. Eva is quite close to her sister, Henriette. When an attractive young gentile painter is hired by their father to paint their portraits, the painter and the adolescent Eva fall in love. But of course, he's a gentile, so this can't really go anywhere for Eva. Meanwhile Henriette marries a respectable man, and is soon pregnant with his child. Well, complications ensue, and Henriette dies in childbirth, as does her child, and Eva believes her sister's discovery of her affair was responsible (and she has good reason to think so). Eva is devastated. Soon after, Abraham Shein appears, an immigrant to America who has made his fortune in Santa Fe and has come back to Germany to find a bride. Eva, looking to escape her past, says "sure why not", marries Abraham and embarks for the American frontier. Well, when she arrives in Santa Fe it's not quite what she expected. Abraham is indeed in the dry goods business with his brother, but he's not all that prosperous, living in an adobe shack. Then things get worse. Abraham is an inveterate gambler, boozer, and a loyal customer of the Santa Fe prostitutes. He has a large and ever-growing gambling debt. Eva has several pregnancies, all of which end in miscarriage or stillbirth. Life pretty much sucks. Then Abraham secures a large government contract, and all looks promising again...for a bit. He builds her the large fancy house that he's always promised but never has delivered. She gets pregnant again. Yay! Well, not so fast...Abraham loses the government contract, and the gamblers to whom he owes money come after him. He leaves town. Eva has the child, a girl she names Henriette, and then Abraham suddenly reappears, demanding her jewelry to repay his debts. Fortunately she's thought this one through, and Abraham is unable to find the jewlery. Things are getting ugly, and she realizes that if she doesn't leave town, the gamblers will take the house and kill the whole family. So, through the help of a friend and her own cunning, she escapes town with her child and jewlery, and heads to San Francisco on a stagecoach to start a new life...although what that life exactly will be is unclear. Abraham, well, let's just say he meets with a dark result.


This is a good book, and a good read. It's very well-written, intelligent and entertaining, with a colorful cast of characters. It presents a side of the "Old West" that one doesn't see that often...middle and upper class European jews struggling with their way of life on the frontier. Yet it's a side of American history that really happened...I know from the stories of my ancestors. It also presents a side of the settlement of the American west that is easily forgotten in modern-day romanticism about the frontier...namely that life was quite physically (and often emotionally) hard for the early settlers, and that was on top of any culture shock that the immigrant settlers may have had. So I recommend this book!


And for me, reading it raised an interesting thought. I could certainly see where the family stories I know so well were used as a basis for parts of the novel. And yet, this is not a novel about my family. Abraham Staab, unlike Abraham Shein, was not a gambler/boozer/womanizer and failed businessman. Julia Staab's life was nothing like the life of Eva Frank, except in some outlines and in setting. And really, who cares...the author has woven a great tale out of the broad fabric of these historical lives. It is not the role of fiction to tell historical truth...that's why it's called "fiction". But here's the thought that reading the novel brought to my mind: what if Abraham Staab did have a gambling/drinking problem? What if some of his industriousness, which lead him to riches and the heights of society, had been steered towards darker pursuits? Might he indeed have ended up like Abraham Shein? In a way, but only in a way, reading this story reminded me of the movie Rashoman, where the same story is told from several different points of view. Yet this story doesn't tell history with a different point of view...instead it tweaks the historical characters, then lets the story unfold to see what happens. It's like that Star Trek episode where they go to a parallel universe, and see what life would be like if all the crew members were violent and evil at heart. History depends not only on fate and setting, but on the nature of the people present at historical moments, and how their personalities allow them to handle the world and times that surround them.


As an example, there is a scene in the novel where the archbishop comes to Abraham Shein's poker game. Abraham has just won a bunch of money, and is feeling cocky and looking to show up his fellow players. When the archbishop confesses he has no money to finish the cathedral, a drunken Abraham throws his winnings at him and tells him to "use this". It's actually a pretty disgusting scene, totally fitting with Abraham's character. It parallels the family story, but it's replayed with Abraham Shein replacing Abraham Staab. It was fascinating and enjoyable for me to see history replayed with a rogue set of characters. Now, if I could only replay my own life, but as someone who's devilishly handsome, sublimely debonair, and completely confident, with an overpowering intellect, and a lightening quick wit. That would be interesting! Any writers out there want to take up this story idea?

7 comments:

J.D. said...

You have an extremely open-minded attitude about this. Even if it was a novel, I don't know if I'd be able to read a book that revised my family history, particularly if it decided to portray them in a negative light.

Robby Virus said...

In my mind, this book doesn't revise my family history. It's a work of fiction that was inspired by my family history, but it's very far away from portraying that history...in fact, so far away that it can't be construed as claiming to be history rather than fiction. It's not a historical "docudrama" that claims to tell the truth but really messes with it, like the movie JFK. To me, the experience of reading this book makes me think about where authors get their inspirations for writing. Surely when Dickens wrote "Bleak House" he didn't just pull it all out of the air. There must have been some experience with the legal system that inspired him, or some folks that he knew that inspired some of its characters. Another example: I've read that "The Mill on the Floss" is Eliot's most autobiographical work, drawing on her family life and married life. Yet, no one is going to think that the book is an autobiography, and that George Eliot died in a flood with her brother. I think all fiction has to have at least a little outside inspiration (and some may have a lot). I find it interesting that my family's experiences could provide a take-off point for someone who would then take it in a whole new direction. But then I also think my real family story would make a good book in itself.

J.D. said...

I know exactly what you mean--during my M.F.A. years I pirated many family stories for fiction. Perhaps that's part of my objection: if somebody is going to have access to and write fiction based on my family story, it's going to be me.

Robby Virus said...

But in my case I have no aspirations to be a writer, so I'm just glad someone can find use of the material.

Anonymous said...

She was great great grandmother too. My grandmother was Ruth Ilfeld. I was born in Cincinnati. I've heard those same identical stories from family of how it was.

Robby Virus said...

Hey Anonymous...What's your name?

Anonymous said...

Julie Schuster-Staab was my great great grandmother as well.. My grandmother was Beatrice Ilfeld...