Patty Friedmann’s two latest books are a YA novel called Taken Away [TSP 2010] and a literary e-novel titled Too Jewish [booksBnimble 2010]. She also is the author of six darkly comic literary novels set in New Orleans: The Exact Image of Mother [Viking Penguin 1991]; Eleanor Rushing , Odds , Secondhand Smoke , Side Effects , and A Little Bit Ruined  [all hardback and paperback from Counterpoint except paper edition of Secondhand Smoke from Berkley Penguin]; as well as the humor book Too Smart to Be Rich [New Chapter Press 1988]. Her novels have been chosen as Discover Great New Writers, Original Voices, and Book Sense 76 selections, and her humor book was syndicated by the New York Times. She has published reviews, essays, and short stories in Publishers Weekly, Newsweek, Oxford American, Speakeasy, Horn Gallery, Short Story, LA LIT, Brightleaf, New Orleans Review, and The Times-Picayune and in anthologies The Great New American Writers Cookbook, Above Ground, Christmas Stories from Louisiana, My New Orleans, New Orleans Noir, and Life in the Wake. Her stage pieces have been part of Native Tongues.
In a special 2009 edition, Oxford American listed Secondhand Smoke with 29 titles that included Gone with the Wind, Deliverance, and A Lesson Before Dying as the greatest Underrated Southern Books. With slight interruptions for education and natural disasters, she always has lived in New Orleans.
When I think of a book being “about” something, I say what it’s “about” and what it’s “really about.” The story is about a young man who escapes the Holocaust only to be slowly destroyed by the prejudice he faces when he tries to fit into a very assimilated Jewish community in the Deep South. Bernie Cooper departs without his mother, who refuses to leave, then grapples with the pain of survivor guilt while fending off in-laws who block his every effort to succeed in his adopted home. That’s the “about.” What the book is “really about” is knowing. It’s an issue on many levels–Bernie is self-educated by necessity; his wife is a college graduate, and yet Bernie is far more book-smart, for instance–but the pivotal matter is Bernie’s choice not to know the fate of his mother who surely perished at the hands of the Nazis. The cruelty of his mother-in-law in ignoring his wish is to me one of the most powerful and pivotal moments in the book.
The book is presented in three novellas, each told from a different person’s point of view. Bernie speaks first, then his wife Letty, then their daughter Darby. Letty is a complex, in-the-middle-of-the-fray character. She by all rights should be a flighty Jewish American princess, yet she loves Bernie and readily sloughs off her parents’ shallow value system. Perhaps the most no-holds-barred voice in the book is that of Darby, who reaches age 15 by the end of the book. A fiercely intelligent misfit like her father, she has the empathy for him that makes the final tragedy particularly painful.
Any novelist who denies autobiographical underpinnings is a liar. All my previous novels had thick veins of my own life, family, and friends in them. This one, however, was written expressly to vindicate my father. It’s truth, and yet it’s fiction. In other words, it’s built on the skeleton of his life story–the escape from Germany, the unkind in-laws–but the actual story is heavily fictional. I guess that’s the way all my novels are; it’s just that this one seems more dead-on true.
I’m a character-driven novelist. Generally I start with a character and let her (nine times out of ten it’s a woman) get herself into her own dilemma, though I think when I start that I know where she’ll end up. I’m always wrong, because I know it happens every time that I’ll get up one morning and start to write, and I’ll be halfway through a page and say, Well, I’ll be damned, this book is finished. So all my previous novels wrote themselves. This one was different though for one main reason. The publisher had been the editor of an anthology in which I’d had a short story, and she’d asked me to write a novel based on that story. So I knew I was working toward that story as the ending. That pretty much set me up.
Every novel I’ve written has been set in New Orleans. But this one is different in one huge respect. All the others were contemporary to the time in which they were written. This one takes place between 1939 and 1961. One factor changed everything for me: Katrina. I had been a darkly comic literary novelist, and I prided myself on my ability to capture the nuances of the voices and peccadilloes of the people here. But after the storm, all the carpetbaggers came to town with furrowed brows and acted all serious. Even “Treme” on HBO is serious. New Orleans is more ridiculous than ever, but nobody wants to hear me say that. So the only way I could write a book was by going into the past. And I know this city so intimately that I can’t see wasting that knowledge–and, okay, I admit it, passion–by writing about any other setting.
Definitely. New Orleans in the 1940s was a one-of-a-kind place in terms of social stratification. Not only was it a typical Southern town where whites treated blacks shabbily as nothing but servants, and streetcars had wooden signs for racial segregation, but Carnival society cut huge swaths across all sorts of religious lines. That’s one of the reasons Jews were so anxious to keep a low profile. So when Bernie came into this setting with his old-world Hebrew prayers and yarmulke and German accent, his in-laws-to-be were mortified that their daughter was seen with him in the synagogue.
Bernie is about to be shipped out with the Army and is sitting with Letty in her car out by Lake Pontchartrain. He has learned from the Red Cross that his mother has been transported to Bergen-Belsen, one of the better camps. They are talking about what will happen when he returns–it is a matter of “when” because he is an officer and knows his assignment. Without saying it aloud, he realizes that he no longer expects to return to Stuttgart and resume his life there, but has imagined himself bringing his mother to New York, where she would learn grocery-store English and, like him, change her name from Kuper to Cooper.
I wasn’t stopped. I wasn’t questioned at the station. I wasn’t bothered on the train.
I was in a compartment with five other people, and I knew the couple across from me wasJewish. This is not a good thing to admit, I suppose, but it is easy to identify Jews. In part it is physiognomy. I apologize for that. I apologize more for taking advantage of the
neutrality of my appearance while I was in Stuttgart. It probably did me no good, walking
around looking like an overripe member of Hitlerjugend, but inside I had no fear of the
streets, and for that I was grateful. In school my appearance did no good, of course,
because identity is documented on papers. Having the name Kuper, which sounded like
nothing in particular, didn’t help in school. I was a Jew, and I was beaten by other boys.
The couple in the train compartment saw me as an Aryan on holiday. So did the
three other travelers with us. They were three businessmen who clearly were together.
Older men, too old for the German army. I had nothing to do. My seat was the farthest
from the window. The window was wasted on the businessmen. They were too busy
talking to enjoy looking out. I could gaze past them into the distance, but that would have
been rude. Besides, I was a sophisticate, a young man who traveled for pleasure. Why
would I want to see the outskirts of Stuttgart? Or the countryside, dry and colorless as the
seasons had not changed yet?
Paris was seven hours, but the French border was only two. I was expecting a
transformation at the French border, as if suddenly I would become a carefree French
speaker once the train made its crossing. I could be bored for two hours. I could make
myself think of nothing for two hours. My mother came to mind. I made myself think of
nothing. She came to mind again, so I thought of Axel. I thought of Park Avenue. The
man and woman across from me said nothing. They looked past me. I dozed off, and the
train had come to a stop.
We still were in Germany. The men in our compartment did not excuse
themselves as they stepped over us. All of them were leaving in Karlsruhe. No one else
came onto the train, and after we pulled out of the station, I caught the man’s eye and said,
“Jude,” in a whisper. Jew. His neutral expression turned to horror.
“Oh,” I said. Then I pointed at myself. The woman let me look her in the eye. But
she didn’t smile. She didn’t trust me. I didn’t know why I trusted them, except that I was
completely certain I could recognize a Jew on sight. I thought about pulling my passport
from my pocket and showing them the “J” on it. But the ride to the French border was
short. I didn’t need to prove anything that very second. Once we were across, we could
talk. We could express our relief.
When the train came to a halt, it was not rail personnel who came to the
compartment but an SS officer. I was accustomed to SS officers. I didn’t flinch. “Raus!”
he said. The English meaning of that word is “out,” but in German it means so much
more. It makes a person jump. Germans say it to their children, and their children learn to
jump and run. I stood up, bumping into my compartment mates as we pushed to the exit.
“Juden?” the officer said. None of us said a word. He asked for our passports. The
gentleman handed over their passports, and as he did so, I carefully slipped one of the
gold coins out of my left shoe. My socks were damp and made it difficult to reach down,
but some power inside me made my fingers nimble and fast, and I palmed the coin. I felt
where the other coin was, just in case. The ring was nestled down in the toe of my other
shoe. It wasn’t coming out unless I had a gun to my head. That didn’t seem to be what
was going to happen. This officer was no older than I was. He was frightened of himself.
When he pushed the man and woman out farther, I told him to wait, that surely there was
some misunderstanding. He asked for my passport. Instead I slipped him the coin.
“They’re my parents,” I said. “I don’t think so,” he said. He turned and walked away,
pushing the woman roughly down the passageway. Their baggage was still in the
overhead rack. I considered my other coin. They hadn’t smiled at me. They hadn’t
Until I saw Axel, I did not allow anyone in any crowd or small space to be an
individual to me.