Debut Novelist Sees Parallels Between 1930s America and Todayby Brie Stimson February 10, 2017
When Anita Mishook began researching for her novel Helen she had no idea what she was going to discover. In delving into America of the 1930s she found eerie similarities to today’s’ political climate. “Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it,” Mishook summarizes philosopher George Santayana’s famous quote as a warning.
The Orange County writer, who is a trained psychologist, planned to base her debut novel on her mother’s, mother-in-law’s and aunt’s lives.
“The first story was going to be my late mother-in-law who was herself orphaned in Poland, came over at the age of 12 to stay with her brother in New York, and then at the age of about 24 she immigrated to Los Angeles to help her older sister and brother-in-law in their family liquor store,” Mishook explains. “I was going to follow that with a second story in the book about my mother Rose who is a Canadian citizen who came to Los Angeles in 1946, pregnant with me, making me the first generation citizen.”The last part of the novel would have been about her aunt who moved to Israel immediately after it was declared a state then later returned to the U.S.
But she said the more she researched 1936, specifically Los Angeles in 1936, the story began to take on a life of its own.
“To do the novel I needed to create … an eponymous character ‘Helen’ who was not my mother-in-law , was not my mother-in-law’s exact story,” Mishook explains. “It would start out as her story, but my character would have a much more interesting life because she would find herself accidentally involved with the American Bund movement and the Silver Shirts and their efforts, among other things, to build a headquarters for Hitler on the Pacific Coast.”
One thing that intrigued Mishook about her character was the idea of being what she calls a “double immigrant,” a person who first immigrates to the United States, then moves again across the country. She also focuses of the struggle of Jews trying to immigrate to the U.S. and often being turned away.
While she doesn’t like to draw exact parallels, Mishook is alarmed by the similarities she found between America of the 1930s and today.
“What occurred in the United States was that not only people of German descent but many other people viewed the Nazi movement in Germany as sort of a cleansing movement to restore dignity to individuals who had lost their way,” she says. “This was of course what Hitler was promoting that it was going to restore Germany to its former rightful place.”
She says Nazism was tied to a certain degree with the isolationist movement in the U.S. After the devastation of World War I the country was reluctant to get involved in another war. And World War I was followed, a decade later, by the Great Depression. “Virtually 25 percent of the population of the United States of working age could not find a job so everyone was quite frightened,” Mishook says. “This is what caused that Nazi movement to look good to a certain group of people.”
Mishook says an immigration bill was proposed in Congress in the 1930s to let 20,000 refugee children fleeing the Nazi occupation of Europe into the United States.
“That bill died in congress,” she says, “and it died in congress, in part, due to the efforts of the Daughters of the American Revolution who did not want to allow those individuals into the country and who said children should not be allowed into the country unless they were accompanied by a parent, and of course no one wanted the parents to come into the country, so not only did the bill die but the children did as well.”
She says she sees similarities with the people who voted for President Trump in the Midwest, Rust Belt and the South. “[They are] very disaffected individuals who have not seen their wages go up, individuals who have lost their jobs, individuals who feel that the country is being taken over by other people whose values they do not like and whose goals they don’t appreciate.” Kellyanne Conway’s statement about “alternative facts,” Trump’s insistence, without evidence that millions of people voted illegally, his attempts to delegitimize the press and his statements that his followers will support him no matter what he does are also troubling and familiar to her.
“The Nazi government took over the press,” Mishook states. “Certainly the press was only allowed to state what that government wanted to state and that was one of the many ways in which Hitler gained power.”
While she set out only to write an interesting book, Mishook soon realized she was making a political statement. “The more I explored that time the more I felt that there were parallels to our time so it did become a political statement for me,” she says. She is also working on another book about a totalitarian society.
And she is deeply politically active and feels the Women’s March was a step in the right direction. “I think the Women’s March was a demonstration of how many people – not just women – how many people are deeply concerned about the direction the government is going in, and it served as a focal point for individuals to then feel that there were enough other people who felt that way that they are now empowered to take appropriate political action as citizens,” Mishook says.
She believes it’s important for people to constantly put pressure on members of congress, and to remind them that almost three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than President Trump. “I think that our representatives and senators need to hear in a reasonable and rational way what the people of the United States actually do want and I don’t think they want what they’re getting,” she says.
Helen is available in bookstores and on Amazon.