Happy Birthday, Redlined!
Redlined turns five years old tomorrow—
published April 3rd 2018!
But Redlined’s trigger date would be January 2002, when I first dragged out of my garage attic the box of old World War II letters written to and from my Uncle Frank Ebner[ABE-ner] Gartz, Dad’s younger brother, that had lain there, unopened & silent, since my mom’s death in 1994.
That was when my brothers and I discovered, for the first time, that my parents and grandparents had saved letters, diaries, documents, photos, and much more since 1911. We filled twenty-five bankers’ boxes (Note donated to the Newberry Library.)
1911 Grandpa’s letters and diaries
My grandfather’s letters and diaries tell of his harrowing journey to America (Terror Atop the Train) and the courtship letters he and my grandmother wrote each other. “I’m never coming back,” Grandpa had written to his sweetheart, Lisi. “If you don’t come here, I know you don’t love me.” She came.
Mom’s diaries of love
My mom recorded delightful and passionate entries of falling in love with my dad until he, too, confessed his love for her in May 1942, a year after their chance meet-up at a dance in May 1941.
Mom’s childhood diaries
My mother’s childhood diaries, started in 1928, when she was just ten, gave me insight into both her love for and fear of her anger-management-challenged mother.
I read my mother’s journal entries about her mother’s (my Grandma K’s) increasingly bizarre behavior, just before my parents married, and Mom’s distress as her mother sank deeper into mental illness, all the while living with my newly-wed parents and later with our family for a total of fifteen years.
Thirteen years of letters between my parents
Letters between my parents during Dad’s thirteen years of grueling travel, which revealed the stress Mom suffered, managing an eleven-tenant rooming house alone for a total of six months of each year, and the toll this took on my parents’ once-passionate love.
300+ World War II letters
More than 300 letters to and from my uncle as he trained for and eventually became a navigator on the B-17 heavy bomber with the Second Bomb Group, stationed near Foggia, Italy, successfully navigating his ten-men crews on twenty missions from January – May, 1945, to help win the war in Europe.
It was these latter letters that got me started. Through them, I met the uncle I had never known as I pored over letter after letter, meeting my parents as a newly married couple, living on the West Side of Chicago, and my grandparents’ non-stop work, caring for buildings and tenants. Winters were especially hard, shoveling wheelbarrows full of coal into voracious furnaces and shoveling snow for up to sixty-five apartment units.
Reading those letters, I was whisked back in time to the World War II home front. I had to learn more. I knew there was a book in all this material somewhere, but what should the focus be? The possibilities were endless!
How to get started?
In my fledgling efforts to start writing something, anything, back in 2002, I realized: I really didn’t know how to write creative nonfiction (Note: the term, “creative nonfiction,” does not mean writers of this genre “make things up.” It means we use the same techniques as fiction writers in setting scene and summary, description, dialogue, metaphor: the same toolbox as a novelist but for true stories.)
I started with a “Creative Nonfiction” class for a year at Northwestern, continued with classes online and in person, taking summer workshops at Northwestern, University of Iowa, Northeastern, etc. and very importantly, joined a writing group. For more than ten years, I submitted chapters of my emerging book to our superb moderators and smart members, skilled writers themselves, for critique.
I also needed to read. I read as many memoirs as possible, actually studying many to answer the question I posed to myself: how did these authors create their amazing stories? (Examples: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway, Growing Up, by Russell Baker.)
Baker just died in 2019 after an illustrious career as a columnist for the New York Times. Don’t miss his memoir of humor, pathos, history, and honor of his widowed mother, who raised him during the Great Depression.
Finding the core and focus of the book
“Writing is re-writing” goes the mantra, and that’s what I did – over a period of ten years, struggling to find the core of the story.
The letters and diaries shed an astonishing light into the stresses inflicted on my parents’ relationship: Dad’s long weeks of travel, my mentally-ill grandmother’s often outrageous behavior, our sprawling rooming house, and the racial change that swept through our neighborhood with the speed of a wildfire. I wanted to explore what happened to my parents’ once-great love, what caused the downfall of our community, and include my own coming of age, as well. I worked on the book for years, until it became a way-too-long (135,000 words!) story too much about my family history.
Refining the focus
It was after working closely with Anjali Sachdeva (a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) that I began to realize that “redlining” defined one of the greatest transitions in my family’s lives. Our redlined community suffered white flight as African Americans moved nearer and nearer. Even as many whites fled, we stayed, my parents devoted to caring for their buildings, no matter the race of their tenants, which, after fifteen years of renting, were all Black by 1965. They kept at this work, for another 18 years after the King Riots devastated the area.
Tomorrow, April 4th, is the 55th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s murder.
Find out more
Redlined uses a mere fraction of the details included in the hundreds of pages of letters and diaries. You can find more by visiting exploring the dozens of posts on this blog and checking out my other two blogs: “Family Archaeologist” (my “dig” through the archives) and “Letters of a World War II Airman,” where I post letters to and from my uncle, with insight and commentary.
Thanks to all of you for your support, your Amazon Reviews, your comments on my blog posts, and for helping to make Redlined a success.
Audiobook coming in May!
Don’t you think it’s about time for an audiobook of Redlined?
I heard you! It will be arriving sometime in May. If you’re a listener or know others who are,
Redlined will be available on every platform where you like to listen.
Redline’s audiobook is read by two amazing narrators: Moe Egan and Robin Miles—the latter featured in this New Yorker Dec. 2022 article: “How a Great Audio Narrator Finds her Voices.”
HAPPY 5th BIRTHDAY TO REDLINED! I couldn’t have done it without you!
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Redlined tells a first-hand story about a West Side Chicago family’s personal struggles and dreams intersecting with the racial upheavals of the 1960s.