In the course of human events, the actual individual humans can matter. At the very least Michele Lang seems to think so; in today’s Big Idea about her latest novel Dark Victory, Lang looks at how individual people have made a difference to others in the tale of their own lives, and how that point relates to her historical fantasy novel, complete with vampires, werewolves, and, of course, Nazis.
The first time I stopped by, I wrote about the Big Idea for the Lady Lazarus trilogy — here it is if you’d like to read more. Now the second book, Dark Victory, is out, and I want to write about the Little Idea in these books, the logline that propels me each day as I write about the Jewish witch Magda Lazarus, her little sister Gisele, and their best friend Eva Farkas.
The lodestone of these books is “Little Women in Hell.”
If you haven’t read Little Women that probably won’t mean much to you, but there’s a world of possibility in there for me. Little Women was one of the books I imprinted on when I was about twelve years old, and it tells the story of four sisters and their adventures growing up in New England during the Civil War. Homey, heartwarming, a little corny, and there are no Nazi werewolves or fallen angels to be found. But, still, it’s a terrific book.
When I hunker down to write my books each day, I try not to think too much about the Big Ideas behind them, because they are rather too big. World War II itself is gigantic, and overwhelming.
Instead I narrow my focus to these characters, who love each other so much they do the impossible to help each other survive. And I marvel at how regular people get through epic catastrophes like World War II one day at a time. Despite the magical creatures roaming through these books, the story is really about these three girls.
The Lady Lazarus books have been called historical urban fantasy, and marketing-wise I think that makes a lot of sense. Vampires, check. Werewolves, check. Gritty, noir setting, check. Explodey stuff, magical battles, extremely evil bad guys, hells yeah.
But structurally these books are different from urban fantasies by Jim Butcher, Kat Richardson, and Patricia Briggs. The stories of Harry Dresden, Harper Blaine, and Mercy Thompson all rock my socks, and I love them madly.
But my stories arise out of a different place. The Lady Lazarus books are magical memoirs. They are told by a girl who has spellcasting abilities, but who is not aligned with great powers and principalities, at least not at the beginning. These books owe a lot more, structurally and emotionally, to the war memoirs I’ve gobbled up since I was a young, survivor guilt-ridden kid.
What always strikes me when I read wartime memoirs is how small the stories are, the human scale. In these memoirs, sausage matters. The right kind of shoes matters. The weather really, really matters. And more than anything, friends matter. Every single memoir I have read points to love as the key to survival.
And not love of country, nor love of abstract noble ideals either. No, I’m talking about the papa who insists you wear ski boots instead of your pretty shoes when it’s time to go on a forced march. Gerda Klein’s father saved her life that way. There’s a scene in Dark Victory where a member of the resistance talks to Magda and gives her courage through the wall of their prison. That scene is inspired by Jean-Pierre, the doomed leader in Agnes Humbert’s Resistance.
In my own, much more mundane way, I get by with the help of my friends, too. Here’s the merest example. My college days in New York City were sometimes grim, and I remember walking down Broadway with my friend Pat one bitter winter day. I was dazed and raw and wrecked. Let’s just say I’d been mentally and emotionally assaulted, and it hurt.
The light was failing, and Pat was taking me to Tom’s Restaurant to get some food — I hadn’t eaten in a while. The man started following us around 112th street, though it was Pat not me who noted that detail. The first I noticed him was when he grabbed my arm, and said something so disgustingly sordid and foul that I stopped walking in shock.
He closed in, and Pat leaped between us, shouting in the guy’s face. “Get away from her!” she yelled, putting all of her five feet between me and this enormous, stinky guy. “Leave her alone!”
I stood there numb, not really able to do anything more than take a step back. The guy looked between me and Pat, hesitated. I was an easy target, but Pat was a lioness. After another minute the guy gave up and backed away.
Pat saved me that twilight, because I was so low I couldn’t protect myself anymore. She stood by me until I could get back on my feet again.
I’d be nothing without my friends. Actually, I guess that is a pretty Big Idea.