Bloomington writer Annette Oppenlander’s newest book, Surviving the Fatherland, is a historical novel based on stories her parents told her about being children in Germany during WWII. While researching the book, Oppenlander realized very few stories of war children had been written, and she wanted to tell stories of the civilian side of the war. Oppenlander is a recent inductee to the International Writers Inspiring Change Hall of Fame for Surviving the Fatherland, which sold more than 6,000 copies in the first 50 days it was on sale. Michael G. Glab recently sat down to chat with her for Big Talk! on WFHB. You can listen to his interview here.
“I hated English.”
So says Bloomington author Annette Oppenlander of her early foray into learning a foreign language. Born and raised in Solingen, Germany, she studied English like millions of other German grade school kids. Or tried to.
“I was terrible at it,” she admits. It wasn’t until 1987 when, fresh out of college, she came to America to immerse herself in speaking English. “The business school at the University of Cologne was a tough school and English was something we all knew we would need after graduation.” So she came to the United States, hoping to become proficient in the language.
“I came over to work for a year and then return home and start my big career,” Oppenlander says. “I went to a Super Bowl party.”
Now that’s total immersion; what’s more American than a Super Bowl party?
“I had no idea what Super Bowl was or how football works,” she says, laughing, with slightly more than a hint of a German accent. “I just happened to sit next to a former Butler University football player who I then married a year later.”
She’s been in the United States — and married to Ben Oppenlander — ever since. Her English is just fine now. So fine, in fact, that she has published five books in the United States. Her latest, Surviving the Fatherland, was released in March.
It’s a coming-of-age love story of two kids who survive the horrors of World War II in Germany and the lean, uncertain years immediately afterward. It’s based on the stories she learned from her own parents, Günter and Helga Schmidt, stories she could only coax out of them decades after they happened.
Like many Germans, her parents were loath to reminisce about that ghastly part of their homeland’s history. On rare occasions, Annette heard them make references to what they’d experienced.
“It was never a coherent story,” she says. “My parents would sometimes talk about the hunger they experienced. And their parents who were, of course, adults during World War II, never talked about it. Not a word.”
So, in 2002, after working in an array of fields — banking, real estate, financial services, marketing, and advertising — she decided to tell her parents’ and grandparents’ stories herself. First, though, she had to get her mother and father to open up.
“I interviewed my parents about their experience as children in World War II,” Oppenlander says. “When I started writing down their stories it made me feel so different — I felt so good. I really discovered this passion late in life. When I created these stories and these situations, it made me feel sort of powerful.”
How ironic, considering the powerlessness both her parents and grandparents felt as the war raged on. “My father actually slaughtered a horse,” she says. Günter Schmidt, then a schoolboy, met a German soldier trying to desert. Günter gave the soldier some civilian clothes in exchange for the soldier’s horse. Hunger drove him to make the swap. “That became one of the scenes in the book,” Oppenlander says, “where the character based on him and a friend slaughter this horse in the middle of the night because being caught with a war horse would have been grounds for execution.”
Oppenlander’s mother was seven years old in 1940, just as the war was engulfing Europe. The little girl’s father already had left home to fight, something he saw as his duty at the time. Oppenlander’s future mother and a younger brother stayed home with their mother. In researching this chapter of her family’s history, Oppenlander learned that personal battles still could simmer even as greater combat swirled around them. “My mother did not get along with her mother,” Oppenlander explains. “Her mother doted on the younger brother. With her father and older brothers out of the picture, my mother was left to her own devices. She told me she never got hugged. For a little girl who is seven or eight years old and goes through this hell, with bombings and everything else, never to get hugged and seeing this love lavished on this brother must have been horrible.”
Oppenlander, who’d moved with her family to Bloomington in 2003, creates scenes based on that relationship as well.
She was drawn to writing when she penned materials for Hirons & Company, a local advertising and public relations firm. She began to dabble in children’s stories at first.
“I started writing fiction in the 1990s,” she says. “We lived in the woods in Washington state [her husband, then with The Boeing Company, had been transferred there] and I wrote little children’s stories. I didn’t know anything about writing or publishing.” Then she began her quest to unearth her family’s war stories. “I discovered I really enjoyed history. I have this analytical side to me and I love research. To do historical fiction correctly,” she says, “you have to make sure the setting is right. That includes a lot of tiny little details.”
Writing what would have been her first novel would turn out to be a lengthy ordeal. Before it hit the streets — after 15 years in the writing and editing stages — this year, Oppenlander would publish four other historical novels aimed at the Young Adult market. One deals with cadets at a military boarding school during the Vietnam War. The others compose the Escape from the Past trilogy. “It’s about a teenaged gamer, Max,” she says. “He tries out an experimental game because he thinks he can handle anything. This game sends him back into time to medieval Germany.
“I went to Germany in 2012 and visited this 15th-century castle, which was really an amazing place. You walked through there and it was like the walls were talking to you,” Oppenlander says. “I came across this little story about this famous knight, Werner, who lived there and was in love with a beautiful woman and was in a big feud with an evil duke. I thought at the time, ‘This is the perfect story.’ I dug into the history of the castle and the history of those figures. I had this idea about this gamer because I have boys who gamed. They drove me crazy at times. I thought, ‘What can I do to get even a little bit?’ So I created this young man who travels back in time and he has to deal with all these medieval problems — the dirt, the filth, not fitting in — and then, of course, he has to figure out how to get back to the present day.”
Max, after getting caught up in the imbroglio, goes on to find his way back to the present but then plays the game again and winds up in 1881 New Mexico and meets Billy the Kid. In the third installment, which was published in November, Max returns to medieval Germany.
All her books have been meticulously researched for historical accuracy. “I know the historical era,” she says. “I spend quite a bit of time researching. I do on-site research. I always walk where my story takes place. I must have my feet on the ground where these things happen.”
She’s working on a couple of historical novels now. One, set during the American Civil War, tells the story of a young boy living on a plantation and his best friend, a slave boy from the adjoining estate. The other follows the travels of a runaway teenage girl from Cincinnati during Prohibition. “I’m thinking in this story I will have a little bit more romance than I typically include,” she says.
Her “big career” is a thing of the past. Now writing fills her days. “Had you told me this 30 years ago I would have said, ‘No way! You must be crazy,’” she says. “I never thought this would have happened.”
[Editor’s Note: Annette Oppenlander is hosting a yoga and journal retreat with yoga instructor, and Stirring the Pot columnist, Ruthie Cohen at Ekah Yoga, Saturday, June 3 from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Click here for more information.]