Off the Shelf: Fictional versions of real life by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Novels based on true stories: there are several ways these can be written. One is to create characters who borrow from the experience of real people, but who are definitely fictional. Another is to treat a real person as a character and write a fictionalized version of a biography or memoir. Two recent novels offer versions of both types of novels. While “Newark Minutemen” by Leslie Barry (Morgan James Publishing) features several real life characters, its main protagonists are only loosely based on real people. “Sargeant Salinger” by Jerome Charyn (Bellevue Literary Press), on the other hand, imagines the experiences and thoughts of J. D. Salinger before the writer became famous. Both novels take place before and during World War II, although Barry concentrates on events in the U.S. while the majority of Charyn’s work focuses on events in England and the European continent. 

While “Newark Minutemen” does feature the fictional thoughts of real life people, its two main characters – Yael and Christa – are not real, although some of their experiences are. The plot centers around the activities of the German-American Bund in the U.S. during the 1930s and the Newark Minutemen, Jewish boxers supported by real life gangster Longie Zwillman, who is working with the FBI to stop the Nazi threat. The Bund’s real life leader, Fritz Kuhn, plans to turn America into a colony of Nazi Germany and rid the country of undesirables. Yael is one of Zwillman’s Minutemen, looking to stop the Nazis before they can take over the country. While the plot may sound like an alternative history, the story is based on fact: there were Nazi spies in the U.S. and they did plan to turn this country from a democracy into a fascist state. 

When Yael meets Christa, whose father is a Nazi-supporter, he finds himself unexpectedly enamored with her and the feeling is returned. But Christa’s father soon announces her engagement to a young Nazi leader with economic ties to Germany that will help her family leave poverty behind. Christa is conflicted about the engagement and her fiance’s support of German women’s new role in life: to produce as many pure blood German children as possible. Yael then goes undercover to learn more about Nazi activities, risking his life to protect his family and friends. However, a threat remains: Will Christa betray him or will she defy her family’s Nazi legacy? 

While Yael and Christa’s stories form a major part of the plot, Barry also lets readers view events through Kuhn and Zwillman’s eyes. Although the characters sometimes border on caricature and the less acceptable parts of Zwillman’s mob activities are not mentioned, that doesn’t get in the way of what is an increasingly dramatic and moving tale. Readers may be disturbed by the activities that occurred in camps devoted to Nazifying young Americans, but they portray the veneration and dedication of those who accepted Hitler as a type of personal savior. “Newark Minutemen” features a little known and very important part of American history that still resonates today. 

While Barry’s novel mixes fictional characters with factual ones, Charyn’s major focus is on real people, including many who were famous in the 1940s. In addition to the young Salinger, characters include Oona O’Neill (the daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill just before she married Charlie Chaplin), Ernest Hemingway, journalist Walter Winchell and gangster Frank Costello – and that’s just in the novel’s prelude. It doesn’t reveal too much to say that Oona breaks Salinger’s heart, something that underlies the decisions he makes later in the book. However, it’s his time serving in the Counter Intelligence Corp and being caught in the midst of deadly battles that affect him the most. These encounters include a visit to a Nazi labor camp, one that occurred before most people knew of their existence.

The battle scenes – filled with confusion and horror – are among the most affecting sections of the novel. The work is not heavily plotted, but rather follows Salinger as he tries to physically and mentally survive the war. His activities once peace arrives – which are also described – show how difficult it was for him to regain any semblance of his former self.

How much “Sergeant Salinger” accurately describes Salinger’s feelings is up for debate, but the details Charyn offers are based on real life. The novel is intense and absorbing, which will make it of interest to anyone wanting to view World War II through a soldier’s eyes, even if they are not fans of Salinger’s writing.