Section: Arts

Fact, fiction and family: David Laskin tells his story

Fact, fiction and family: David Laskin tells his story

Anna Dunlavey, Collegian

By Anna Dunlavey

Author David Laskin told the receptive audience that packed the  Cheever Room in Finn House yesterday afternoon about his early thoughts on becoming a writer. The first person he ever told about his newfound aspirations was his aunt, who responded by asking him what he knew that was worth writing about. Many years and many books later, it turned out that an answer to that question could have been “us.”

Laskin’s latest book, The Family, which just came out in paperback, details the history of how his family became split into three parts: the part that migrated to the U.S., the part that migrated to Palestine and the part that stayed in Poland and perished in the Holocaust. During his talk, Laskin described The Family as “a book about how the three branches of my family became two.”

In fact, it was family that brought Laskin to Kenyon. David’s brother, Dan Laskin, works as a writer and editor for the Office of Public Affairs and has written for The Kenyon Review. Laskin was scheduled to give a reading in on Oct. 21 for the Columbus Jewish Bookfair, and Dan convinced him to come to Gambier the day after.

Associate Editor for The Kenyon Review Natalie Shapero was glad to have a different sort of writer come to campus. “I think it’s really exciting to have a writer of nonfiction,” she said. “So far, we’ve mostly had poets and fiction writers, so [Laskin’s reading] will be a nice addition to the mix.”

This is the first of David’s books to focus on his own family, though his other books have also focused on immigrant life. The Long Way Home details the lives of immigrants who fought for the U.S. in World War I, and The Children’s Blizzard is about children of immigrant families in the upper Midwest who were killed in a sudden blizzard that hit just as prairie school houses were letting out for the day. The Children’s Blizzard therefore also incorporates weather, a topic that David likes to explore. He also wrote a book about the history of American weather titled Braving the Elements.

Although The Family is about the Laskin family, Dan does not see the story as only applicable to them. “[The Family] could be about any number of American families,” he said. “One of the underlying premises of the story is that every American family has a story like this. It’s thrilling to think that people will connect with our story.”

“The response [from the Laskin family] has been overwhelmingly positive,” David said, admitting he did receive some corrections from family members. “They seemed very proud and very pleased. I didn’t pull any punches, I told everything that I found, and I think everyone learned a lot.” Dan believes that any reader will be able to relate to his family’s story. “He brings these characters to life in a way that many people say reads like fiction.”

The tendency for fiction to become interwoven into nonfiction is something that David works to balance, and something that he brought up at his reading. At the reading, he handed out an excerpt of The Family describing the arrival of his cousin Shimon at the Klooga concentration camp in Estonia. David took liberties in his writing, describing the air Shimon breathed as he got off the train and the process of the guards stripping him down and giving him a prisoner’s outfit. However, he backed up his writing with interviews from Klooga survivors, who gave David their own experiences for him to draw from.

“I feel like every writer can make their own ground rules,” David said. “I could have written the same exact book and called it fiction … but for me, my imagination works better to have that backboard of history. David defines his own writing style as “suspense-driven narrative nonfiction about people caught up in forces beyond their control.” During the talk, David told the audience that nonfiction writing is about “finding the sweet spot where ordinary people embody big history … You’re relating to the person, but you’re feeling history.”

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