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.
As Antopol’s fact-checker, my first step was to decipher contextual clues to best ascertain the time during which these events would have taken place. After settling on the range spanning 1939 and 1944, I did my best to Internet-educate myself on the social and political climate of Belarus at the time, and to learn all I could about Eastern European underground movements during WWII, as well as post-Holocaust immigration patterns. This pursuit lured me down several research rabbit holes, as I got to throw myself into juicy accounts documenting Soviet partisans (more often described as Russian guerilla fighters), the real-life forest-dwelling anarchists known for instigating attacks similar to those perpetuated by the fictional Raya and Leon. And after attempting in vain to track down a uniform factory in Raya’s hometown, I came to the sobering realization that describing such a workplace in these terms had most likely been Antopol’s artful way of conveying a 13-year-old’s interpretation of her job at a German work camp. (Clues that emerged as I reread: the mention that Yiddish was “forbidden in the factory,” and radio reports about “soldiers finding themselves ill-equipped for the Russians” and “needing more people to work sewing uniforms and fixing weapons and equipment.”)
Because so much has changed geographically within the story’s setting (Belarus’s then-border, for instance, sits in modern-day Poland), and because some crucial information was not readily available online, I soon realized I would need to seek input from a Belarusian scholar. Fortunately, one of the United States’ sole experts fitting this bill, a gentleman from Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas, provided enthusiastic guidance and, for those questions he was unable to answer, kindly directed me to fellow experts. (This PhD’s rolodex, luckily, counts Eastern European diplomats, linguists, historians and translators.)
Over the next several days, I worked with this professor, Ecotone associate editor Beth Staples, and Antopol to suggest alterations to a few crucial pieces of information within the story. For instance, the original name of the village to which Raya escapes did not quite work, as it’s located about 600 kilometers from her starting point, and the story did not document Raya crawling through sewers for weeks. To replace it, I found another, more geographically plausible city, yet this presented a new challenge: to check out, this one would have had to house a working train station at the time the story takes place. (For those of you who miss math, just try to think of fact-checking as literary algebra!) Haradziec is such a tiny town that there’s scant information about it online. Luckily, my new best friend, the Belarusian scholar, had a friend who was able to send me photo evidence of a WWII train station that’s no longer standing, right in Haradziec proper. Bingo!
To fact-check this story, I logged several hours on JewishGen.org. I sought emigration quotas from the Holocaust Memorial Museum. I grilled my college buddy Rob, who went on to get a master’s in Slavic Studies from Georgetown. I sat down with an actual Yiddish grandmother. I got invited to a Belarusian language summer immersion program. (Note to aspiring fact-checkers: when you take a keen interest in someone’s lifelong work and devotion—especially if it concerns esoteric subject matter—there’s a good chance he or she will be unaccustomed to the attention—and overjoyed by it!) I even gave myself an excuse to savor an anarchy-chic and rugged-as-ever Daniel Craig starring in the 2008 film Defiance. (This “sacrifice” stemmed from my sneaking, although unconfirmed, suspicion that Craig’s character, Tuvya Bielski—a real-life Belarussian and underground leader who escaped the Nazis and, along with fellow Soviet partisans, operated roving Jewish camps in the forest before ending up a truck driver in New York—had provided inspiration for Antopol’s Leon Moscowitz character.)
Lightbulb moments like these, and the general sense that your brain is busy building a network of new synaptic bridges to contextualize all the information you’re absorbing, are just a few of the rewards to be reaped through the fact-checking process. The intensive level of investigation that historical fiction requires is rife with intellectual hurdles, new acquaintances, fast-paced learning, and opportunities to put your resources to the test. I would wager that this is not so dissimilar to the pursuit of time travel. So buckle up, literary gumshoes!
Katie O’Reilly is Ecotone’s managing editor. She blogs about nonfiction for the Michigan Quarterly Review, and her essays and journalism have appeared or are forthcoming in Vela Magazine, Buzzfeed, Longreads, the James Franco Review, Bustle, Texas Monthly, NPR, Against the Current, and various magazines serving the spa and beauty industries. She’s a nonfictioneer, but when it comes to fact-checking, fiction is her favorite.