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May 9, 1943. 

The date sticks in Luba’s mind. “That’s when I was taken,” she says.

That morning, German soldiers corralled Luba, her sister, father and stepmother into the small living room. “You have one hour,” an officer told her. 

He offered no explanation, no reason why she was the only one chosen, no hint to where she was going.  “Take only what you can carry, no more.”

In a previous article, Telling Luba’s Story – Choosing a Form, I noted two reasons for wanting to write my mother-in-law’s World War II story. One was to leave a legacy for the family.  The other was to write an engaging narrative for youngsters.  In the same blog, I explored 4 forms or genres that I thought might achieve my goals: historical fiction, biography, narrative non-fiction and memoir novel.

Since that post, I’ve narrowed the options.  I have eliminated historical fiction from the list (not factual enough for a family legacy) and also biography (too staid for kids). That leaves me with two forms: narrative non-fiction and memoir novel.

Right now, I am wavering between the two.  Memoir novels allow a range of factual liberties.  Narrative non-fiction requires a more stringent use of facts.  In either case, a bag of fiction-writing strategies comes in handy.

In the end, the volume of information at my disposal might dictate a choice.  For narrative non-fiction, where accuracy and facts aplenty are a must, the writer needs access to a deep well of information.  In Luba’s case, the well is shallow.  Much about her past is unknown and now that she is gone, the holes in the information bucket seem overly large.

Isaac's StormOther writers have tackled holes even larger.  Seattle author Erik Larsen is one. A master of narrative non-fiction, Larsen has a knack for dipping into dry history, wrenching obscure details from the dust, and then moulding strong scenes that entice readers of all stripes. Here’s a short excerpt from Isaac’s Storm, his National Bestseller about the 1900 Galveston, Texas hurricane that killed 6000.

The stairwell appeared ahead as a large black rectangle stamped from the floor, and the closer Young got, the deeper the candlelight travelled.  It should have shown him stairs and the wood slats of the banister, but he saw neither, only an orange glow undulating on the opposite wall like sunlight off a floating mirror.

Water here he realized.  The sea had risen within his house nearly to the top step….

Young set the candle on the floor and walked to the door that led up to the second-floor gallery.  He opened it.  “In a second I was blown back into the hall.”

So how does Erik Larsen do it?  How does he get the information he needs? galveston 2For Isaac’s Storm, where no survivors were alive to interview, Larsen researched historical archives – letters, newspaper accounts, weather reports, court records, diaries, memoirs, cemetery records, and collections of private papers. From an insurance map with a schematic of each house in Galveston and details about its building material, stove location, dimensions and such, Larsen recreated Galveston, circa 1900.  He populated it with key players from the era. Then he escorted readers down Galveston’s streets, into homes threatened by rising water, to the edge of the rolling sea and the storm boiling beyond it.

Fortunately, since the first blog in this series, several family members have stepped forward with information about Luba:

  • A tape-recorded session with Luba where she describes some of her experiences
  • A partial family tree with names and dates long thought to be lost
  • Photographs of Luba as a young woman
  • Letters from the Old Ukraine (now troubled Crimea) stuffed in envelopes bearing the return addresses of relatives

All of this made me think of other sources I might access.

  • German pension records – Before coming to Canada in 1949, Luba worked as a nurse in post-war Germany. She’d been receiving a small yearly pension from the German government.  With a little digging, perhaps that might yield some information.
  • Canadian immigration records – Luba crossed the Atlantic by ship and entered Canada at Halifax. Immigration records might indicate dates, her point of departure, companions along the way.
  • Survivors with similar stories – MaryLou, one of our Vast Imagination members, suggested that I track down other people in the community who might have had similar experiences. From their stories, I might be able to extract important details and perhaps a few connections.

For now, this ends the Telling Luba’s Story series.  Although there are still roadblocks ahead, I have a much clearer view of how to capture the story and what I need to do to give it life.   Fortunately, I am a research hound.  What might be drudgery for others is an exciting treasure hunt for me, and with some digging I hope to find the gems I need.