A review by R. Deutsch (originally printed in the Jewish Tribune, June 12th 2019)
Miriam Zakon is a familiar name in the world of Jewish literature, both fiction and non-fiction alike; she has been writing articles, stories and books for decades.
Reading her latest novel, Freefall, was a fascinating journey into the life of an American soldier and his family as he joins World War 2 raging on the other side of the Atlantic. Readers of Mishpacha magazine will recognize the beloved characters of the serial with the same name which ran last year in the magazine; reading it now in book form adds an extra dimension as the reader can follow along the story line without having to wait each week for the next installment!
New readers will enjoy getting to know the truly lifelike characters, with strongly principled Pappa, lovable old-world Bubbe – who has a surprisingly young side to her – and flighty Aunt Cele weaving their way around the main younger characters, Abe, Annie and Moe. Staunchly patriotic, but still insistent on hanging on to his Yiddishkeit, however difficult that would be, Moe joins the Army determined to do his part to fight against the accursed Germans. Meanwhile, back home in Coney Island, his sister Annie faces challenges of her own as she attempts to carve a new life for herself with her unlikely shidduch, separate from the Freed Boarding House where she grew up, and where Papa still needs her help.
“I was fortunate in picking my setting and era,” says Mrs Zakon. “While the Second World War has been the setting of many frum novels, there weren’t many that focused on the American home front and American GIs. It was recent enough that I could even speak to people who lived through the era, but far enough that it had an exotic feel.” Mrs Zakon says her editor at Artscroll was very useful in making sure the historical details were correct – she lived through the war in America and remembers it well enough to be able to ascertain whether things really were as they had initially been written. For example, the author had depicted Moe insisting on eating only glatt kosher meat, only to be told that glatt was not an option in the USA in the 1940’s at all. It didn’t yet exist in the country! Neither did men wear a kittel at their chuppah in those days, Mrs Zakon was told – after she had him appearing at his own nuptials wearing one.
As an avid history buff, Mrs Zakon is always extremely particular that all her historical details are accurate. Will the reader always know the difference? No, she says, but it all adds up to the painting of an authentic picture, which is paramount to creating a level of trust with your readers, she posits.“I did a lot of reading, both about the American home front and the battles in Europe,” says Mrs Zakon.“While the history books were useful, I got a lot more out of memoirs of the GIs. They had the little details that brought the era to life. While reading them I kept an eye out for the slang of the time, and incorporated the terms into dialogue. (“He’s morphed to the gills”, “It’s the latest shout in hats.”) I also watched a lot of videos of the time. If you’re writing about any time from the First World War on, you can find incredible documentary footage. Even if you write about earlier times, you can get a sense of your setting from videos. When I wrote about a Piper Cub plane crash, I found a video of an actual crash and saw that it gave off white smoke, not the black smoke I’d envisioned. I also checked every date against a calendar from that time, to make sure the action fell on the right day of the week, and if relevant on the right day of the Jewish calendar as well.”
Mrs Zakon estimates that she used either a book, a website, or a video on roughly one out of every three or four paragraphs she wrote, just to get the details correct. With research like that, the reader can be guaranteed that he or she is really getting so much more than just fiction.
With almost 400 pages, Freefall kept me captivated from beginning to end. It was a fascinating read and one that is sure to become a firm favorite on any bookshelf.