Carol Goodman is the author of fourteen novels and the winner of many literary prizes. She teaches creative writing at The New School and SUNY New Paltz. Her work frequently engages the past, including her latest novel The Metropolitans. This winter, I sent her a handful of questions about how she understands and employs history in her fiction. The result of this conversation is included below.
1. I taught a course on Nat Turner’s rebellion last fall and assigned William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron won the Pulitzer Prize, but this novel inspired a notable backlash from black intellectuals. I can’t help but think about Styron as I ask these questions, but let me start by asking how you approach history. How important is it to you to “get the history right?” Does a novelist owe anything to the past, or to those in the present who remain particularly affected by the past?
I think it’s crucial for a novelist to get history right—or as right as they can. Even though The Metropolitans is a fantasy novel with magic books and evil wizards, it is set in the real world of 1941 New York City. I believe I have a responsibility to my readers, especially my young readers, to get the historical facts right. When they hear the radio broadcast announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor the words are the ones we know were delivered that day. When Joe walks into the Metropolitan Museum, the museum is laid out as it was in 1941 and when Madge looks up at the ceiling of Grand Central Station the constellations may be the ones we see today, but the live organ music she hears comes from the organist Mary Read who entertained commuters in 1941. As much as possible, I tried to accurately recreate the world of 1941 New York City. I looked at museum guides of the period and read the New York Times archives. There were times when I wasn’t able to figure out every detail—and a few times when I decided to “take liberties.” For instance, I have the floor plans for the Metropolitan Museum from a guide printed in 1940 but I have no access to records that would tell me if the arrangement of the exhibits had changed by December, 1941, and the guide doesn’t describe every object on view. So when my kids wander the museum I make sure to use landmarks that I know were in the galleries, but I also mention a few that might not have been. I also know, according to a history of Grand Central Station (John Belle and Maxinne R. Leighton, Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives, 2000), that Mary Read played the Star-Spangled Banner on December 7, 1941 and that the stationmaster asked her to desist because the commuters stopping and singing with hand to heart was keeping people from making their trains. Still, I don’t know that she never played it again, and I decided that two days later, on December 9, Mary Read would break her restriction and go ahead and play it anyway so that Madge could stop and sing along with her fellow New Yorkers. I don’t think that those small liberties change anything significant about the historical picture. I believe I can honor the past while making those small changes, but when it comes to “those in the present who remain particularly affected by the past” you open another issue that I take very seriously and will address below.
2. I am constantly haunted by Hayden White’s discussion of how historians communicate argument at least partially by the use of plot tropes. Do we tell our narratives as tragedy or romance or irony? Historical fiction is sometimes about history, but more often it uses history as a backdrop to explore other themes or questions. With this said, I have two questions: 1. Is yours a book about history or a book that uses history as a backdrop? 2. And either way, how might the nature of your plot decisions influence how readers would understand, or at least experience, the historical era?
I am a novelist, not a historian, so I would say that my book is one that uses history as a backdrop to explore themes, rather than a book about history, but I would add that it is predominantly a book about character and how a group of young people came together and made decisions, and grew up a bit, against the backdrop of a historical event. The themes that emerged as I wrote were finding one’s place in a world that might not welcome who you are, learning tolerance for people not like yourself, and learning how to take a stand against intolerance. The original inspiration for the book was personal history. My mother was a 17-year-old Irish-Catholic girl living in NYC when Pearl Harbor was bombed. She had lived through the poverty of the Depression, and lost her family when her mother died, her father became an alcoholic, and her brothers were placed in an orphanage. I wanted to write about a young person who had lost everything and then has to face a global historical event that changes everything about her world. Walt is based on my father, Walter Goodman, a young Jewish man, the son of East European immigrants, who had grown up in Coney Island and would leave City College to enlist in the army after Pearl Harbor. Thinking about everything my parents lost—and ultimately gained—in those years, I wanted to choose two more characters who had, or would, lose much of what defined them. I picked Kiku, a Japanese-American girl who would be threatened with internment in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Joe, a Mohawk boy, who had lost his culture and language in the harsh and restrictive environment of an “Indian Residential School.” So while my choices were influenced by theme, they ultimately led back to history. I would find as I wrote The Metropolitans that my “responsibility” to history and those affected by it was heaviest when it came to representing Kiku and Joe because they both, in turn, represent people who had been mistreated, misrepresented, and silenced.
3. What works of history most influenced how you thought about the era, and how have you engaged archives for your work? Can you describe how your approach historical research?
I began my research with a host of secondary sources. I realize that a “real historian” might begin with the primary, but as an amateur I needed those secondary sources for context.
My initial inspiration and research began at an exhibit of the New-York Historical Society “NYC & WWII” which ran from October 5, 2012 to May 27, 2013. It reminded me of my mother’s stories about living and working in NYC during WWII. In particular, I was intrigued by an exhibit about how the Metropolitan Museum’s Arms and Armor Department contributed to the design of helmets for the army. I had an inkling of an idea about setting a young adult (it later was revised to middle-grade) novel about a group of young people searching for something at the museum.
I began doing some “light research.” I read the exhibit guide WWII & NYC, a New York Times story about Bashford Dean, the curator of the Metropolitan’s Arms and Armor Department (he becomes Dashwood Bean in my book), and a few general books on NYC during the war, including Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II, Over Here! New York City During WWII, and New York in the Forties. When I realized that I’d need a contemporary map of the museum I bought a 1940 guide to the museum and made copies of the floor plans to keep pinned up over my desk.
As I chose the characters for my adventure I realized I would need to research the experience of Japanese Americans in New York. There were a lot of sources about internment in the Western States (Infamy: the Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II, Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment Camps, and Farewell to Manzanar) but it was harder to find out what happened to Japanese Americans in New York. That’s when I began reading newspapers from the era. I began reading The New York Times archives online and learned that Japanese Americans were rounded up and detained at Ellis Island. The New York Times archive became one of my most consistent sources for a timeline of the historical events, to get a sense of how New Yorkers responded to the attack, and to get a feel for the atmosphere of the times from department store ads to articles that spoke of “suspicious persons of Oriental character.”
I had a harder time researching Joe’s background. I knew a little about the devastating legacy of Indian Boarding Schools from an exhibit I had attended at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona (as you can see, museums have played an integral part in this book!) which I visited with a Navajo woman. I decided that Joe should be from the Mohawk tribe because of the Mohawks’ historic connections with New York City as steelworkers. I began researching the Mohawks, but honestly, I couldn’t find much. I could read about Residential schools in such books as Away from Home (eds. Lomawaima, Child, and Archuleta, Heard Museum, 2000) and Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience 1875-1928 (Adams, David Wallace. University Press of Kansas, 1997) and I could read about the Iroquois mythology in Legends of the Iroquois (Tehanetorens and Ray Fadden, TN: Book Publishing Company, 1998), but I found it difficult to find sources that spoke specifically about the Mohawk experience. I did eventually find (by writing directly to the author) a collection of documents about the school Joe runs away from—The Mohawk Institute, also known notoriously as the Mush Hole—and I watched the testimony of survivors of the school in the powerful documentary Unseen Tears. Basically I learned enough to know I didn’t know enough.
4. I understand you consulted with a tribal historian for this project. Historians sometimes struggle (or at least this one has) with reconciling indigenous histories with those that emerge from the documentary record. Did you encounter any of these struggles?
Well, my first struggle was with whether I could find out enough about Joe to write his character convincingly. I also questioned whether I had the right to write about a character from a people whose history was fraught with exploitation already.
And yet, abandoning Joe also felt wrong. It has always been my belief that the job of a writer is to imagine other experiences, to place oneself in someone else’s shoes and represent that experience as vividly and truthfully as possible so that the reader both identifies with that experience and is taken out of his or her own experience. Just because Joe was difficult to write, that I might be criticized for writing him, didn’t seem reason enough to drop him.
Clearly, though, I needed to know more about Joe in order to represent him fairly, sensitively, and accurately. I went back to books—histories of the Iroquois, collections of Iroquois mythology—and online sources. My problem, though, was that while there is a fair amount written about the Iroquois there is not a lot written about the Mohawk tribe specifically. I realized then what I should have realized from the beginning. I couldn’t write Joe without guidance from someone (or several someones) of the Mohawk tribe. So I looked up the Saint Regis Mohawk tribe, called their main telephone number and, nervously and awkwardly, explained my situation. I was put in touch with the tribal historian, Arnold Printup. Again I awkwardly explained that I was a novelist writing a middle-grade book that featured a Mohawk character. Arnold Printup listened to me carefully and asked a few questions. When I told him that Joe had run away from The Mohawk Institute he asked me if I knew how the school had mistreated its students. I said I had an idea: I’d watched Unseen Tears and knew the residential schools had a policy of destroying the language and culture of Native Americans. I told him that my idea for Joe was that he is a young boy who has had his language stolen from him and that in the course of the book he gets his language back and gains the power to understand all languages.
“Cool,” Arnold said.
I think I relaxed a little then. In an hour’s conversation with Arnold Printup I learned more than I had in six months of research. I learned that the Mohawk culture is matrilineal and that the clanmothers give the children their names. I realized that the “grandfather” Joe was always thinking about should be his grandmother—his tota. I also realized I had a lot more to learn.
Fortunately, at the end of the conversation Arnold Printup referred me to Carole Ross, tribal elder and Mohawk language teacher and specialist. “She’ll be able to help you,” Arnold told me.
I emailed Carole Ross and waited eagerly for her reply. Meanwhile, I began the work of changing Joe’s grandfather to a grandmother and incorporating some of the details that Arnold Printup had told me into the book. Carole responded enthusiastically with her willingness to consult on the manuscript. We corresponded back and forth, me asking questions and her providing not only answers but also loving details of her family, the Mohawk names she had given her grandchildren, the Mohawk words for greeting and thank you and thank you very much, which I began using on every email to her. Joe began to grow under her tutelage as I imagined one of her own grandchildren would. We talked about what Joe’s Mohawk name would be and she gave me some possibilities. But we both agreed none of them were quite right. After she had read the manuscript she suggested Tehsakóhnhes. It means he protects/works to save them. It’s the perfect name for Joe because of the way he protects his younger sister at the Mush Hole, how he comes to protect his new friends, and, I think ultimately, how he comes to be a protector of his language.
5. How might college-level instructors use your work? What lessons does it offer for students or for instructors who simply want to think differently about the past?
Although it’s a middle-grade book I think a college instructor could use it in a number of ways. The issue of how minorities are represented in children’s and young adult literature has become a crucial one in publishing and in literary studies. My own struggles with this issue, and the portraits of Joe, Kiku, Madge and Walt, might provide an example of how one author confronted the issue. I can imagine, too, that it might be used as supplemental material in a class that covered the history of World War II, New York City, Indian Boarding Schools, the Immigrant Experience, and Japanese Internment.
My dearest hope is that The Metropolitans gives voice to people who are not often represented in literature about that period. Two of my early readers sum up my goals best. First, Haruko Hashimoto, an American Studies graduate of Brown, said this after she read the manuscript: “I love revisionist histories that empower groups that are usually not given power, especially youth. Here, they are given literal superpowers and validated, re-written into a Western-European canon (WWII NYC and Arthurian lore) that so often neglects them. Or worse, continues to suppress them. The kids really uplift themselves, and it was truly exciting.” Second, at one point when I apologized to Carole Ross for not knowing more about the Mohawks, she responded, “Not much is written in the history books about our people. Stereotypes and myths are out there but we’re just a part of the family of man.”This is the new family I wanted to give Joe and Madge and Kiku and Walt. My hope is that everybody who reads The Metropolitans finds a little bit of themselves that they may have lost along the way.
Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience 1875-1928. University Press of Kansas, 1997.
Archuleta, Margaret, Brenda J. Child, and K. Tsianina Lomawaima (Eds.) Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Experiences, Heard Museum, 2000.
Belle, John and Maxinne R. Leighton, Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives, W.W. Norton: 2000.
Diehl, Lorraine. Over Here! New York City During WWII. Smithsonian, 2010.
Douglas, Ron, dir. Unseen Tears: The Native American Boarding School in Western New York. 2013.
Goldstein, Richard. Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II. New York: Free Press, 2010.
Graham, Elizabeth. The Mush Hole: Life at Two Indian Residential Schools, Waterloo Ontario: Heffle Publishing, 1997
Gruenewald, Mary Matsuda. Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment Camps. New Sage Press, 2005.
Houston, Jeanne. Farewell to Manzanar. Ember, 2012.
Jackson, Kenneth T. WWII & NYC. Scala Arts Publishers, 2012.
Reeves, Richard. Infamy: the Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II. Picador, 2016.
Tehanetorens and Ray Fadden. Legends of the Iroquois. TN: Book Publishing Company, 1998.
Von Hartz, John and Feininger, Andreas. New York in the Forties. New York: Dover Publications, 1978.