As the author of eight books about various industries; a senior editor at Fortune and Institutional Investor magazines; and a freelance writer for The New York Times, Worth, and The Scientist – among many other publications — Fran Hawthorne has spent more than three decades writing award-winning nonfiction.
This spring, Hawthorne achieved a lifelong dream with the publication of her debut novel, The Heirs (Stephen F. Austin State University Press). The Heirs is the story of a Jewish soccer mom in New Jersey who becomes obsessed with investigating both her mother’s history of surviving the Holocaust in Poland, and the Polish-Catholic family of her son’s soccer teammate.
The Heirs is “a wonderfully engaging read,” says Debra Nussbaum Cohen, the New York correspondent for the major Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. Yona Zeldis McDonough, the fiction editor of Lilith magazine, calls it “a wise, thoughtful novel to savor.”
Hawthorne’s other books have focused on Big Pharma and the medical industry (Inside the FDA and The Merck Druggernaut, both published by John Wiley & Sons); the financial industry (the award-winning Pension Dumping, from Bloomberg Press); and business social responsibility and consumer activism (the award-winning Ethical Chic and The Overloaded Liberal, both from Beacon Press). To give one example: Ethical Chic was named one of the best books of 2012 by Library Journal.
But Hawthorne never stopped writing fiction in her spare time. (Indeed, she’s been reviewing novels as well as nonfiction for The New York Journal of Books and The National, based in Abu Dhabi, the largest English-language newspaper in the Middle East.)
Below is a synopsis of The Heirs, with an excerpt from Chapter One:
Synopsis: The Heirs
After breaking her hip in a serious accident, Eleanor Ritter’s mother, Rose, a Holocaust survivor now living in New Jersey, suddenly starts talking about her harrowing childhood as a Jew in Poland and the taboo subjects she has refused to discuss for half a century -– even speaking in long-forgotten Polish. Around the same time, Eleanor learns that the parents of her nine-year-old son’s soccer teammate, Tadek, are Catholics from Poland.
As Eleanor becomes fixated with digging into the histories of both her mother and Tadek’s family, her obsession strains her already difficult relationship with Rose, as well as her marriage to Nick, an IT technician who is himself caught up in preparing for the feared Y2K turn-of-the-millennium.
Eleanor starts flirting heavily with the soccer coach, ignoring her twelve-year-old daughter’s growing rebellion and her son’s misery when he becomes the team pariah for badly messing up several games. Meanwhile, the “sure-fire” tech stock that Eleanor bought behind Nick’s back is losing money. Even as her quest nourishes an odd friendship with Tadek’s mother, it forces Eleanor to face the unavoidable questions confronting any group that has suffered historical persecution:
How many generations does guilt carry on? What did your grandparents do to my grandparents?
“It was almost funny, in a way,” the emergency-room triage nurse said. She even smiled. “In what way,” Eleanor demanded – or maybe she shrieked – “is my mother falling down and calling 911 funny?”
The nurse immediately sat up straight in her padded swivel chair and grasped the edge of her steel desk with both hands. The turquoise nametag on her pale-blue uniform said: Marion Hanks. “Well, no, not that part. Oh not at all.”
Eleanor still glared at the woman. Yes, her mother had a smart, double-take kind of wit. Unexpected little pinches of humor. But Eleanor’s mother was not funny, and Eleanor’s mother did not fall down.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Hanks.” Natalie’s voice slid right in. It was a calm and even-paced voice, as always. Soothing. Half-apologetic. It came from all those years of practice, of being a judge and getting the parties to sit down and work out a compromise. Or maybe from not having to argue constantly with a twelve-year-old daughter who wanted to get her nose pierced. Or from living with a husband who was such a nice guy, as everyone always commented
“I’m sorry,” Natalie was saying, “but I guess my cousin and I aren’t quite clear on all the details of my aunt’s accident.” Natalie smiled back at Marion Hanks across the desk.
Of course Judge Natalie’s intervention worked. Marion Hanks nodded vigorously and picked out a manila folder from a set of metal dividers. 8 As the emergency-room staff had reconstructed the event, Rose Ritter probably slipped and fell in her bedroom, because that was where the EMTs had found her, lying on the carpet next to the night table with the telephone.
Alternatively, there was some disarray in the bathroom, so possibly she fell there and somehow crawled to the bedroom. “The X-ray showed an intertrochanteric hip fracture,” Marion Hanks continued, reading. She looked quickly at Natalie. Then Eleanor. “That’s a very common type of fracture, especially for older women.” It would be at least two hours before Rose would be out of surgery and could have visitors. The doctor would explain it all.
“But – will she be able to walk?” Eleanor asked. “How serious is the fracture?” Natalie added. “Will she be in a cast? How long will she be in the hospital?” The doctor would explain it after surgery.
It really was not an uncommon procedure. Marion Hanks’s smile was slipping. “I can’t believe she didn’t call me,” Natalie said to Eleanor. “Or you.” “So what’s the funny part?” Eleanor interrupted. Marion Hanks gave a little cough and looked at her fingers. “Well – of course, I didn’t really mean that it was funny. Or laughable in any way. I just want to reassure you that nobody took it badly.” “Took what badly?” Eleanor’s voice was heading to a shriek again. “Well, you see. When the EMTs were lifting her onto the stretcher for the ambulance, apparently Mrs. Ritter, ah, shouted at one of them. Called her a name.” “My mother? Shouting?” Now, instead of hesitating, Marion Hanks wouldn’t stop talking. “As it happens, that technician, that young lady, is newly arrived from Eastern Europe, so you see she recognized the language. The words. Your mother was shouting in Polish.” “Polish?” Eleanor and Natalie said the word at the same time. Or one breath apart. Natalie repeated it. Eleanor’s mouth hung open. They looked at each other, then back at Marion Hanks. “That’s incredible.” “She hates Poland.” “She hasn’t spoken Polish in over fifty years.” “She won’t even talk about when she lived in Poland.” “What,” Natalie asked, “was Aunt Rose allegedly saying in Polish?” Marion Hanks folded her hands on the desk and gave a little titter. 9 “Well. Yes. Well, of course, it’s not exactly funny but just, well, so extraordinary, under the circumstances, that, you know, you can only laugh? She called the young lady, ah, a ‘Nazi bitch.’ ” This was too much. Eleanor quickly sucked in her cheeks and stared raptly into her dark-green leather shoulder bag, pretending to dig for something, anything, so she wouldn’t burst out laughing, but her breath still emerged in a strange wheeze. To picture Rose Ritter, retired real estate office manager, Phi Beta Kappa in English from Hunter College, Class of 1951, with her red lipstick and silk blouse, calling an ambulance driver a Nazi bitch. In Polish. * * * It was like an invasion, to walk into her mother’s apartment when Rose wasn’t there. To see the damp, lacy bras hanging over the shower curtain rod and the copy of Newsweek on the seat of the rocking chair, a paper clip marking a page. The twin bed that had been Eleanor’s, now covered by a blue-and-red striped spread. The blue-flowered sofa that Rose and Izzy had bought for their thirtieth anniversary, and the wooden nightstand, with a small pile of books and the Tiffany lamp that Natalie had given Rose and the white telephone that Rose must have used to call 911. She’d placed the receiver properly back on its cradle. Plus photos. Jammed on every horizontal surface and a few mounted on the eggshell-colored walls, three-by-five, four-by-six, eight-byten, framed in cheap wood and fancy silver, in painted porcelain and bare Lucite. The 1950 wedding picture, of course, with Rose in a long silk gown and tulle veil, and Izzy in his rented tux. Rose variously as a wavy-haired young woman on a park bench, a new mother, a working girl at Macy’s, cigarette in hand. Izzy, serious, in his Columbia cap and gown, with his parents just as serious next to him. Rose and Izzy with the baby photos of Steven and Eleanor. Steven’s bar mitzvah. Eleanor and Nick’s wedding. Steven and Leah’s wedding out in San Diego, with the chuppah and rabbi and full religious trimmings. Natalie as a little girl with her parents. Natalie with Rose and Chana at her engagement party, Chana already in a wheelchair; that was probably the last photo ever taken of the two sisters. And of course Rose’s five grandchildren, a cornucopia of ages, together, separate, with their parents, with their grandparents. Nothing, however, from before her life in the United States, from before 1946. Nothing smuggled out of Poland. Nothing inscribed in Polish. Toilet paper trailed out, unspooled from its holder, through the 10 doorway of the bathroom where Rose might have fallen before she somehow dragged her ninety-pound body to the phone. Could she really have managed to crawl or limp the few yards from the bathroom, with a broken hip? Knowing Rose, that was perfectly possible, but did that mean the hip fracture hadn’t been serious? Or would the crawling have made it worse? Damn, how bad was Rose’s situation? A person didn’t die from a broken hip, did she? Natalie was carrying a small plaid suitcase, maybe from Rose’s front closet, as she walked over to Eleanor at the bathroom doorway. Briefly rubbing Eleanor’s shoulder, Natalie continued on into the bathroom, tore off the dangling paper, and shoved it into the little green trash pail by the sink. “She should be almost out of surgery now. Let’s finish up here so we can get back and talk to the doctor.” “What do we need to do here?” “Toiletries. Something to read. Anything to make her comfortable. With a broken hip, she’ll be staying in that damn hospital for a while.” Natalie’s long purple fingernails clicked on the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet as she pulled it open. “Ellie,” she added, her face aimed straight ahead into the cabinet, “have you been talking with your mother about Poland recently?” “No! Not since the whole blow-up in college. You know I wouldn’t.” Okay, so that wasn’t entirely true, but Natalie didn’t need to know about more of Eleanor’s failu and fights. For instance, wasn’t it perfectly natural, when Eleanor and Nick got engaged, for the bride-to-be to ask her mother what the mother’s wedding had been like? Wouldn’t most brides be interested in their family’s traditions? And then, um, well, wouldn’t that bride also ask about the mother’s parents’ wedding in Poland, which must have been in the early nineteen-twenties or late teens: How about your parents, Ma? Did Jewish brides back in Poland -– Why do you care about old Polish weddings? Isn’t it enough work to plan this one? Gee, Ma, I’m sorry it’s so much work for you. I thought you wanted to make this big hoo-ha wedding for your only daughter. Or when Kate and then Adam were born, it was worth a shot, anyway, to ask Rose if there wasn’t maybe a relative she’d like to name her grandchildren for. No. Eleanor did it anyway. If Rose realized that her grandson Adam was named in memory of her murdered-in-the-Holocaust older brother Avram, or possibly even a little pleased by the 11 honor, she sure never mentioned it. Of course Eleanor’s idea for Rose to speak at her school’s celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War Two had been a disaster. Okay. But the principal had invited a lot of veterans and Holocaust survivors, and Eleanor’s students might learn something from Rose’s mysterious history in Nazi Poland, so, well, why not give it a try? Rose had actually shouted at Eleanor. Which was probably the only time, until the EMT today, that anybody ever heard Rose Ritter shout. “No,” Eleanor repeated to Natalie. “I haven’t given up on getting Ma to talk, but I haven’t figured out a way that works.” Natalie didn’t say anything immediately, as she pulled out a pill bottle, read the label, and placed it on the closed toilet seat. “I had an idea the other day,” Eleanor continued. Leaning against the bathroom doorframe, she started tapping the opposite jamb, one finger after another, thumb to pinkie, and then back. “What do you think about this: I could ask Ma to help me write a Polish-French dictionary.” Natalie glanced quickly at Eleanor. “What?” “See, that would be something we could do in common. Language skills. My French training. Her memory of Polish.” “Why would anyone want a Polish-French dictionary?” “That’s very American-centric of you.” Eleanor grinned. “How do you know people in France wouldn’t want to travel to Poland?” “Ellie – ” “Oh, don’t worry. Obviously, I won’t try to start anything now while Ma is in the hospital and we don’t even know what’s wrong with her.” Eleanor slid her hand halfway down the eggshell-painted jamb. “But you know, now that’s talking Polish? Or at least two words in Polish. ‘Nazi bitch.’ Do you think this might be – you know— some kind of change? She might be willing to talk about her past?” For another half-minute, Natalie stared silently into the medicine cabinet. “A couple of days ago,” she said softly, easing the door shut, “your mother said something about Poland to me.” On the floor above them, a person was walking quickly, but then stopped. Water ran through pipes. “I told her that I was going into Manhattan, to the Met. And she said that when she was little, it was such a treat to go Warsaw.” Shrugging slightly, Natalie turned toward Eleanor. “She -–?” Eleanor’s voice was somewhere between a cough and a whisper. “Warsaw?” 12 “Yes. I was pretty astonished, too. In fact, I think that’s why I kept jabbering, almost on autopilot, because it didn’t sink immediately in that this was Aunt Rose talking about Poland. So I asked her what sorts of things she liked to do in Warsaw.” Rose talked about Poland? Rose talked about Poland with Natalie. “She mentioned the big, wide streets.” Natalie’s voice grew firmer and faster. “Those same streets my mother told us about, remember? And the shops — oh, yes, she said there were elegant shops along some of the grandest boulevards, with furs and the newest fashions in the windows, and ladies walking down the sidewalk dressed just like those window mannequins. You know the Twenties fashions? The little cloche hats and strings of pearls?” No. Eleanor did not know or give a shit about fashions of the Roaring Twenties. Rose talked to Natalie about fashions in Warsaw. Natalie, merely to schlep to the hospital on a Saturday, was dressed almost as elegantly as those Warsaw ladies must have been: a navy blazer, a cream-colored silky blouse, tight black slacks, and black pumps. “What else? Did she say anything else?” “Nothing else. It was as though she suddenly discovered that she’d said a bad word, and she just stopped up her lips. And then she asked me if I’d had any interesting cases recently, and what about the hit-andrun I’d told her about last week?” As she began to move out of the bathroom, Natalie smiled and reached again to Eleanor’s shoulder. “Ma talked about Poland.” “Amazing, I know.” “To you.” “I wonder if the trauma of breaking her hip could prompt some psychological reaction that would also prompt memories of her childhood?” “She spoke to you. She hasn’t talked to me.” There was a loud puff of air from Natalie’s mouth. Eleanor shut her eyes. Okay. Okay. This didn’t matter right now, who Rose spoke to. What mattered was that her mother had broken some part of her hip, and she was in the hospital, and soon the doctor would tell them how serious it was. “Ellie – ” “It’s okay. It’s okay. What else do we need to get for Ma?” Turning away from Natalie, Eleanor glanced around her mother’s bedroom. 13 “Maybe the Newsweek?” She took a step toward the rocking chair. “It was just lucky timing. I mentioned the Met, and that sparked something in her.” “Listen, Natalie, you know? She’s talking about Poland. She’s talking Polish with ambulance drivers. Who knows what she’ll do next?” At that, Natalie poured out a big laugh. “Do you think she’ll swear in another language at someone else?” “At least your mother taught you some Polish vocabulary while she was alive. Did you learn the words for ‘Nazi bitch’?” Natalie laughed again. “Sorry, Ellie. Just the same phrases she taught you, I think. The basics. ‘Good morning.’ ‘Thank you.’ Do you remember how to say them?” “Sure. Dzień dobry is ‘good morning.’ Dziękuję is ‘thank you.’ ” “Ah. You’re good with languages.” “Because I switched my major to goddam French.” Carefully, Natalie folded the pink quilted bathrobe (size petite) that she’d picked up from the foot of Rose’s bed. “Ellie. Please. Don’t push her again. At least not right now.” Grabbing the Newsweek, Eleanor walked over to the nightstand. All three books were Sue Grafton mysteries; the top one had a bookmark three-fourths of the way through, so should Eleanor take all three to keep her mother busy? Or only the nearly finished one plus one more for now? How could anyone know what Rose would prefer? “It’s just – ” She stared at the books. “Look, I’m sure this hip surgery isn’t, like, brain surgery. You know? It’s not the most serious problem a person could have. But I just – ” Natalie was standing next to Eleanor, wrapping an arm which also pressed the bathrobe into her spine. “All these years, we’ve held back, haven’t we? Respected her privacy. Not wanting to stir up painful memories? I never even asked my mother if she ever talked to your mother. And now, it seems as if, exactly when she might be starting to talk, she’s struck down. Is that how you’re feeling?” Eleanor nodded. “It’s okay, Ellie. It’s only a broken hip. It happens all the time to older women, because of calcium depletion.” “Ma takes calcium.” “So there you are. We’ll have lots of time to talk to her after she recovers from this. If she wants to talk.” Time. Shit. 14 The alarm clock on Rose’s nightstand said eleven-seventeen. “Shit, I’ve got to – Adam’s soccer game is supposed to end at noon, and a parent is supposed to be there – it’s his first game this year, he probably screwed up, and – ” “Okay.” “His friend Matthew’s mother took him to the game but I should really be there to pick him up.” “So go.” “But Ma.” “I’ll go to the hospital,” Natalie said calmly. To be with Rose when she came out of anesthesia? To talk to the doctor? “No!” Eleanor snapped. “Look, why don’t you go to the soccer game instead?” Shaking her head, Natalie patted the bathrobe into the small suitcase and reached out for the books that Eleanor was clutching. “Don’t be silly. You’re his mother. You have to be there.” “And she’s my mother!” Natalie yanked the books away from Eleanor’s arms. “So ask Nick to go to Adam’s game.” “Oh, sure.” As if anyone could find Nick, deep in the basement of some office building with his computers. Although he had one of those new cellphone-things that he’d also given Eleanor, he claimed the phone didn’t work in most basements. Which, to be fair, was probably true if it was like Eleanor’s, which barely worked anywhere. “You know the world will collapse at midnight on December thirty-first if Nick doesn’t personally fix all the computer codes before then?” “Go to the soccer game, Ellie.” * * * She should have tried calling Nick. She should have just let Adam go home with Matthew. She should be driving to the hospital with Natalie. She could be there right now, carrying Rose’s toothbrush and books, getting the information directly from the doctor, waiting for Rose to wake up from anesthesia. What if Rose wanted help, for once? What if she even started talking about Poland again? But no, Eleanor had a son with a soccer game and a husband way, way too busy saving the world’s computers before the Year 2K to take a few hours off for his son on a Saturday, so Eleanor was zig-zagging down eight miles of northern New Jersey side streets to Adam’s soccer field, pushing thirty-five in the twenty-five-mile zones. There was an abrupt, loud, scraping noise, as Eleanor began a right 15 turn. She slammed on the brake. Goddammit. Her car was inches away from a parked, vivid-green sports car, and that car’s mirror was bent forward at an odd angle. That must have been the loud noise, her car scraping against the mirror, shoving it out of position. Still, it was only a mirror. Otherwise, the other car looked okay. She hadn’t actually caused any damage. Side-view mirrors were supposed to move. Eleanor glanced around the intersection: small front lawns, houses covered in aluminum siding of dulled blue and beige, a couple of bikes half-propped on their handlebars and tires. No one had emerged from any of those houses brandishing papers and gesturing at the sports car.. No one had seen the little encounter. It was just a stupid mirror. Eleanor lowered her foot onto the gas pedal and, slowly, turned the corner toward the soccer field.