DEBORAH CROMBIE: We have to start the day with a huge shout-out to REDS Hank Phillippi Ryan and Julia Spencer-Fleming for their Anthony Award nominations for THE WRONG GIRL and THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS! REDS totally ROCK!
Life is a constant struggle for the eighteen-year-old Nowak twins as they raise their three younger siblings in rural Poland under the shadow of the Nazi occupation. The constant threat of arrest has made everyone in their village a spy, and turned neighbor against neighbor. Though rugged, independent Helena and pretty, gentle Ruth couldn't be more different, they are staunch allies in protecting their family from the threats the war brings closer to their doorstep with each passing day.
Then Helena discovers an American paratrooper stranded outside their small mountain village, wounded, but alive. Risking the safety of herself and her family, she hides Sam—a Jew—but Helena's concern for the American grows into something much deeper. Defying the perils that render a future together all but impossible, Sam and Helena make plans for the family to flee. But Helena is forced to contend with the jealousy her choices have sparked in Ruth, culminating in a singular act of betrayal that endangers them all—and setting in motion a chain of events that will reverberate across continents and decades.
Booklist calls it "...Brisk, romantic and emotionally satisfying," and it's just the sort of book I love. So I am, as always, curious about the influences that led to the story.
PAM JENOFF: Back in the mid-1990’s, I packed up everything I owned, put my Mazda Protégé on a ship and moved halfway around the world by myself to be a diplomat for the State Department in Krakow, Poland. I was 24 years old and didn’t think twice about whether it was a good idea or safe. Communism had just ended and it was still the Wild East over there. We’re not talking freshly-painted Prague with vendors selling tschotskes to backpackers on the Charles Bridge. We drank our water bottled and our shots of potato vodka straight from the freezer. Our phones, we were told, were likely still bugged, but there probably wasn’t anyone listening anymore.
For the next two-and-a-half-years, I made a life in that distant, unfamiliar part of the world. Only thinking back now can I appreciate the many ways that my once in a lifetime experience changed me. Here are just a few of the lessons I carry with me still:
How to be alone. In Poland, I lived out in the country. My neighbors had cows and chickens and I often heard horse hoofs clopping against the pavement as the farmers went to market early in the morning. There were no cellphones or internet. Sometimes I filled my government-issued house with Peace Corps volunteers in need of a hot shower and some television. Other times, I was by myself and might not speak to anyone else for days. It’s a kind of solitude that helped my writer mind to grow (and in the beloved chaos of our connected lives and the noise of three preschoolers, something I often miss.)
Just go. “Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you. And when things start to happen, don't worry. Don't stew. Just go right along. You'll start happening too.” I had not read Dr. Seuss’ And Oh The Places You’ll Go when I went abroad. But I traveled like a madwoman when I was in Poland. Having already seen most of Western Europe as a student backpacker, I was determined to go in the other direction, east, and borrowing from Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, to see the frontier before it was gone. I hopped a train from Krakow to Odessa (24 hours, no dining car) went as far toward the Balkans as the war would permit, traveled to Pinsk (not surprisingly, there was no guide book.) I drove my car so far I reached a sign telling me that I had reached the end of Poland and had to turn back. And I was rewarded with the stories and adventures of a lifetime: I stood on mountains and gazed down on other countries and saw people smuggling vodka in the walls of trains and under their clothes. I drank beer out of great steins with the Solidarity miners hundreds of feet underground while we linked arms and sang hearty songs, and once in Gdansk accidentally stowed away on a ship carrying a bunch of highschoolers to a place called Hel. I also became really good at figuring out how to get back from anywhere.
Appreciation for the abundance. Even as a diplomat, life was harder in Eastern Europe. We couldn’t get many vegetables in winter, and when they were available we wondered what being downwind from Chernobyl had done to the soil. Medical supplies were scarce: the doctor who made house calls would ask for a kitchen spoon because he did not have a tongue depressor, and I had to ask for the lead apron before my x-ray. It made me realize how much we have here and take for granted. Once I came back to America when my mom was in the hospital and was horrified that my doctor brother blew up a rubber glove as a chicken to amuse her. Didn’t he know that medical supplies were precious?
And then it was time to come home. It was been sixteen years since I returned the United States, and while I have very much reentered “normal life” so many of the effects remain. Having weathered winters that lasted October until May, I’m seldom cold. And I still appreciate the value of a good produce department in the supermarket, and the taste of fountain Coke with ice.
But perhaps what stayed with me most were the friendships. So many people opened their homes and hearts to me and I will forever remember their warmth and generosity. And humor. Earlier this spring, I popped onto Facebook to find that the U.S. Consulate Krakow had a posting about one of my books being filmed as a movie in Krakow. I was puzzled (and alarmed): I had not even sold the film rights. I picked up the phone and called the consulate and spoke with a former colleague, Basia, for the first time since leaving many years earlier. I asked about the film posting. She said, “April Fools!” After all those years, they still remembered enough to punk me. I was touched.
Where have you been abroad and how have those experiences changed you?
DEBS: I found so many similarities between Pam's experiences and my own traveling and then living in the UK. (Ask me about nylon sheets and coin-fed heaters, for starters...) And I brought home many of the same lessons as Pam.
What about you, REDS and readers? Tell us your stories!