Love and Peril :: Rebecca Cantrell Revisits ’A City of Broken Glass’
Mystery writer Rebecca Cantrell’s "Hannah Vogel" series places it tough, proto-feminist heroine right in the middle of some of the most dramatic events in 20th century history: The rise and reign of terror of Germany’s murderous Nazi regime.
In the previous books in the series, Hannah has lost her gay brother to the Nazis, come up against Nazi leader Ernst Rohm, adopted a young boy, Anton, and had complicated relationships with several men, including former SS officer Lars Lang.
The latest book in the series, "A Night of Broken Glass," finds Hannah in Poland in the year 1938, ostensibly reporting on a religious festival. This being Hannah, however, there’s no resisting the chance to see how a group of Jewish detainees live while in custody of the authorities. They dwell, it turns out, in the most scandalously primitive conditions; they are housed in a barn, without proper sanitation facilities or any other means of caring properly for themselves. It’s in this inferno of sadism and prejudice that Hannah finds an acquaintance, Miriam, a Jewish woman who has been deported from Berlin.
Miriam is pregnant and about to deliver a child. Hannah’s urge to intervene quickly lands her in the thick of the Nazi machine, when she’s illegally abducted by two officers and taken by force back to Germany. Her grim adventure brings her back into contact with Paul, who is both Miriam’s husband and Hannah’s former lover. Lars resurfaces, as well, with Anton in tow, and together the small, desperate group works to survive and escape to freedom. But there’s another concern as well: Paul’s daughter, hidden by Miriam before she was deported, has gone missing. Who has the child? And who tipped the SS off as to Hannah’s presence in Poland?
With time running out, the Nazis closing in, and the body count climbing, Hannah must determine whom she can trust. Will Lars help her once more--or betray her yet again?
Rebecca Cantrell took time away from preparing for her own major life events to chat with EDGE recently about her historical mystery novels. The writer was setting about to move from Hawaii to Berlin, the epicenter of Hannah’s adventures thus far.
Broken Glass and Broken Hearts
EDGE: The new novel in the Hannah Vogel series finds Hannah and her son, Anton, in Berlin just before Kristallnacht--the infamous "Night of Broken Glass." This is a huge historical point for the era of the series, of course. What went into plotting out how to involve Hannah in the events of the time?
Rebecca Cantrell: "A City of Broken Glass" was the hardest Hannah Vogel novel to research and write, hands down. I spent about a year immersed in the days leading up to Kristallnacht and the pogrom itself. I relied heavily on first person accounts, many available online at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Saul Friedlander’s "Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume I: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939," and Victor Klemperer’s "I Will Bear Witness."
I wanted Hannah to start in Poland, where the events that would trigger Kristallnacht happened, so I ended up researching innocuous reasons to send her and Anton there.
In the end, she’s sent to write a fluff piece about the St. Martin’s Day celebration. Your average reporter might be able to stay out of trouble with an assignment like that, but not Hannah! She went straight to the refugee camp at Zbaszyn and was immediately engulfed in the tragedy.
In my research, I was struck by how intensely personal the events of Kristallnacht were. I’ve seen and read much about the destruction of Jewish institutions during the pogrom-storm troopers burning synagogues, smashing shop windows, and looting businesses.
What I found in the survivor accounts the less well known personal side-tales of neighbors a child had known all her life smashing down the front door, breaking all the windows, smashing the glass covering photographs, taking a hammer to the jars of honey in the pantry, slashing through beds and sofas and teddy bears.
It wasn’t just the ability to gather together and worship publicly that was destroyed that day: it was also the ability of any Jewish person in Germany to feel even a tiny measure of safety in their own homes.
EDGE: Anton plays a larger role in the new novel. It must be tricky to fold a 13-year-old into a novel like this. Were you feeling wary at all about giving a significant role to a teenager?
Rebecca Cantrell: Readers have been clamoring to see more of Anton since "A Trace of Smoke." I thought this book would be a place to explore how he’s grown and how his relationship with Hannah has evolved over the last seven years. He’s older now, but the core of that imaginative and clever boy is unchanged.
He’s a fun foil for Hannah too, as he plays marbles and whittles while keeping his wits about him and gathering information. And he never fails to ask Hannah the hardest questions-and he has the determination to get answers, too.
EDGE: Hannah, at one point, mulls over how she doesn’t want to be "a lady out of the Middle Ages, ready to send a knight into battle for me." In the U.S., we remember how World War II empowered women, with icons like Rosie the Riveter, but we don’t hear much about the role strong women played in Europe. What were women in Germany and other European nations doing? Joining underground resistances, posing as men in the press (as Hannah herself has done), finding ways to exert political pressure?
Rebecca Cantrell: Women in Europe were doing all those things. There were women heroes in the French resistance, in the German underground, in British intelligence. Their stories haven’t been told as much as the men’s but they are there.
And women reporters and photographers from both the U.S. and Europe covered the events leading up to World War II and the war itself. Brave women reporters at the time included Bella Fromm (German Jewish aristocrat and society reporter, whose life is chronicled in "Blood and Banquets: A Berlin Social Diary") and American Martha Gellhorn (a war correspondent who arrived on the beaches at D-Day as a stowaway, also married to Ernest Hemingway during the War).
It was tough, but women were out there on both sides, working against the Nazis and for them (such as film director Leni Riefenstahl or test pilot Hannah Reitsch).
Beautiful Woman, Big Gay Following
EDGE: Hannah is strong and determined, but she is also a very beautiful and desirable woman. In your opinion, how do women balance the traditional role of femininity with contemporary responsibilities?
Rebecca Cantrell: I think it’s tough for anyone to balance the roles expected of them by society, by family, and by history. Women and minorities might be expected to stay inside a smaller box (although they escape all the time), but it’s not an easy balancing act for anyone.
I don’t have the answers myself, but I find it difficult being a mother, a wife, a writer, and a human being, even on good days. But it’s also tremendously rewarding--and I think the only way to find answers is to live and experiment and muddle through.
That said, Hannah does more than muddle through. She struggles through all the books trying to forge a relationship with a man who will let her follow her heart and her conscience-instead of choosing the path of safety and a traditional life. Her relationship with Boris founders because they cannot find a middle ground.
To be fair, Hannah is a tough woman to be in a relationship with-always dashing off to save someone or other without any regard for her personal safety and the effects of her actions on those left behind. I’m not sure that she’s found the ’right’ balance, but I do know she takes the only path she can.
EDGE: What is your readership like? Do these books appeal mainly to women, or do men also go in for them? Would you say that you have a "big gay following?"
Rebecca Cantrell: Based on the emails I receive and the people I meet at my events, I’d say my readership is pretty balanced. I hear from World War II experts, Jewish readers and scholars, women who identify with Hannah, family members of survivors, and a fair number of gay readers.
Feedback has mostly been very positive, particularly from gay readers, who often tell me that it’s a relief to see gay characters in history going about their lives as people instead of as gay stereotypes.
Hannah tries to tell the untold story and some of those stories are about gay men and women in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Wilhelm is a gay character who shows up in all the books, and we watch him grow from a politically naïve teenager into a man faced with only difficult choices. In spite of his circumstances, he faces his lot with a wicked sense of humor and a tremendous amount of strength.
EDGE: Hannah is on her way to Palestine for the next installment. Can you give our readers a teaser about what she’ll be up to there?
Rebecca Cantrell: In "A Time of Night and Fog" Hannah is smuggling Jewish children from Europe to Palestine, like the real life Youth Aliyah movement (headed by a brave German Jewish woman named Recha Frier). She delivers a group of children and goes to help at a nearby hospital. While she’s gone one of her partners in the expedition is arrested for murder (I can’t say who without spoilers, but it’s someone very close to her). After he confesses in a Tel Aviv prison, she has to find out what he did and why.
EDGE: Even as the series takes Hannah to Palestine, you are moving to Berlin! Do you expect that living there once again will spark new ideas for future novels, whether in the Hannah Vogel series or apart from it?
Rebecca Cantrell: I can’t imagine not being inspired by Berlin. History has been writ large on the city, and I expect many novels will come out of it. If I can just finish packing...
"A Night of Broken Glass," a Hannah Vogel mystery by Rebecca Cantrell, is published by Forge Books. Publication Date: July 17, 2012. Pages: 336. Price: $25.00. Format: Hardcover First Edition. ISBN 978-0-765-327-345