Our new series, Fact Check, is just what it sounds like: in it, Ecotone editors and staffers offer a glimpse into the world of the literary fact check. This first essay comes from managing editor Katie O’Reilly, who fact-checked Molly Antopol’s “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” which was reprinted in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015.
Ever fantasized about building a time-travel machine and careening backward through history? If so I highly advise trying the poor (wo)man’s alternative: fact-checking a work of historical fiction. Triple that recommendation if you’re lucky enough to land a story assignment as rich, riveting, and significant as Molly Antopol’s “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story”—the Holocaust-era tale of escape that kicked off Ecotone 16, the Migration Issue.
The story, an excerpt from Antopol’s The UnAmericans, traces 13-year-old Raya, a Jew living in Belarus and working at a “uniform factory,” and her illicit escape from her Nazi-occupied native village. Her travels through a network of sewers, and her inadvertent arrival at the forested work-camp site of a faction of the subversive “Yiddish Underground,” is revealed by current-day Raya, a Brooklyn-based grandma. She tells her curious granddaughter, a contemporary twenty-something, all about helping the camp’s young anarchists to build weapons, sneaking into nearby villages to rob peasants, and scheming to dislodge rail lines serving German policemen—all to attack Nazi soldiers. Raya also relays the story of her migration to the United States. Following a violent coup, Raya and the leader of the forest revolutionaries, fifteen-year-old Leon Moskowitz, attempt to immigrate to Palestine. However, they miss the quota and are instead loaded onto a boat to the States, where they marry and have a family, and where Leon becomes a career delivery driver for a beer distributor.
Fiction can be a tricky nut to fact-check, as its very definition lends authors prerogative to write whatever they please. Editors are not (or should not be) in the business of cross-examining anyone’s imagination or psyche; however, especially when a story’s setting depends upon such a loaded, complex, and recent period of history as this one, our credibility is on the line.Continue Reading