Voices In My Blood–Why I Choose to Read and Write Historical Fiction
By G.G. Vandagriff
Back in the days before the Wall fell in Berlin, I was at George Washington University studying for my master’s degree in Eastern European Studies. I had no idea why. I was inexplicably captivated by everything in that part of the world-politics, economics, but mostly history.
My advisor was an escapee from Siberia, where he had been sent for his political beliefs. He still loved his country, however, as most Russians do. During our seminars we gradually picked up his world view. I had read all of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and some Gogol. The only book I had read from the Soviet years was Doctor Zhivago, but now I started reading Russian poets, playwrights, and other modern Russian novelists. Why? Because Dr. Petrov had explained that the best way to get a flavor for a period in history is to read a really excellent novel set in that age. I was passionate about Russia, for a reason I couldn’t explain. All the writings of the Russians seemed to call to something in my blood, though my ancestry was German-Russian’s greatest enemy!
In a like manner, I was fascinated by Poland, which I had visited as an undergraduate. The people there wore their national identity with great pride, though they were subject to the Soviets. They clung stubbornly to their religion-Roman Catholicism-though it was forbidden by their rulers. It was no surprise to me when Lech Walenza began Solidarite, the first union in the Soviet Bloc.
Shortly after completing my studies, I began digging around in my own family history. I had a very poor opinion of the Germans, though I was half German. I had lived in Austria, and much preferred that country to Germany. Then I found out something truly extraordinary! My mother’s Germans had lived in Russia for 140 years! This was imparted to me by my grandfather’s stepmother, who was still living at age 104, and had lived there herself. My grandfather was actually born there, a fact that was kept from him. My Russian fascination was a voice in my blood.
And what about Poland? As I studied my father’s Germans, I traced them back to Ratzebuhr, a town which was in the part of Germany that is now Poland. They had intermarried with Polenkas there, which seems to me to be a very Polish name. The Polenskas were wealthy aristocracy, back in their day.These voices worked in me, and because I am a writer, I eventually chose to write historical fiction, dealing with the old empires that affected my ancestors, and hoped that I was making it possible for those times to come alive for my readers as Dr. Petrov had promised.