Books

Natalie’s Wars

What’s the gist of Natalie’s Wars?

Natalie’s Wars is the story of a woman who struggles through World War II on the homefront and then with a husband suffering from PTSD in the years after he returns from combat and capture in Europe. In 1942, Natalie Pisano hastily marries Bill Costello before he ships out to fight the war in Europe. While Bill suffers through horrific combat episodes and eventual capture, Natalie goes to work at a defense plant. Overcoming self-doubt and opposition, Natalie’s uncanny ability to solve logistical problems leads to promotions from the tool sheds to trouble-shooter for the Director of Operations. But Natalie must grapple with the consequences of an affair, her father’s involvement in a ration coupon forgery scheme, and her mother’s revelation of a long-held secret that upends the family. When Bill returns, the worsening effects of his PTSD spiral into violent episodes that force Natalie to fight one more battle to save Bill and her family.

What inspired you to write this story?

I’ve always been fascinated by the lives of people whose lives change in dramatic and unexpected ways. In my first novel, Kevin, the protagonist in Sputnik Summer, is coming of age which is not remarkable in itself, but he witnesses a homicide and what he does in the aftermath changes his life. As I began to think of other projects, I realized that the lives of the people who lived through World War II and its aftermath were an incredibly rich store of characters and stories. I was born at the outset of World War II and grew up in the post-war years – largely unaware of the extraordinary, even momentous, events in the lives of people around me. They were simply there—family, friends, and neighbors – behaving in ways that seemed largely unremarkable to me. It wasn’t until later that I began to appreciate the exceptional lives these people lived. Many were recent immigrants and had gone through the Great Depression. When World War II broke out, the young men went off for two, three, even four years, only connected to their families by infrequent v-mail. The young women were thrust into roles they hadn’t anticipated and nothing had prepared them for. And when the veterans returned, many damaged in ways not fully understood, they (and their families) entered a post-war world dramatically changed from the one they’d left. I wanted to create characters who captured part of these extraordinary times and are, to paraphrase David Lodge, an amalgam of what I experienced, what I observed, what I read, and what I imagined.

Why Natalie?

Women like Natalie have been often idealized as heroic “Rosie-the-Riveters.” I didn’t set out to undermine this iconic view, but I imagined that many young women whose husbands, fiancés, and boyfriend had gone off to the service in World War II faced the kinds of challenges that beset Natalie – suddenly on their own, often working alongside men factories, and untethered from many traditional norms and roles. They led complicated lives. I also enjoyed the challenge of writing largely from a woman’s point of view and imagining how her character dealt with these circumstances and challenges. After the war, Natalie faces the challenge of a husband psychologically damaged by his experiences in combat and as a POW. While these may not be typical, they do highlight the fact that the experiences of men (and women) who went through the war in the service or on the homefront faced a post-war world that decidedly did not simply pick up where it left off in 1942. Even if not as radical as that experienced by Bill, those experiences in the service had to reshape the way they viewed themselves, their families, and the post-war world to which they returned. The GI Bill for example, provided millions of men the opportunity of a college education that changed their lives and would not have otherwise been something they would have expected before the war. Post-war prosperity was a boon – and a challenge. Millions of families like Natalie’s were launched from traditional working class lives into a new and daunting middle class. New homes in suburbia, a car in every garage, white collar rather than factory jobs, frozen food, Tupperware, menus from women’s magazines that were as much about how to live this middle class life as what new dishes to put on the table. These guide-books and artifacts of the new middle-class often put them at odds with the norms with which they grew up as well as those still prominent in the working class lives of their parents and some of their cohorts.

What about Bill?

Fortunately, Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome has become an important concern for Americans. But millions more men (and some women) experienced combat and related traumatic experiences in World War II than in America’s late-twentieth century wars. My research indicated that contemporary Americans were probably more familiar with the term “shell shock” – an artifact of World War I – than less specific concepts of “battle fatigue” which seemed more applicable to survivors of the long term stress of service in a war zone than single traumatic events. Bill’s “battle fatigue” ultimately has dramatic consequences, but I was taken by what might be the long-term impact of years of service in combat zones or simply divorced from normal civilian life. After the war, Bill returns psychologically damaged by his experiences in combat and as a POW. While these may not be typical, they do highlight the fact that the experiences of men and women who went through the war in the service or on the homefront faced a post-war world that decidedly did not simply pick up where it left off in 1942. Even if not as radical as that experienced by Bill, those experiences in the service had to reshape the way they viewed themselves, their families, and the post-war world they returned to. The GI Bill for example, provided millions of men the opportunity of a college education that changed their lives and would not have otherwise been something they would have expected before the war.

What sources did you use in writing the novel?

As a researcher, delving into the background of the story was as much, sometimes more, satisfying than actually writing the story. Fortunately, I discovered a rich array of sources for Natalie’s Wars. I relied on my memories of the lives of my family, their friends, neighbors, and others I observed in the years after World War II. It wasn’t until years later that I realized what I thought, as a young person, were people whose unremarkable lives were shaped by extraordinary events and circumstances. In addition to these recollections of life after World War II, I was able to get access to diaries, letters, photographs and other documents from World War II and the years following. Some recorded oral histories were another important source of background material. In addition, the rich fiction and non-fiction literature, especially that focusing on the lives of women working in defense plants and otherwise involved on the homefront, provided a wealth of background material. Newspapers and magazines from the war and post-war years were other important sources. The Watervliet Arsenal is the most important setting for the novel. John Snyder, Arsenal Public Affairs Officer gave me a copy of the excellent history of the Arsenal, Watervliet Arsenal: A History of America’s Oldest Arsenal,8th edition, 2013 along with supplemental information and answers to specific questions about the Arsenal.

Is there a sequel to Natalie’s Wars?

Yes. My first draft begins on New Year’s Eve, 1949 and follows Natalie and other characters from Natalie’s Wars into the first year of the 1950s, facing new challenges.

Natalie’s Wars is available from Amazon.com in paperback – $14.95 or ebook – $4.99 as well as select local bookstores.

SPUTNIK SUMMER

A teenager’s testimony about a homicide rips apart an Adirondack resort town.

It’s only a month into the summer of 1958, and 17-year old Kevin Boyle is already in trouble with an older girl. And a priest who’s zeroing in on Communists and degenerate books in the library is way too interested in his sex life. When he thinks nothing else can go wrong he sees his best friend’s brother shove a tourist to his death at a lakeside hangout. Or did he?

By the time the coroner’s inquest comes around, half the town thinks he’s caused the drop in tourism.  The other half think he’s mixed up with the suspect librarian, and his friends are sure he’s sold out to the lawyer who’s dangling a college scholarship and loan to his financially-strapped parents for the right testimony. Whatever Kevin says at the inquest will change his life.

Set in an Adirondack resort town, Sputnik Summer is a story of what happens when simmering tensions between tourists and the folks who rent to and wait on them every summer boil over. Dramatic events force characters to question whether they can trust their friends. What secrets could ruin their lives if revealed? What lies will they tell to get what they want?

Following is a recent interview with Paul Castellani.

Does Sputnik Summer have a theme?

I shy away from beginning a novel with a theme or a moral or a program in mind. Nonetheless, I’ve always been interested in people on the margins: people trying to move up; people trying to keep from falling back; and people caught in between. So, I think about characters and situations in which this struggle on the margins is central to the story. The protagonist in Sputnik Summer, Kevin Boyle, is seventeen years old, so he’s coming of age – coping with the challenge of becoming an adult. He wants to move out of his small town. And in his desire for more excitement in his last summer in Hawk Cove, he leaves his college-bound friends behind and joins the town’s faster crowd. Running a resort and having the stability of his father’s teaching job puts Kevin’s family a little farther up the ladder than many others in Hawk Cove, especially those who scrabble to get in the twenty weeks that qualify them for unemployment checks that will carry them through the winter. And in every resort town, there is an underlying tension between the “natives” who rent to, wait on – and often resent – the tourists who take over their town every summer. All of these are problems of being on the margins and moving from one situation to another – and they all spell trouble for Kevin.

Was there one thing that stimulated you to write this novel?

A tourist-townie baseball game that ended badly. I played on the townie side in a game not unlike the one in the novel. It was a one-off, not an annual event as in the novel, but it ended in an obscenity-laced fist fight between a kid I was palling around with and a tourist. There I was standing on the margin, the son of the owner of a cottage colony, watching my summer pal (whose single mother was a waitress) cursing the tourists, who were “demographically” closer to me than I was to my pal. I remember being confused, disconcerted. My pal was clearly out of line, but he was my pal. The memory ambushed me on and off for fifty years. Finally, I decided that there was the core of a novel in that time and that setting. I started Sputnik Summer “in the middle” with that pivotal episode and wrote up to it and then its aftermath.

The chapters of Sputnik Summer are days of the week: Sunday, July 13, for example. But you also have “headlines” and slogans for each day. Tell me more about this.

When I began to place the story in a time as well as a place, I realized that 1958 was a year with so many world-shaking events, I scarcely could imagine why so many think of the 1950s as a bland. Between May, 1958 and Labor Day: The Soviet Union launched its third Sputnik on a huge rocket with ICBM capability. The French Fourth Republic fell, and General Charles De Gaulle assumed power. Vice-President Nixon’s motorcade was stoned in Venezuela. In May, 69 people were killed in one of several airline disasters that year. Communists scored big election gains in Italy and Finland. A civil war raged in Lebanon, and President Eisenhower sent in the Marines. Turkey invaded and occupied half of Cyrus. Governor Orville Faubus and President Eisenhower were battling in court over the integration of public schools in Little Rock. The Soviets pulled out of negotiations in Geneva over Atomic Bomb talks. The Iraq government was overthrown in a Nassar-backed coup. Castro’s rebels were kidnapping Americans and on the verge of taking power in Cuba. And that was all before Labor Day.

Even though the characters in Sputnik Summer live in a small town in the Adirondacks and visit from surrounding cities, they are obviously aware of these events from newspapers, radios, and television news. I didn’t want to shoe-horn these events into the story. So, the headers of each chapter are New York Times headlines from that date. I wanted them to create a tone, a sense, a feeling of the tenor of the times. I also wanted to capture some of the cultural history. Hula Hoops. Elvis. Father Knows Best. The Millionaire. The Beats. The Communist threat. Get rich schemes on matchbooks. Hot Rods. I picked up a number of popular magazines from 1958 and used quotes from them for sub-headings. Which Twin Has the Tony; See the USA in Your Chevrolet; Learn Accounting at Home.

What do you want readers to take away from Sputnik Summer?

First and foremost, I want them to feel they’ve read a good story. I try to make my characters as complex and engaging as possible, but for me telling a good story is the primary objective. Beyond that, I think the core problems of friendship, loyalty, deception, ambition, and deciding who you are going to become are timeless, and I hope I provide a unique and engaging perspective on them. And, I hope within the context of a good story, Sputnik Summer takes on the issues of sexual abuse, the place of gay people in society, and the tensions between the diverse groups in a resort town in 1958. What’s the same? What’s different? And I’ve attended many readings and book discussions where readers surprise the author with what they’ve taken away from the novel.

Sputnik Summer is available from your local bookseller, Amazon.com and North Country Books, Utica, NY 1-800-342-7409 ww.northcountrybooks.com

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