|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.94(d)|
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The Split Skirt
On the morning of her eighteenth birthday, Yael Weiss stole a suit from a St. Louis dry-goods store. She'd never stolen anything before, hadn't planned on stealing anything that morning. Still, she made an elegant job of it. That is, she didn't stuff the suit into a bag or try to conceal it beneath a voluminous skirt. She didn't simply grab it and run. All she did was put the suit on and walk out the door. Left behind in a changing room were the clothes she'd come in with: her white cotton waist, her long floral skirt, her full crinoline. She abandoned even her ribboned straw boater.
Now, back out on Locust Street, she doesn't feel guilty about any of it. That's because it's not an ordinary suit she's taken off in. It's a suffragette suit. And what, after all, do the city fathers, the politicians, the angry preachers, and the enflamed Carrie Nations all have to say about the suffragette suit? They say it's immoral. They say it's corrupting. It's the work of the devil, they say. Well, come to find out-they're right. The suffragette suit does lead to a decline in morality. It is a corrupting influence. And apparently it works even faster than liquor. Slip one on, and the next thing you know, you're trotting down a staircase, you're whirling out a revolving door, you're hurrying along a hot August sidewalk, happy and unashamed.
Who would have guessed that a woman's suit could generate such bad behavior? At first glance, it appears so respectable. The one Yael's got on is dark green, a typically muted shade in these days of world war and privation and rationing. The jacket is unremarkable too, stopping just beyond the hips, gently nipped at the waist.
But peer at the skirt for a few minutes longer, as Yael did when she first hopped off a streetcar and saw the outfit in the store's display window, and you'll eventually spot the reason for all the controversy and prattle. It's not the short length (the hem a full two inches above the faceless mannequin's salmon pink ankles) that's the problem. It's that the skirt is split down the middle. Divided in two. Not a skirt at all, then. A pair of very wide-legged trousers.
To stand on a street corner and fall frankly in love with this suit is as much a political act as singing the Internationale in public. Which, Yael has confided to no one, she actually did last February when Emma Goldman was being transferred from the Manhattan Tombs to the Jefferson City Penitentiary. Learning that Goldman was scheduled to switch trains at Union Station, Yael had skipped geometry class and gone to the terminal, not because she was a Red (she wasn't; she isn't), but because she was dying to know what a woman like Goldman looked like in person. She wanted to see not only the radical who was about to serve two years for protesting the war, but the feminist who had actually painted her name alongside her lover's on their mailbox In Greenwich Village.
At first Yael was disappointed. Away from her podium, Red Emma seemed neither defiant nor dangerous. She was a doughy-faced Russian, middle-aged, with thick legs. As the attorney general's man marched her across the platform and onto the train bound for the pen, Yael found it hard to believe that such a dowdy character even had a lover. But after the train pulled out and the genuine Reds who'd come to support Goldman began belting out their illegal anthem, Yael was glad she'd come. The song was so stirring, so heartfelt, and so catchy she had no choice. She had to hum along.
Yael had been hiding behind a post that day, unseen and unheard. This morning, her politics are far more visible. When she got off the streetcar, a small crowd was gathered in front of the store window. "Disgraceful," a woman was saying, and there were nods and murmured agreement. Joining them, Yael looked at the object of their disapproval and smiled. "No daughter of mine," another woman said, and Yael went inside.
Sauntering up the main aisle, glancing at trinkets in display cases electrically lit, Yael reminded herself she was there just to look, to cast a vote of confidence, as it were, for the maligned suit. No matter how much she liked it, no matter how flattering the suit might turn out to be, she knew she couldn't have it because she couldn't afford it. Her father was David Weiss, owner of Mamzelle, Inc., the largest manufacturer of ladies' corsets in the Midwest, and a year ago price would not have been a concern. But the war had hurt the corset business. Every week, the government commandeered more of the steel Mamzelle needed for her gussets and bones. Every week, more American women donated their corsets to the metal drives, concealing their figures' flaws beneath the new waistless chemises and barrel coats. Meanwhile, Mamzelle's employees were taking jobs at munitions plants, where they got to make parachute silks instead of pink brocade tummy panels. Over dinner, Yael's mother fretted. "They're leaving in droves," she said of the employees, and Yael's father, who coped with this sort of thing by making jokes, said, "Also in streetcars and Fords."
So Yael knew she could not buy the suit. But she trotted upstairs to the Ladies' Ready-made department and tried it on anyway. Back out on the floor, she examined herself in a triptych of mirrors, where she saw that, indeed, she looked well in it. She posed for herself, a little smile, lips slightly apart. She moved her legs slightly apart too. She held up her long dark hair and tried to guess how it would look bobbed. Sleek and sable, she thought. And what if she were to cut thick bangs? Would they distract the eye from the unfortunate curve of her nose?
Sighing, she turned her back on her reflection. She meant to return to the dressing room then, take the suit off, kick it aside, get on with her day. She was already late for her shift at the Red Cross. But each retreating step made it harder for her to do what she intended. It felt too good, giant-stepping in that suit. Her own skirt would now feel like a Victorian hobble.
Avoiding the dressing room, she paced instead from one end of Ready-made to the other. As she did, a plan came to her. She would find a clerk, tell the clerk who her father was, invoke the name of Mamzelle. The clerk, unaware of the family's failing fortunes, would let her take the suit on credit. Then, when she got home, she would wheedle and whine. No need to portray herself as a freethinker who has just found her perfect uniform. She would play the simple girl who craves the latest from Seventh Avenue. Yael kept up with folks like Emma Goldman, it was true, but she also read the women's magazines. She knew how to justify the purchase of new clothes during wartime. "Fashion!" Good Housekeeping had exclaimed only recently. "To some the word seems trivial when hearts turn to Flanders Field. Still, what a sorry world it would be if women were not charming."
The only flaw in her plan was this: she did not seem to be stopping to implement it. Rather than turning around and finding a clerk, she was continuing forward, striding out of Ready-made into Custom-made, loping out of Custom-made into Children's. Out of Children's into Toddlers'. Out of Toddlers' into Infants'.
And now down the staircase, hurrying through talking machines and radios. Now dashing through sheet music and player pianos, spinning out the door, rushing back onto Locust, jubilant and giddy, and why wouldn't she be? It was her eighteenth birthday, and in the midst of endless war, dateless nights, meatless Mondays, and wheatless Wednesdays, wasn't she entitled to one self-indulgence, one small pleasure? Wasn't she entitled, just for today, her day, to whatever it was she desired?
When Yael and the century were both four years old, her parents took her to the St. Louis World's Fair. After hours inside makeshift pavilions and temporary palaces, after improvised meals of ice-cream cones, iced tea, and hot dogs-treats invented just for the Exposition-the sun set and the family walked to the Pike, a wide boulevard illuminated by rows of electric lights, those mechanical moons buzzing like bees. Sitting on her father's shoulders, Yael watched seventy-seventy!-motorcars parade by; in the rumble seat of the very last one, Will Rogers, so chisel-faced, so young, performed his intricate rope tricks. Then, as soon as he was gone, all the lights hissed off and darkness fell. Thousands gasped. And then-more gasps-fireworks exploded, actual words glowing against the black sky: Good-bye. Farewell.
On this birthday, she'd woken to a sky that was pale yellow from heat and contained no messages, not even a cloud. Over a breakfast of sugar omelets and twice-boiled coffee, she opened her parents' presents. In an oblong box that might have held a pearl necklace, she found a fountain pen. In a square box that ought to have contained a ring or a cameo, she discovered a bottle of violet ink. "To bring to the Red Cross," her mother said. "For writing to the boys." Then, in honor of the occasion, her mother recalled Yael's birth in an overcrowded lying-in hospital. "A basement delivery room," Esther Weiss said. "That's where they put me. Down in the dungeon with all the other shrieking women. No windows, no fans, not a drop of fresh air."
Nothing but the sodden heat of a midwestern summer. Yael had heard the story countless times, for years had blamed that stifling basement for her troublesome first name, so different, so foreign, so hard to pronounce. Yael meant alpine goat; it came from a Hebrew verb meaning to climb, to ascend, and as a child she had assumed that, after nearly two days of blazing hot underground labor, her mother had chosen a name that spoke of snow-capped peaks, icy streams, gamboling kids. But when, at seven or eight, Yael had given voice to that theory, her mother had hooted. "Jews name for the dead," Esther said. "Not for goats."
The Weisses never were practicing Jews. Still, they adhered to certain traditions. David Weiss refused to eat pork. Bacon and ham, yes, but no pork chops, no pork roast. Nothing called pork. Esther Weiss named for the dead. "Once upon a time," she said, "you had an ancestor named Yael, and when she died, the next girl to be born was named Yael in her place, and this continued, generation after generation, until the name was given to my dear departed great-grandmother, and then to my dear departed mother, and then to you." Now, instead of imagining goats when she considered her name, Yael pictured a flitting housefly landing on girl after girl after girl.
She finished breakfast, thanked her parents again for the pen, and caught the streetcar for the Red Cross Center. She already regretted signing up for a shift. It was too hot to knit woolen sweaters or write jaunty letters. As the streetcar jogged through her Benton Park neighborhood, she stared through the open sides at the large brick houses, the gleaming black automobiles, the few remaining milk cows tethered to trees, and thought about how boring the summer had been and would continue to be. Every boy who was worth anything was overseas. For the girls left behind, days were tedious and nights even worse, Yael and her friends sitting through insipid Billie Burke romances or the latest Chaplin (yet another scoop of ice cream dropped down the back décolletage of a rich woman's dress). Already Yael had begun making excuses so she could stay home by herself. She preferred to loll alone in her room, doing absolutely nothing as the light faded and the sky turned that nameless shade of blue she found both lovely and eerie and which, she suspected, was the same color as blood as it traveled the arteries, her blood before it was exposed to oxygen.
While she daydreamed about her ruined summer, the streetcar stopped, and a boy she'd known all her life climbed on. Yael turned her head, trying to become invisible, but he waved and sat by her side. As a boy, Chaim Mandel had been a copper-eyed redhead, and her little girlfriends, already marriage-minded at five or six, assumed the two would someday wed. Weren't they the only Jews in the whole Froebel Method school? Weren't they both bookish and short? A perfect pair, and the little girls chanted rhymes linking the two, mangling their impossible names, changing Chaim to Hyram, pronouncing Yael so it rhymed with jail. Everyone in St. Louis pronounced her name that way. Even she pronounced it that way unless she was being especially deliberate.
After she exchanged pleasantries with him-at seventeen, Chaim Mandel was a long drink of water with so many freckles he appeared to be rusting and hair so thick it grew upward like a mound of red yarn, and her girlfriends had long ago stopped wishing him on her-Yael resumed staring at the houses and then, as the streetcar grumbled on, at the small shops, the wider streets, the ever-increasing number of cars, but he wouldn't leave her alone. "So, yes, I'm off to work," he said, as if she'd inquired. She had to face him then, adopt an expression of interest. "Yes," he said. "So I'm working in my uncle's offices until I leave St. Louis."
Though he clearly longed for her to press him, she didn't ask why he was leaving or where he was going, and for a moment he appeared hurt. But he had a good nature, could slough off an insult, and so he went on, chatting about his job and then about Cleopatra, which was playing in town now. Had she heard about Theda Bara's negligible costumes? he wondered. He made a tiresome joke. "I'm telling you, you'll never see Theda barer," he said, and turned crimson at his own remark.
A redhead's violent blush. Yael couldn't stand it. She fanned herself with her hand as if she'd just noticed the weather. "It's hot," she said. "I'm going to ride the board."
They were downtown by then, where the buildings stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking the sun's rays, though not its heat. Now there was the added discomfort of pickaxes and jackhammers, the racket of new construction. And amid the darkness and racket was Chaim Mandel, who had followed her back to the chain. "So perhaps we could go," he shouted over the din. "To the picture show sometime, I mean. Maybe this week. I'm leaving next week or maybe the week after. You can't know for sure. They won't tell you a thing. But it's definitely soon that I'm leaving."
From the Hardcover edition.
Table of Contents
|1.||The Split Skirt||3|
|5.||The Weight of the Package||16|
|7.||A Woman's Name||27|
|10.||Along with Those Lies||39|
|1.||The Train to Providence||43|
|2.||Stops Along the Way||48|
|4.||The Holy Books Do Not Burn||57|
|2.||A as in Amo||84|
|3.||A Tarnished Woman||88|
|4.||Animal, Vegetable, Mineral||94|
|5.||Mind and Matter||96|
|6.||Should This Behavior Continue||99|
|7.||The Last Day of the War||104|
|8.||The White Sisters' Bowling League of America||108|
|9.||Counting to One Hundred||113|
|An Interlude: Meanwhile, over in France||119|
|1.||The First Day of the Peace||125|
|2.||A Dive Called Lulu's||127|
|7.||Un Honneur Grand||149|
|1.||Cherchez la Femme||157|
|3.||It Would Be So Us||168|
|4.||The Little Vuitton||173|
|5.||An Excellent Haut-Brion||177|
|6.||His You're Welcome||184|
|1.||The Hotel le Marais||215|
|3.||An Ugly Look||224|
|4.||To Whom It May Concern||228|
|5.||A Girl's Adventures||231|
|6.||While the Getting Is Good||235|
|2.||Springtime in Paris||254|
|3.||The Rest of Their Lives Will Be Like This||259|
|4.||Saints and Virgins||263|
|6.||Springtime in Berlin||268|
|7.||The Gare de l'Est||275|
|2.||Exclusively Our Red||297|
|3.||Yale, He Says||304|
|4.||April 23, 1919: Nine a.m. at the Chateau||307|
|5.||Nine a.m. Elsewhere||311|
|6.||A Flashback: The First Day of the War (or, The Hungry Assassin)||314|
|7.||A French Sailor Suit||317|
|8.||The Assassination of Kerim Bey||319|
|1.||Another Last Day of the War||329|
|4.||Dinner That Night||343|
|5.||How the Jews Got Their Names||345|
|A Note on Sources||359|
Reading Group Guide
“Alan Furst with a dash of Tintin. . . . Intermingling romance with history. . . . A bravura performance.” —The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your discussion of The Last Day of the War—an engrossing and exciting story of the love between a Jewish girl from St. Louis and an Armenian-American soldier, set in Paris at the end of World War I.
1. Describe the structure of The Last Day of the War. Why has Mitchell divided her book into nine parts, three set in the United States and six in Paris? How does she incorporate flashbacks into the chronological narrative to give the history of the characters? Discuss the various names of the chapters; what part do they play in the structure? What is the effect of the structure—the way the story is told—on you as a reader?
2. How has her Jewish and Midwestern background influenced Yale and her decisions? Is she at odds with her Jewish identity? Why does Yale feel compelled to lie about her age, religion, and name? How is she able to convince others of her masquerade?
3. The Last Day of the War is in many ways a coming-of-age story. How does Yale change over the course of one year, from the day she steals a suit on her eighteenth birthday to the Paris Peace Conference ending World War I? What has she learned and how has she matured in this year?
4. What meaning does Paris have for both Yale and Dub? How are they liberated and/or confined in Paris? What does each of them do in Paris that they would not have been able to do in the States?
5. At the end of the novel, Shushan declares: “He [Dub] could be any American boy” [p. 353]. Do you agree? In what way are Yale and Dub outsiders? And how are they both essentially and ultimately American?
6. What attracts Yale and Dub to each other? Is it their otherness? Why does Yale romanticize Dub and travel to Paris in the hope of finding him again? What does Dub feel for Yale? What does he feel for his girlfriend back home? Why does he feel indebted to Ramela? What does he owe Yale, if anything? Describe Yale and Dub’s relationship, and discuss what draws them to each other.
7. How has Dub’s Armenian immigrant experience in Providence influenced him? Can he ever separate himself from this identity of the Armenian-American immigrant and from the Armenian collective memory? How is it both liberating and burdensome for Dub?
8. Describe Yale’s friendship with Mary Brennan White. What do they share with and learn from each other? Does the presence of Dub and his Armenian friends strengthen or weaken their friendship? How have they both discovered themselves through the friendship?
9. What is the friendship between Dub and Raffi based on? How does it mirror or contrast with the friendship between Yale and Brennan?
10. Discuss the purpose and role of Aram Kazarian and his wife in the novel. What do they represent to Dub and his friends? What about their château? Describe it and its importance in the novel not only as a safe haven from the chaotic world, but as an emotional hold on the characters. How does the outside world eventually sneak in?
11. Why does Amo Winston, the forty-year-old YMCA matron, pick on Yale and Brennan? What do they represent for her? How do they feel about her? How and why does their relationship change over the course of the novel?
12. Discuss the theme of revenge in the novel. Who wants revenge and why? Can anyone be innocent in war? What does Kerim Bey represent for Dub and Raffi? Discuss the plan to assassinate him and what its outcome reveals about Dub and Raffi and their relationship.
13. What role do lying and deception play in this novel?
14. Discuss the importance of names in the novel—Yael Weiss/Yale White, Dub Hagopian, Mary Brennan White, Shushan; and others. What do their names reveal about the various characters?
15. The Last Day of the War is a historical novel. What did you learn about World War I and the early twentieth century by reading this novel? How much did you know about the Armenian massacres before reading the book?
16. What is the significance of the title, The Last Day of the War?
A conversation with Judith Claire Mitchell
Q. How did you come to write a book about a World War One love affair, and particularly about a character of Armenian background like Lieutenant Hagopian?
A. Years before I thought about writing a novel, a friend showed me a sheaf of letters written in 1919 by her great aunt Wera, known as "Wee." Wee had been a volunteer in the canteens the YMCA ran for the doughboys in France, and the tone of her letters was almost relentlessly upbeat and high spirited–giddy tales about flirting and dancing and midnight serenades. They were utterly charming, and yet, every now and then, something chilling would sneak in among all the girlish frivolity–a passage about wounded soldiers, ravaged farmland or obliterated homes. And in one letter there was a single sentence in which Wee reported meeting an Armenian rug merchant who had "lost his entire family in the deportations–very sad." In the next sentence, though, she was back to her flirtations.
I'm no historian and I'd never had any special interest in World War One, but I was intrigued by the dissonance between Wee's youthful exuberance and the terrible things she was witnessing firsthand. I decided I wanted to write about the American women of World War One, sheltered girls who would return home with their eyes opened, and become flappers, voters, members of the work force, members of the "lost generation,"–in short, modern women. This is how my heroine Yale White (whose story is not remotely Wee's, by the way) came into my life.
As I began writing, the reference in Wee's letter to the Armenian deportations haunted me. I'd known vaguelythat there had been massacres in Turkey during World War One, but I knew almost nothing about them and didn't know why Wee had referred to them as "deportations." I began doing some reading and discovered that in 1915-1916, the Ottoman Empire decided to eliminate what it perceived as an internal threat by marching its Armenian population from their homes and across the desert. With virtually no food, water, shelter or protection from murderers, marauders, kidnappers, and rapists, most of the deportees died before reaching the southern city where they were ostensibly to be resettled.
Q. Of course, this is not just an Armenian story, but also a Jewish story; how did Yale's Jewish identity play a role in your shaping of this book?
A. When my friend gave me her aunt's letters, I learned that my friend was Jewish, as am I. Neither of us was trying to hide anything, but we were both non-practicing and had never discussed our religions. We both had surnames that gave nothing away. In my case, long before I was born, my father had wanted a job in a notoriously anti-Semitic industry, and so he had changed his Jewish last name to Mitchell, a name randomly picked it out of a phone book. I've always been Judy Mitchell, then, but I've never felt entirely comfortable with a name that has nothing to do with my background and makes it seem as though I am trying to hide who I am. All this contributed to my creating a character at odds with her Jewish identity, which contrasted nicely with my other protagonist, a man perhaps too embroiled with his Armenian roots.
I suppose that, on a serious literary level I wanted the reader to make a connection between the Armenian and Jewish holocausts, just as my book makes a connection between my Armenian and Jewish characters. But also, it seems to me that if one is going to write about some of the worst things humankind is capable of–genocide, terrorism–then perhaps one ought also to write about the best thing we do. And wouldn't that be our capacity to fall madly, foolishly, even defiantly in love?
Q. To what extent is this an historical novel?
A. I do think of THE LAST DAY OF THE WAR as a historical novel. It takes place, after all, in the early years of the past century and I have tried to recreate accurately the world in which my characters live. That is, non-historian though I may be, I have struggled to get the language, the dress, the songs, the movies, the street names, the politics, the customs and attitudes and mores right.
On the other hand, I definitely approached the novel from the perspective of a fiction writer. A novelist's primary allegiance is to the world of the imagination, not the world of facts. This doesn't give the author of a historical novel the right to be cavalier with the facts. But there will always be some tweaking here and there, a bit of filling in the blanks, if you will.
Q. What characters in the book are real people, and how closely are they modeled on them?
A. Almost all the main characters are made up, but there are a few minor characters who are based on real people. Trevor Hamilton and Stephen Lindsey, the diplomats Dub dines with at the Majestic Hotel, are based on Harold Nicolson and Stephen Bonsal respectively. Bonsal was the American liaison to "the small countries" (Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, etc.). Nicolson, a better-known figure thanks in part to Portrait of a Marriage, his son's bestseller about Nicolson's unusual marriage to Vita Sackville West, was a young idealist when he went to Paris with the British delegation. I read the books and diaries these men wrote about the peace process (focusing mostly on Nicolson's Peacemaking 1919 and Bonsal's Unfinished Business) and many of the words and thoughts expressed in those books are expressed, sometimes almost verbatim, by Hamilton and Lindsey in my own book. For instance, the story Lindsey tells about running into Jewish black marketeers in a hotel and Hamilton's reference to Bela Kun as "an oily little Jew in a moth-eaten coat" are taken from Bonsal and Nicolson. What I hoped to do here was illustrate how even the most educated and compassionate men of those times were often anti-Semitic. I also wished to reveal the frustration the diplomats themselves felt with the peace process–to show how hard it was for men of good will to make a good peace. Still, Hamilton and Lindsey are, above all, fictional characters. Hamilton's clandestine rendezvous with his old German friend is pure fiction, for example.
General Nazarbekov is another character lifted from the pages of history; in this case I didn't even change his name. I did, however, make up almost everything I wrote about him except for his reluctance to engage in certain battles during the Caucasian conflict.
Q. How about Erinyes, the secret organization to which Lieutenant Hagopian belongs? Was this a real organization?
Erinyes is very loosely based on a real group of Armenian vengeance-seekers known as Operation Nemesis, which was responsible for the assassination of a number of Young Turks throughout the 1920's, after it became clear that the world was not going to exact punishment for the massacres.
Q. And the orphans? Was there really an operation that rescued and found homes for Armenian orphans?
Up above, I mentioned the novelist's penchant for "filling in the blanks." That's what I was doing when I involved Seta Kazarian with a group that rescued and found adoptive homes for Armenian orphans. I got the idea from oral histories of Armenian survivors. More than a few spoke of being rescued from Kurds who'd held them as slaves; clearly, then, there had been some sort of rescue effort and just as clearly these children had found their way to America. I took those minimal facts and filled in the blanks, invented the details.
This is the joy of writing fiction–you get to make things up. On the other hand, your fictional inventions must always be true–not literally true, necessarily, but always essentially true.
Q. Yale White, your heroine, is a Midwestern Jew who has changed her name from Yael Weiss, and Dub Hagopian, while born of Armenian parents who fled the troubles in their homeland, grew up in Rhode Island and considers himself American. How does your book address the conflicts of these young first generation Americans? What is appealing about them as characters for a novelist's consideration?
A. I think this book is, in many ways, about the need to feel that we belong to something larger than ourselves, whether that something is as small as our family or as large as our nation. It's also about how we react when we're told, either subtly or explicitly, that we don't really belong after all. The Armenian and Jewish people both know what it is like to be told they don't belong to societies they've helped build. They also know what it feels like to be violently expelled from those societies.
In this book, Dub and Yale are trying to figure out where and the extent to which they fit in. Is he an Armenian, she a Jew? Or are they both the very same thing, that is, American? Or are they something in between--"hyphenates" to use the pejorative term Teddy Roosevelt used to brand immigrants? Or are they all of these things at once? And if Yale doesn't identify herself as Jewish, does she stop being a Jew, as she argues toward my book's end? Or does the fact that society regards her as Jewish make her forever Jewish, as Dub counters? There are, of course, no simple or definitive answers to any of these questions, but the questions themselves interest me, and fiction is the perfect vehicle to ask such questions.
Q. What is the significance of your title, THE LAST DAY OF THE WAR? Yale and Dub's adventures are only beginning as the war ends....
A. I'm fascinated by the fact that although we are taught that the last day of World War One was November 11, 1918–and, of course, that was the last day–the issues and conditions that caused the war continued unresolved far beyond that date.
Of course, we all know–and many historians have said–that the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles made World War Two all but inevitable. So in that sense, for Germany, the actual last day of the war might really have been May 8, 1945.
Or was it the day in 1989 that the Berlin Wall came down?
For some Armenians, World War One continues to this day. With Turkey still denying that a deliberate genocide took place within its borders, many Armenians cannot find closure, and these Armenians fight on. Some fight for the return of their land and for reparations, others for nothing more than the concession that, yes, a terrible and intentional violence was inflicted upon their people. Some fight through politics or activism or art; others still turn to assassination and terrorism. For many Armenians, of course, the war has ended and they live peaceful lives in their new homelands, assimilated Frenchmen, average Americans.
With respect to my novel, the last day of the war for Dub Hagopian and Yale White is the day Dub decides he has done all he is willing to do to avenge the massacres and makes his own imperfect and uneasy peace with the world. Or at least that's what Dub and Yale think as the book ends. The reader, I hope, knows better. The reader knows that regardless of how vehemently Yale denies her Jewishness, she is going to wake up someday soon in Hitler's Europe. Yale has not really seen the last day of her war.
Q. Lying and deception play an important role in a novel of political intrigue, in which the heroine "passes" for something she is not. How did you feel, as you were bringing her to life, about her passing? Do you admire her as a character nonetheless?
A. This is an interesting and difficult question, because, when I write, I actually try very hard to ignore my own values so I can express my characters' values without judgment. Yale White, for instance, doesn't have a single qualm about passing, and I really never thought about whether I approved of what Yale was doing. I was too preoccupied with getting her point of view across.
This is not to say that the reader should withhold judgment, too. The reader should judge away. Too often, I think, we confuse the writer's subject matter with the writer's personal beliefs. In THE LAST DAY OF THE WAR, I am writing about people who seek violent revenge not because I'm advocating vengeance (I'm not!) or even because I think vengeance is wrong and I want to get that message out. I'm writing about vengeance because I'm interested in figuring out why some people who feel oppressed or wronged choose violent retaliation while others don't. I'm really just asking a question.
And yes, when all is said and done, and I go back, and approach the book as a reader and not as a writer, then I do admire flawed, mistake-prone Yale. I admire her because she is struggling to figure out who she is and who she is going to be and that is always a noble struggle. I admire her for literally and figuratively trying on various outfits and guises, seeing which ones fit and which ones don't. I admire her for refusing to be defined and limited by others. Yale is a an imperfect person living in an imperfect world, and she makes lots of mistakes, but it's all in service of doing the best she can to become the person she wants to be, which is not necessarily the person the world would have her be. I find that quest admirable.
And she is, after all, only eighteen. She'll do better as she grows up.
Q. How did you come to write a first novel in your forties? What were you doing before?
A. For almost twenty years before I decided to get serious about my writing, I worked as a paralegal for a Rhode Island law firm. I'd been a writing major way back when in college, but had given up fiction when it came time to start earning a living. Paralegaling paid the bills.
Toward the end of those twenty years slaving away for lawyers, though, a friend near my age died quite suddenly, and along with my sorrow, I felt as though I'd received a wake-up call and the voice on the line was quoting the poet Mary Oliver: "What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?"
My husband is an artist, and I'd seen firsthand how blessed a life it is, to work at something you find fulfilling and meaningful. I returned to fiction, reading copiously, taking mini-courses and attending summer workshops. My instructors kept urging me to apply to graduate schools and when I was 44, I finally got the courage to do so. Much to my shock, I was accepted by the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Next thing I knew, I'd quit my job (giving up the nice salary, the five weeks of vacation, and the dental plan) and moved with my supportive husband and yowling cat to Iowa City. Two years later, I had my MFA, which most people think means Master of Fine Arts, but which, in my house, stands for the Mid-Forties Adventure.
After all that, it seemed the right thing to do would be to write a book.
Q. Who are some of the writers whose work has inspired the kind of book you chose to write with THE LAST DAY OF THE WAR?
A. When I realized (again much to my shock) that the book I was writing appeared to be a historical novel, I began reading every historical novel I could get my hands on. As a writer, you learn so much from books themselves. My favorite teacher among the novels I read while working on my book was Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda. I learned so much about structure, pacing and point of view from that book. I love that book.
Other excellent literary teachers of mine included Pat Barker's meticulously researched and beautifully written World War One trilogy, Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road. E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime has long been one of my favorite novels and I reread it several times during the writing process. Hans Konig's Death of a Schoolboy helped me understand how someone might justify political murder. Louis de Bernieres's Corelli's Mandolin contained lessons about blending humor and drama. Another book I both adored and learned from was Sheri Holman's The Dress Lodger, a novel set in the slums of 1830's London and a book so transporting that right now, as I think of it, I feel enveloped in darkness and damp despite my bright, warm room.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book is fairly hard to describe. At the beginning of WWI, an 18-year-old Jewish girl from St. Louis has a chance encounter with an Armenian-American soldier and patriot. At the end of the encounter, he tells her to go to hell. He's on his way to France to fight in WWI, so she decides to join the YMCA program to go overseas to entertain soldiers. To do that, she must falsify her age (to 25) & thinks she must become Christian. So, "She is crazy . . . because the reason she is going overseas, the reason she is becoming seven years older and bilingual and Christian is this: if the soldier is going to France, and if France is hell, and if hetold her to go to hell--well then, hasn't he asked her please to come with him?" And, of course, they do meet in Paris. that's one example of a tendency toward romantic melodrama, but then it's given a twist that avoids the excesses of that tendency. Likewise, there's a tendency toward being didactic about Armenian history or the history of Europe around WWI, but those passages are offset by passages of such cleverly expressed cynicism about that history that the flaws are forgiven. And the characters are very appealing, especially the Jewish girl. It's a story of the frustratioins of both political diplomacy and of violent revenge, of personal and ethnic loyalty and love.
A well written escape into historical fiction. Ms. Mitchell's plot, prose,and meticulous research place her writing on a level that another writer as myself can enjoy and contemplate reading again. Splendidly done! Thank you. Frank J., Greenfield, MO