Alison Pick’s suspenseful, multilayered novel, Far to Go (House of Anansi Press), tells the story of a family of secular Jews in Czechoslovakia on the brink of the Nazi invasion. Decades later, a Holocaust studies professor delivers family letters to their intended recipient, with shocking results.
CJN: Could you tell us how your grandparents’ escape inspired your book?
Alison Pick: My grandfather was out of the country on business when the Nazis invaded. An ardent Czech nationalist, he never returned to his homeland. He was able to bribe for the papers to get my grandmother out: like Anneliese Bauer in Far to Go, my Granny boarded the last train leaving Prague and, like Anneliese, she was turned back at the border.
Unlike the Bauers, my grandparents eventually made it to safety. Their shared passport reveals gymnastic-like logistics – they travelled to Italy, Greece, Palestine, London and Trinidad before arriving in Canada. Once here, they embarked on a journey that I can only assume was equally harrowing: learning the fate of their relatives, afraid for their children as Jews in Canada, they decided to renounce the faith.
CJN: In the Czech chapters, Marta, the family nanny, makes a perfect narrator – no one could describe the textured intimacies of daily life better – yet she also plays an important role in what happens. How did you come up with Marta?
Pick: I had to wrestle with Marta more than any other character. Anneliese is based vaguely on my father’s mother, whom I knew into my adulthood, and while I found [the Bauers’ son] Pepik’s perspective difficult, I understood this small boy from the get-go. The challenge with Marta was to make her at once likeable and unreliable – her unreliability or naïveté creates tension. In early drafts, she came across as more sinister than I’d intended, so I focused on bringing out her humanity, her love for Pepik, and her uncertainty in the face of the tumultuous times.
CJN: Betrayal and the rediscovery of one’s roots are strong themes in your book. How did writing about this period in your family history affect you?
Pick: I already knew about my dad’s family – they were Jewish, they’d denied their Judaism, their relatives died in the camps. The writing process allowed me to explore these things further and wrestle with the question of motivation.
As a child in the ’70s in southern Ontario, I was aware of tolerance and diversity; I was unaware of the systemic discrimination that pervades western culture. The message I received was that I could and should be exactly who I was, and so should everyone around me. Thus, the discovery that my grandparents had concealed their ‘true’ identities not only from their community but from their own children was confusing and upsetting.
As I grew, I was better able to understand their decision in context: the anti-Semitism that pervaded Canada at that time, the fact that my grandmother’s family had been entirely non-practising, and most significantly, the terror they must have felt about what happened in Europe. The writing process deepened my understanding and my compassion for their decision [to deny Judaism].
Conversely, through the character of Pavel, I could explore another option: that one’s Judaism could be strengthened in adversity, could be newly appreciated, better lived. It was encouraging to me to fully inhabit this potentiality as I took the steps to reclaim what had been lost and studied for official conversion back to Judaism.
CJN: What interested you in following Pepik aboard a Kindertransport organized by English stockbroker Nicholas Winton?
Pick: That was purely a literary decision, a way for the reader to see what happened to Pepik’s family in the wake of his departure – how things turned out in the end. So much of writing a novel is pacing. I wanted to resolve all the threads at a speed that was satisfying for the reader. I considered continuing further into the first months of the war and, concurrently, with Pepik at his adoptive home in Scotland, but the book seemed to want to wind up sooner. For me, writing involves listening closely to the material and following where it leads. Sounds hokey maybe, but when I trust my instinct over my intellect, nine times out of 10, the book is stronger for it.
CJN: “I had never in my life felt so close to someone and at the same time so far away,” Prof. Lisa thinks as the book’s mysteries unfold. Is that a fair description of your own journey of discovery?
Pick: Yes, now that you mention it, that about sums it up! As does her statement about longing to keep searching for new information and insight, even though everyone involved is dead and gone.
In my case, my father is left, but both my grandparents, and of course their parents, aren’t around anymore for me to ask what happened and why, and how they felt about it. Happily, though, the process of writing the book did make me feel like I was spending time with them somehow. I felt closer to my grandfather in particular.
Despite family lore that Judaism wasn’t important to them, my research revealed a more complex story. I learned that my great-grandmother, who also escaped to Canada, fasted secretly on Yom Kippur every year of her life. And my grandfather once said, in response to his cousin converting to Christianity [hoping it would help her escape], that he wouldn’t convert if he were the last Jew on earth.
I have now converted to Judaism, as has my husband, and we are raising our baby daughter in the faith. So I wish my grandfather was still around to share this with. I think he would have been proud.