Conundrum Question: Fact vs. Fiction in the Historical Novel

Readers love historical novels. Fiction rounds out the details of history while helping us understand history’s wider ramifications. But, as Hannah Zuber noted here recently, “Historical fiction’s relationship with academic history has always been hotly contested.” This difficulty is discussed in my recent essay “A Critical Clarifier” where I said “assigning fictional actions to real persons from the past is, by definition, an exercise in inaccuracy.” How then can the novelist with a high regard for historical veracity minimize distorting the past?

Sometime around the turn of the 21st century, I happened upon a description of the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt by Giuseppe Zangara. This little-known event is seldom reported in histories of the 1930s, perhaps because Zangara missed his target with all five of his shots at Roosevelt. One of the bullets, however, struck Chicago’s mayor, Anton Cermak. And in Cermak’s life and later death lay a terrific real-life struggle yielding more than enough drama and excitement for a novel. I immediately knew I had to write this story of Chicago in 1933.

Still, decisions had to be made. How should I relate this in novel form without falsifying the very real experiences of the participants?

My essay had distinguished two types of historical novels, those that relate lives of famous historical characters, and those that focus on un-noteworthy people in the midst of historical events. Although both strive for what Simon Schama calls the “imaginative re-enactment,” the latter, which I named “Historical Context Fiction,” avoids at least some of the potential falsification pitfalls.

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I therefore chose to construct Illusions of Magic around the actions of fictional Chicago residents during the weeks that included the nineteen days between Anton Cermak’s wounding February 15th and his death on March 6, 1933. With Cermak’s struggle to live, the ensuing political intrigues, and the city’s extraordinary grieving over his death, I had a sturdy spine upon which to hang fictions involving adventure, love and compassion in the Windy City during the Great Depression.

Two questions remained to be decided: How much of the Cermak story should be included, and how should I go about integrating that history into the novel?

Following the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, Mayor Anton Cermak had arranged to meet with FDR in Miami, where the president-elect was vacationing. The mayor was hoping to obtain a promise of federal funding to help Chicago out of a severe financial shortfall brought on by the Great Depression. After all, when the tide finally turned during the Democratic National Convention in the summer of ‘32, it was Mayor Cermak who seized the microphone to announce the release of all of Illinois’ 58 delegate votes to Roosevelt, helping FDR gain more than the two-thirds majority required for nomination.

That fateful night of February 15, 1933, at Miami’s Bayfront Park, Cermak strode to the car from which Roosevelt had just concluded a brief speech. The large crowd that had gathered was still applauding as Cermak shook hands with the president-elect and they exchanged a few words. Shortly, five shots exploded from within the front rows of the crowd. People screamed. Someone cried, “Stop that man!”

Giuseppe Zangara, a small man with a troubled life, had fired a .32-caliber pistol, trying to kill Roosevelt. But the bullets missed. Along with three others, Anton Cermak was hit. Zangara was quickly subdued and carted off to jail. Roosevelt insisted on taking the wounded mayor to the hospital in his limousine.

The importance of this event cannot be minimized—the shooting risked the life of the president-elect at a crucial time in United States history (he would be inaugurated as president less than a month later).

Although the shooting was not local, the serious wounding of the mayor had a huge impact on Chicago. A poorly-understood fact surfaced in its aftermath: should the mayor die, no legal process existed for his replacement. Not only did this pose a practical difficulty, it gave rise to political machinations and intrigue such as the city had never before known. It saddled Chicago with monumental uncertainty and became the important historical focus for my novel.

At this point, a wide choice existed for uniting the Cermak story with my concept of a protagonist who takes on a dangerous quest, accidentally encounters a sweetheart after twenty years, but then discovers that caring can clash with familial bonds and the necessity for compassion.

I decided the most unobtrusive way to integrate the Cermak story was through the experiences of a major player in the fiction. Precinct captain Liver Jack Horn, although not the protagonist, is arguably a very important character. Early on, he lectures his sister on the importance of the city’s administration during the downturn:

There’s ‘most a million people who wants work, can’t find any. Some are so bad off they’re eating garbage. You remember last fall, down on Lower Wacker Drive? Remember all those men—musta been a hundred—sleeping under newspapers and cardboard boxes? Who d’you think’s leading the way to helping people out so they don’t end up there? It’s me and the City—what you call ‘the machine.’

Late in the book, Liver Jack witnesses the ceremony at the Bohemian National Cemetery:

There, in the carpeted and roped-off area, the mayor’s three daughters wept as they sat in the family’s space. Nearby were hundreds of Bohemian Odd Fellows arrayed in their red or blue ornate collars trimmed in gold, along with Knights Templar in uniform, and a group of children from the Bohemian Orphanage, each holding a white flower.

James Rada, an officer in the Lawndale Masonic Lodge, of which the mayor had been a member, was conducting ceremonies while most of his Lodge members stood in solemn attention. Liver Jack regularly cupped his hands over his face and blew on them to impart some warmth as he awaited the final ritual.

These glimpses suggest the novel’s historical component. Alongside but not sampled here is the story of Nick Zetner, stage magician. Short of work because of the poor economy and diminished vaudeville bookings, Nick reluctantly accepts the task of finding and returning stolen goods for a rich but sleazy banker. Yet this quest leads him to uncover, after a lapse of twenty years, a long-lost love that is subsequently rekindled.

The topic of this article is fact versus fiction in writing the historical novel. Through Liver Jack’s experience and discourse in Illusions of Magic, the reader relives the day-to-day political theater so characteristic of the times, details of the hospitalization and treatment of the mayor, and the great loss that Anton Cermak’s passing delivered to the city of Chicago 83 years ago. This slice of history proceeds in parallel with Nick’s story, combining fact with fiction in what I hope is an informative, as well as entertaining, amalgam.

J.B. Rivard is a local writer and illustrator and the author of the historical novel Illusions of Magic. More information about his work can be found at www.illusionsofmagic.com.

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Chicago Open Archives

In the same spirit as Open House Chicago, Chicago Open Archives welcomes the public to tour over 30 cultural institutions around the city. Chicago Area Archivists hosts the event that runs from October 6 to October 8, 2016. Visitors have the opportunity to take part in behind the scenes tours and will have access to several places that are normally off limits to the public. Along with tours, visitors can engage with librarians, archivists, and museum curators. Other events include film screenings and exhibit talks.

Please note that in order to tour and/or participate in some of the events, preregistration may be required. Registration closes at midnight on October 4, 2016. There may be admission fees at some of the institutions. Check out the Chicago Open Archive website to learn more about the event and participating cultural institutions.

Is the City Overdue in Renovating the Library in West Ridge? A Look at the History of the Northtown Library

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of The Historian, the online quarterly published by the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society. All photographs used courtesy of their image database. Matthew Amyx is a History PhD Student at Loyola University Chicago and the Public Media Team Leader for the RPWRHS.

Over the summer of 2015, a Change.org petition to expand or rebuild the Northtown Library collected over 600 signatures from the residents of West Ridge. The one-story building at 6434 N. California Ave. hosts 140,000 visitors each year, but it has not been renovated since opening in 1962. Petition-signers complain that the library, despite its popularity and the hard work of its staff, lacks space, needs more up-to-date technology, and offers community resources insufficient to reflect the diverse demographics of West Ridge. Additionally, they claim the library’s parking situation, practically limited to street parking in a busy neighborhood, severely inconveniences patrons. While the petition has received considerable support and is backed by 50th Ward Alderman Debra Silverman, residents will need to exercise patience. Pamela Stauffer, West Rogers Park Community Organization Chairwoman, anticipates a minimum budget of $6 million for the endeavor, which is still in its planning phase, and recent library projects in Chicago have taken four years or more to complete. The petition signers should not lose hope, however, as very similar grassroots appeals created the very successful previous incarnations of the Northtown Library.

The first Northtown Library opened on July 31, 1939 at 2502 Devon Ave. It had taken seven years of organizing and petitioning by the local Kiwanis Club, Northtown Women’s Club, Northtown Business Men’s Association, and PTA groups. By its one-year anniversary the branch, led by head librarian Marion Smith, had issued 6200 library cards and hosted 145,000 visitors and circulated nearly 200,000 books. The library building, a double storefront, quickly became one of the most popular in the city, attracting patrons from far outside of its district boundaries which ran west from Ridge Ave. to the canal and south from Farwell to Bryn Mawr.

2200 w. Devon Avenue looking east from Bell Avenue
2200 w. Devon Avenue looking east from Bell Avenue

The library’s programs quickly outgrew its space. In January 1942, Smith started a very popular Book Review Club, but it had to meet in clubrooms on Maplewood Avenue. The library offered very strong children’s programs, such as a “Bring Your Dolly” story hour started by Children’s Librarian Bernice Perley in January 1942. Soon the weekly story hours were drawing an average of 233 children, but the space only accommodated 60 chairs. This unacceptable situation led West Ridge community leaders to petition Mayor Kelly for an enlargement. Sponsors included pastors, Boy Scouts, business groups, women’s clubs, Kiwanis, and the American Legion. The city approved the purchase and conversion of the adjacent corner building, a tavern and store, into staff space and a much needed children’s room.

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Girls participating in Doll’s Story Hour, c. 1945.

The Northtown Library made important contributions to community morale during World War II. It provided technical books to educate the defense workers that had flooded to Chicago. Families with members serving abroad checked out books on the countries where their loved ones were stationed. Smith told the Tribune that the library helped residents “take their minds off things for a while… These persons usually ask for mystery books – something which will challenge their brains and keep their minds occupied.” The library also offered avenues for the West Ridge community to aid those affected by the war. In July 1941, the library collected books to donate to locally stationed troops, and Perley organized a Girls’ Club that collected dolls for English war refugee children. In June 1945, the Northtown Library took part in a University of Chicago adult education program based on reading the classics, the first of several very popular Great Books programs that would occur on and off throughout the remainder of the 20th century.

2502 W Devon Avenue, North Town Library -Children with Army Lt. Godlewski.
2502 W Devon Avenue, North Town Library -Children with Army Lt. Godlewski.

In 1946, the library lost its lease on 2502 Devon, and moved two blocks over to 2710 Devon, away from the bustling business district. The library was still outgrowing its space, and in July 1947 the Edgebrook Library opened as a sub-branch of Northtown, with Elizabeth Vieser as assistant librarian under Smith. The space was painted blue and white and contained 3000 books, half for adults and half for children, with Northtown’s children’s librarians conducting the story hour there once a week. (The Edgebrook library has since moved three times and is now its own branch at 5331 W. Devon Ave.) Like today, space was constantly an issue during the period, with staff having to cram patrons in or find venues outside the library for programs. The advent of television dropped circulation some, but a fresh influx of families during West Ridge’s growth in the 1950s and 1960s brought it up again. Many empty-nesters became avid readers and brought their grandchildren to the library, bringing circulation in 1957 to 215,000. The demographics of the neighborhood were also becoming more diverse, and community members began organizing to petition the city for another expansion.

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Women using library materials, c. 1950.

Construction bids began in September 1960 on the library’s current location, 6435 N. California Avenue, which opened January, 1962. 125 feet wide with red brick, the new building included space for 50,000 books (up from 28,000 in the previous location), a multi-purpose room for library-sponsored activities, citizenship and Americanization classes for West Ridge’s growing immigrant population, and air conditioning. This was the first location intended as a permanent space, as the Devon locations had all been rented. Interestingly, the 2710 Devon location suffered a $10,000 fire the week before the move, although most of the books had luckily already been transported. The new library opened with a new Chief Librarian as well, Mrs. Gertrude Gscheidle. Designed by City Architect Paul Gerhardt Jr., the building cost $174,438.00 to construct and $56,490.70 to furnish. Despite the expansion, the Northtown Library still struggled with containing and staffing its programs; by 1965 it had the largest circulation of any library in the north side district, with 272,051 books loaned. The library’s popularity continued throughout the century, claiming the highest circulation of any library in the system in 1986.

The library was an important venue for children's groups, including the Boy Scouts of America.

As the history of the library demonstrates, the Northtown branch has always struggled to find space for its programs. This difficulty is only exacerbated by the growing needs of an increasingly diverse population, and is made considerably worse by the lack of available parking. The library has very few dividing walls, and while this trait gives it an open feel it also prevents the existence of private study space. In the comments section of the Change.org petition page, many of the signers sadly stated that they drove to other libraries in the suburbs because they did not feel the present building could meet their needs. The petitioners can take heart, however, in knowing that the city has listened to West Ridge petitions in the past to expand or renovate the Northtown Library.

Pop History: The Monitor (Part 1)

In Titus Andronicus’s 2010 sophomore release, The Monitor, singer and lyricist Patrick Stickles takes a particularly ambitious tack in crafting a fully-realized concept album centered on a historical metaphor. As the first part of what will hopefully be a short series of posts, I’ll look at the album and consider its utilization of history for dramatic and thematic importance.

Unsurprisingly, a group named after a Shakespeare play tends to be rather lyrically dense. As such, the opening song of the album, “A More Perfect Union,” is laced with references both contemporary and historical. The first verse references Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” twists lyrics from Billy Bragg, and finishes by inverting Bruce Springsteen: “Tramps like us, baby we were born to die.” A later biblical allusion places the singer as a Christ-figure: “If I come in on a donkey, let me go out on a gurney.” Yet the most consistent thread begins in this song with the heavy usage of lyrics from the “Battle Cry of Freedom” and continues throughout the rest of the album: the metaphor of the Civil War.

Continue reading “Pop History: The Monitor (Part 1)”

2016 HGSA Conference CFP is Here!

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Call for Papers

Thirteenth Annual

Loyola University Chicago History Graduate Student Conference

November 19, 2016

Loyola University Chicago Lake Shore Campus, Chicago, IL


Masters and doctoral graduate students in any field of historical study are invited to submit proposals to present individual research papers at Loyola’s Thirteenth Annual History Graduate Student Conference. Panel applications and individual papers focusing on borderlands or transnational studies, urban history, gender history, and public history are especially encouraged. We also welcome papers about history projects in the digital humanities. The goal of this conference is to provide an opportunity for students to gain experience presenting original research projects and to receive feedback from their peers on their work. Certificates will be awarded to the top three conference presentations.

Individual proposals should include: submitter’s name, contact information, institutional affiliation(s), a one page abstract of the paper (with a title), and a sentence listing up to three historical subjects your paper addresses (e.g. French history, sport history, gender). Please also include a brief biographical statement indicating your academic status along with a return address and current email address. Panel proposals should include the above as well as a brief description of the panel itself. Please note that submissions will be accepted as time and space permit.

Deadline for submissions is Friday, September 2, 2016. Email proposals as an attachment to the HGSA Conference Committee at: HGSA@luc.edu or mail to:

History Graduate Student Association

Attn: Julia Lacher

Loyola University Chicago

Department of History

1032 West Sheridan Road

Chicago, Illinois 60660

For more information about the conference, visit https://loyolahistoryconference.wordpress.com or our department webpage at http://www.luc.edu/history/graduate/conference_test.shtml

Please contact the HGSA Conference Committee at: HGSA@luc.edu with any further questions.

Sponsored by the History Graduate Student Association, Loyola University Chicago

Ambidexterity and Ambition: The Tuskegee Model Legacy

Last year Fazila Kabahita and I decided to nominate the Ambidexter Industrial and Normal Institute in Springfield, Illinois, to the National Register of Historic Places as a part of our Historic Preservation course. Fazila and I learned that the Ambidexter Institute was modeled after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Deemed the “Tuskegee of the North,” Ambidexter was a private industrial school intended to teach trades and provide academic education to African American students. It received the name “Ambidexter” because its founder, Springfield clergyman G.H. McDaniel, believed that the students would have to be ‘ambidextrous,’ (in some sense-suggesting that they would have to be doubly as skilled as whites) using both their minds and their might, in order to make it in competition for employment with the white labor force. McDaniel intended to “accomplish for the negroes of the north what Booker T. Washington’s great school is doing for the colored people of the south.” He opened the school in 1901 with funding from prominent Springfield residents.[1] As we continue to work toward nominating the site through the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, I thought I’d share a little about the history of the school and similar institutions that followed the Tuskegee model.

Continue reading “Ambidexterity and Ambition: The Tuskegee Model Legacy”

Stranger Than History: The Art of Historical Fiction

Conversations at the Newberry Library recently featured “Stranger than Fiction: Tasha Alexander and Susanna Calkins on the Art of Historical Fiction.” The two authors reflected on how their backgrounds as academically-trained historians prepared them for the world of fiction-writing. Alexander and Calkins addressed concerns relevant to writing historical fiction, like heeding the historical mindset of their characters, capturing the tone and rhythm of their characters’ dialogue, and knowing how to use their research effectively to tell captivating, enriching stories.

Maggie McClain, Kelly Schmidt, and Hannah Zuber attended the event. Below are their reactions to the conversation. A full recording of the conversation can be found here.

Writing historical fiction. It seems like an exhilarating, daunting, fulfilling process. I personally have never undertaken writing a book, but I’ve always enjoyed reading historical fiction. Really great writers transport you to a different time and place through their mastery of the written word. Composing a great story requires in-depth research and clear, concise writing. Historians are trained to do exactly that, so it is no wonder that some go into the profession of historical fiction writing.

Continue reading “Stranger Than History: The Art of Historical Fiction”

Silver Screen Century: Rogers Park’s Evolving “New 400” Theater

Movie-going offers a sort of timeless joy. Cinema enthusiasts a century apart share the experience of immersing themselves into the big, bright screen. The same wonder and suspension of belief attend viewing both a silent Chaplin film and Marvel’s next 3-D blockbuster. Even the popcorn has featured prominently for generations of filmgoers since the Great Depression. But the movie theater business has also undergone considerable changes as economic downturns and the advent of television have reduced box office lines. These challenges loomed even larger for small, older theaters which had to compete with the shiny new multiplexes with far more screens. All these factors make the continued existence of the theater at 6746 N. Sheridan Road, currently known as the New 400, all the more remarkable; it is arguably the oldest still-operating theater in Chicago. How has this comparatively-small location so far from the Loop kept projecting Hollywood magic for over a century? Two factors stand out: adaptation and community involvement.

In 1912, architectural firm Grossman & Proskauer designed the Regent Theater as a vaudeville venue, but by December 1913 it was showing movies produced by the Mutual Film Corporation and soon advertised its film offerings multiple times a week in the Chicago Tribune. (A Mr. F.A. Duffield served as manager-owner in 1914; Duffield, previously a typographer for the Chicago Record-Herald, appears to have joined the movie theater business after the Tribune bought out his previous employer.) Although boasting 736 seats, the Regent, like most early theaters, only contained one screen. The theater served as an important hub for Rogers Park community activities; the Regent hosted a benefit for the Catholic Women’s Club of Rogers Park in 1913, and in 1914 showed patrons slides to raise money for a power boat to help lifeguards prevent drownings on Lake Michigan’s north shore. During World War I, the theater took part in the Four-Minute Men Program, where government spokesmen would use the intermission to appraise patrons of the war effort and encourage patriotic involvement. By all accounts, the Regent Theater was a high-class place, representative of a prosperous and active Rogers Park.

Continue reading “Silver Screen Century: Rogers Park’s Evolving “New 400” Theater”