Henry August Blankenfeld. My grandma Cleo’s grandpa.
Shown here at age 24.
Born: Oct 31, 1881 in Thornburg, Iowa. Died: Mar 14, 1963 in Niobrara, Nebraska. Married Mary Ellen Vaughn. Son of Heinrich Jacob Blankenfeld (of Biechowo, West Prussia) and Maria Eigler Blankenfeld (of Rudwig, Austria). A second-generation immigrant, known for his engineering prowess.
This last weekend we spent some time in Niobrara, Neb. at the Blankenfeld family reunion. As you may know, I’ve been working with my Grandma on some ancestry projects over the past year, and it was nice to share some of the fruits of that labor. I’ve also been using some of the Blankenfeld family lore as a model for Jacob Bressler in my novel-in-progress The Hyphenates of Jackson County. In this regard, the trip was especially significant for me.
We were able to visit the original Blankenfeld homestead site, where Jacob and Maria settled in 1885. Although no structures remain—there was a hill where the original dugout had been—it was pretty cool to just stand there and appreciate the terrain. The area hadn’t seemed especially rocky and hilly before, in my previous trips to the area, until I imagined trying to cultivate it by hand. Later, we stopped into a museum of sorts that was made from the preserved farm of my Great-Great-Grandfather Henry Blankenfeld. He’s the model for Jacob in the novel–visually, and some of his history as the son of immigrants–so it was really exciting to walk through the house and barn he built himself, to eat an apple from a tree he planted, to descend the staircase his wife descended on the day they were married.
It’s always difficult to appraise how valuable experiences like these will be to my work. For one, who knows where the writing is going to take me. Will I need to know what the grass smells like? The flora? The fauna? Or how the sky there has its own unique blue, the air a particularly humid cloyingness? Also, in Hyphenates, Jacob comes from a different part of the state, one with a terrain closer to Omaha’s than Niobrara’s. So it isn’t like I can just sit down and make a sketch of the landscape to use in the novel.
Mostly it’s just helpful to be there, to be put in a spot that’s loaded with memories specific to my family, and where events took place that were crucial to my very existence. I’ve always had the kind of memory that retains periphery details well, so it’s a great benefit to just listen to stories, especially while smelling the grass and listening to the leaves in a tree. It isn’t that I necessarily came away with anything specific that I can add to the story—and I’m not saying I didn’t, I just don’t know yet—but it feels like I’ve gained a much better appreciation of what it was like to be alive in a time other than my own, even if it isn’t the exact era I’m writing about. And that’s something that can’t really be replicated in an archive or by looking at old photographs. It’s getting caught up in other people’s memories, and not just that, but doing so while standing on the very ground where things happened.
Dispatch from “Shame Cycle”
“Anna was sixteen when she approached you at a downtown record store and you began seeing her not long after that. This was the summer before your freshman year of college, when she invited you to a party and claimed possession of your body, parading you around the smoky rooms of parties. You considered it a move up in social scene from the part-time Nu Metal rebels you knew in high school to this career class of punks. The hard-drinkers, veteran sludge rockers, and sometimes transients who pocked the city so visibly in those days. These were people Anna exposed you to, her friends. They hitchhiked to New York and ran drugs from the Mexican border for South Omaha gangs, they bought a tattoo gun to save trips to the parlor, they had shaved-in mullets and handlebar mustaches, they screamed swear words into ice cream parlors as protests against capitalism. These people were the real deal as far as you were concerned then—or as close to it as one could get in Omaha.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
One of the more fulfilling aspects of writing this book is that it affords me the opportunity to look further into my own family history. Most of the research I’ve done pertains to historical figures and the circumstance of their lives, and to 1918 Omaha itself more broadly, its social functions, clothes, shops, music. But I’ve been filling in a lot of Jacob Bressler’s character (who is entirely fictional) with my family history. And lucky for me, my grandma Cleo Blankenfeld Croson is also very interested in this topic. She’s helped me learn about my great-great-great grandfather Henry Blankenfeld, who was born near Danzig, West Prussia (present-day Gdańsk, Poland) in 1843 and his wife Maria Eigler Blankenfeld, who was born in Rudig, Austria (which is near Innsbruck, I believe) in 1852. We’re hoping to find out more on their arrival to America, but we do know they were married in Geneseo, Illinois in 1869. They did many jobs around Illinois and the Dakotas (and presumably before then too, wherever they landed) before homesteading near Niobrara, Nebraska, where my grandma grew up. We’ll be going there in July for a family reunion, which should be exciting. I’ve been there many times in my life, but never with this kind of active knowledge, I suppose.
For the past two years I’ve been reading up on German history, just to have some background in it, to understand where my title hyphenates were coming from. I wondered what kinds of stories their parents and relatives would have told them about their fatherland, since none of my German-American characters would have ever even been to Germany themselves. Why were so many of their fore-bearers emigrating? What drove their families (and my family for that matter) to America in the first place? There was constant war in Europe during this period, of course, and the Franco-Prussian War would have directly affected Henry. Many young men fled Prussia to escape conscription, which is what I assume Henry’s reason was too, although I can’t really know that for sure. There were many difficulties in those years associated with the Unification of German states. The Kulturkampf came a bit later, so I doubt the Blankenfelds would have been involved in that. It’s unlikely they were Catholic or Socialist anyway.
And Henry would have been too young to be a Forty-Eighter, one of the many failed democratic revolutionaries who came to North America from Europe. So there’s so much I can’t really know. Maybe a trip to Ellis Island would prove lucky, but very few of the databases I’ve found online go back far enough to be helpful. I’d like to go to Europe and root around, but no one kept records in that part of the world, or they were destroyed. Gdańsk itself has been under a dozen different governments in its history—and four of those since Henry Blankenfeld’s birth.
The interesting part for me—coming from the standpoint of a novelist—is that it’s almost better to not know. When I was his student at Creighton, Brent Spencer often referred to the art of fiction as pursuing the mystery, which I’ve always loved. It’s kind of a mystic, Jesuit way of filling in the blanks. On a personal level, I’d love to have all the details of my family history. It would be incredible to know exactly where we come from—to be able to go there and place my hands on that earth. But as a writer, it’s better to avoid that sort of conscriptive knowledge. The character Jacob Bressler is better for my lack of knowledge in this sense, because it gives me enough blanks to come to the story I’m telling, not the history behind it.
Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County
“’You know they used to call Dennison the King Gambler.’ The Pfarrer was up on the balcony again, a new glass of wine in hand. ‘Did you know this about your boss? He swindled a $100,000 on a boxing match in Louisiana. A fixed fight. He started as a bouncer and a sportsman out west, when he was your age, clearing out whole card halls in Denver playing faro. He hooked on here after winning big on the Louisiana fight, got the Daily Bee and the Perpetual Mayor on his side. Whole books have been written against Dennison and his underworld sewer, but he slips retribution. Nothing sticks to him.’”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
Ragtimeby E.L. Doctorow. Along with Edward P. Jones, Doctorow is one of the two most famous historical novelists who claim to have done little to no research for their novels, relying rather on memory and imagination. I’m a little skeptical about this, but can see how it could be true. (For one, there were a few moments when I knew he was off.) Doctorow writes with such authority on well-known figures, but he mostly focuses on private moments that cannot really be refuted as the basis of his work. Who can say what Houdini was thinking at a particular moment, hanging upside-down from a building? And if the writing is entertaining, why would you want to intrude with literal truth anyway? As above, the less you know, the more freedom you have to invent. A great book. The movie adaptation was pretty good too.