Canadian author Lilian Nattel grew up in the shadow of a lost culture. Her parents, Jewish Holocaust survivors, often spoke of their vanished lives in pre-WWII Poland, but there was no way for her to truly know what it was like. "It was almost a dream--like a fairy tale or fantasy--and it was fascinating to me," Nattel recalls. "When they talked about how they grew up, I wondered about that whole lost world--the lostness of it gave it an extra zing." Fascination led to inspiration, and as a fully grown writing-workshop veteran, Nattel embarked on a hit-and-miss research project that eventually opened rich, sharply human veins of material to her imagination.
In Nattel's first novel, The River Midnight, which hit bookstore shelves this month, her careful labors come to lovely fruition in a complex world--the fictitious village of Blaszka, Poland, circa 1893--peopled by beings not so different from us today, in spite of their distant milieu. In the book, Nattel explores the relationships between four shtetl women from an intimate point of view informed by a trove of memoirs, academic journals, folk materials and personal accounts she uncovered in her research.
Nattel describes her upbringing in Montreal as relatively secular yet drenched in an aura of cultural Judaism--the songs, stories and sense of history and tradition that infuse modern Jewish life. Though her parents came from Polish cities, Plotsk and Crakow, their ancestors likely came from the shtetls or small villages of Eastern Europe, and it was that near-mythic part of Nattel's lost heritage that inspired her. One of the book's integral characters, Misha, is an invented re-creation--not of her actual great-grandmother, whose history is lost in the present, but of someone who might have been her great-grandmother.
That perspective demanded a point of view not often explored in Jewish literature. "Once I started writing about this, I didn't want to write another book about little boys in cheder with their side-curls," Nattel says. "I wanted to discover what hadn't been written about, and that was the women's lives.
"My curiosity was for things important to real life: how they'd experience sex, what their aspirations were, and the daily stuff of life--cooking, working," she adds. "For a while I was frustrated, because I couldn't get the details of how people lived. Some historians don't have the same concerns as novelists--they can be fairly unspecific about dates and physical geographical boundaries."
Her attention to particulars spread even to imagining Blaszka itself--where it was situated and who lived there. "I drew a picture of the river," Nattel recalls. "I decided where the road was going to be. I actually wrote down the occupations of fifty people--I developed a history for the village." In turn, the characters became more vivid: "I wondered to myself, 'Can I be a good enough writer to live up to the demands of my characters?'"
The result is a cast that will remind readers of people they've known. "My pet theory is that there are only 10,000 molds of human types," Nattel says. "Some come in different races and sizes, but you still see them over and over again."
That theory might just explain how Nattel overcame a desire not to write overtly "Jewish" material: "Intellectually, I was afraid of being typecast," she says. "But I'm a woman, I'm Jewish, I'm Canadian, I'm five-foot-two and I have blue eyes--all these things inform who I am."
Writers Respond to Readers, daylong seminar with Sandra Benitez, Christopher Bohjalian, Lilian Nattel and James Salter, 9 a.m. January 30, Tattered Cover LoDo, 1628 16th Street, $35, 303-322-1965, ext. 2985.