Thursday, September 27, 2012
Why I Love to Write Stories That Take Place in the 1920s
That one single fact was the spark for my first novel.
My mother was born in 1915 and celebrated her 97th birthday this last May. Both she and my father grew up in Akron, Ohio in the ’20s and ’30s. During the process of writing Zemsta, my mother and I had many conversations about the times and specific events.
There’s one passage in the book about two of the characters working in the rubber factory. With very little embellishment, it is exactly as my mother described working in the factory, even the part about being ashamed to work there. She didn’t want anyone to know.
The 1920s ushered in an era of excess, self-indulgence, and corruption.
At midnight January 16, 1920, all breweries, distilleries, and saloons in the United States
were forced to close. Prohibition addressed a serious issue affecting a small fraction of the
people and imposed a solution on the entire population. A colossal failure, it was supposed
to lessen the evils associated with alcohol, but instead turned millions of law-abiding
citizens into law breakers and gave rise to gangsters, rumrunners, and speakeasies. With
easy money to be made in illegal alcohol and gambling, Prohibition fostered corruption
and contempt for the law. While authorities looked the other way, drinking, gambling,
drugs, and prostitution flourished. To pass the law meant nothing if it wasn’t enforced, and
enforcement was nearly impossible.
Corruption was rampant. President Harding’s attorney general accepted bribes from
bootleggers. A Cincinnati bootlegger had a thousand salesmen on his payroll—many of
them were policemen. And in Chicago, Al Capone’s organization had half the city’s police
on its payroll.
Advocates of Prohibition thought the law would also help immigrants assimilate better and
become more Americanized.
By 1920, there were more people in Akron, Ohio born in other states or abroad than were
born in Ohio. Akron’s growing Tower of Babel overflowed with Austrians, Hungarians,
Poles, Germans, Italians, and people from West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The
number of West Virginians living in Akron reached almost nineteen thousand—close to ten
percent of the population.
Because of the constant flow of immigrants coming to work in the factories, racial tensions
were high, and quotas were set for immigrants coming into America. The Ku Klux Klan
railed against Negroes, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants. Akron’s chapter included many
high-level political positions, including the mayor and several school board members. With
factory workers making up a large part of the membership, the Klan movement was an
expression of dissatisfaction with the high cost of living, perceived social injustices, and the
bigotry that was so pervasive throughout the city.
I asked my mother if she remembered all the people coming into Akron at the time.
She said, “Do you mean the ‘barefoot people?’” Apparently that’s what they called the
Appalachians pouring into town. The only reference of that term was from my mother.
For young women, the 1920s marked a break with traditions. The nineteenth amendment
gave women the right to vote, and attitudes changed drastically. Long-standing social
barriers began to crumble, virtually overnight. Women bobbed their hair and wore short
skirts. They used cosmetics, drank alcohol, and smoked cigarettes in public. Nearly every
article of clothing was trimmed down and lightened in order to make movement easier.
Even the style of underwear changed. Women wanted to move freely for energetic dances
like the Shimmy, the Black Bottom, and the Charleston—something corsets didn’t allow.
Young women took part in the sexual liberation, and it was a time of great social change.
From the world of fashion to the world of politics, forces clashed to produce the most
explosive time in a generation.
The country became smaller. Railroads made long-distance travel possible and were
now a central part of American life. Rail lines crisscrossed the country, carrying people,
manufactured goods, food, and the mail. The popularity of automobiles and radios had
exploded, and new machines such as the washing machine and vacuum helped eliminate
some of the drudgery of women’s housework. The stock market was poised to skyrocket,
and you could buy a car for a little less than three hundred dollars.
There’s one passage in Zemsta when four of the characters are driving to a baseball game in
Cleveland. I wrote that they only had to stop twice to repair and patch the tires. My mother
told me of having to do the same thing on a trip to Cleveland. She told me about drinking muscatel from a coffee cup so the establishment could pretend it wasn’t liquor. She told me how difficult it was to work at the factory and go to college at the same time.
Akron was an exciting, vibrant city teeming with people and money and would experience
several years of unprecedented, almost giddy, prosperity. The number of employees in the
rubber factories reached seventy thousand with some workers earning up to seven dollars a
day, more than most industries paid in a week. People had money, and they were spending it
in speakeasies and music halls and on expensive clothing.
This last year was special for my mother and me. All our conversations about Akron and
the 1920s and 1930s ended up bringing us closer together. She shared stories about the early
part of her life I never would have heard otherwise.
By discussing events with my mother, it brought a verisimilitude to my story. One of the
lines in the Kirkus review of Zemsta: “ A nostalgic, authentic novel that charms with its
vintage hue.” I can thank my mother for that.
The cover photo on Zemsta is of my father, my uncle and their friend. My father is in the
My mother moved from her independent apartment to assisted living in February. It was—
and is—a very difficult adjustment. When my book came out in May, she was excited to
read it, but still didn’t give it to her friends. Once Kirkus gave Zemsta a glowing review, my
mother readily handed it out to her buddies. It turns out they’ve added it to their library and
the book club is going to read and discuss it sometime in the next few months.
I am in the process of writing my next novel, which will take place in Chautauqua
Institution during the late 1930s. I’m hoping my Mom is going to be around long enough to
help me gain a unique perspective on those times as well.