Bay View provides the setting for Stefaniak's debut novel
Books about, or set in, Milwaukee seem to abound these days, but Mary Helen Stefaniak's "The Turk and My Mother," published W.W. Norton, is a rare one set in Bay View, among a melting pot of immigrants.
The prize-winning author of a book of stories, "Self Storage and Other Stories," Stefaniak teaches at Creighton University and lives in Omaha and Iowa City and "The Turk and My Mother" is her first novel. Stefaniak grew up in Milwaukee in a neighborhood populated by Hungarian, Polish and Italian immigrants.
Although the book is set mostly in the 1930s, much of the Bay View landscape is unchanged, she says.
"The house I lived in as a small child is the same house where the family lives in the novel," she says. "That house, where I spent a lot of time up until my grandmother died when I was seven years old, was at 346 E. Bay St., just east of Kinnickinnic. That house is no longer there -- it's a parking lot. But the tavern on the corner of Bay and Hilbert is still there, under different management, I'm sure!
"And most of the old, mostly frame houses on the block are still there. All of this is in the first block west of the old Louis Allis factory, very close to the lake. Bay Street is a kind of spur that runs east for a while and seems to disappear close to the lake, but it actually turns left and becomes South Bay and continues all the way to Jones Island-which is a very important place in the third part of the novel."
Although her family left the Bay Street house when she was still young, Bay View remained a focal point of her years in Milwaukee, Stefaniak says.
"Even after we moved from East Bay, my childhood centered around Bay View. The South Shore Water Frolics was a main event every year. I even took baton lessons as a kid, hoping to be one of Deb's Debutants in the Water Frolics parade. Then I went to St. Mary's Academy for high school, so I never really got too far from Bay View as a kid."
"The Turk and My Mother" is the story of Stefaniak's family, loosely speaking, of course. She takes some artistic license. In her powerful prose, she renders a complex family, each generation of which becomes entangled in an elaborate net of secrets as they live and live and tell each other fragments of stories.
"One of the great pleasures of writing this book -- which also had its frustrations -- was getting to sit down imaginatively with my father and hear such stories as he never got a chance to tell. I loved hearing his voice -- saying the lines I'd written -- in my head. I also managed to work in a few of his famous/favorite expressions. Late in life, he was always telling us to watch out and not step on the hose that led to his oxygen tank, or else 'your dad will be turning a pretty shade of blue.'"
Stefaniak says that writers can find no more inspiring subjects than ones they know intimately, like family members. Although this can have a downside, too.
"It's relatively easy to write characters based on family members," she says. "After all, you have a voice and an image and a personality -- but especially a voice -- in your head before your start. I'd venture to say that virtually all fictional characters are based on people the writer knows, even if that old uncle has been turned into a dragon or a wizard in a fantasy novel. There is potential difficulty in the family's response to characters if they are recognizably based on family members, as some of my characters are.
"I've had one cousin explain to me very patiently that my father -- whose fictional counterpart gets (the novel) rolling by telling stories to his daughter -- never met his grandmother, and yet my fictional father's grandmother is a most important character in his life in the novel. I keep telling my cousin that the book is a novel, the events and the characters are fictional, they are only based, some of them, on real-life events or characters. My cousin continues to believe that I've made this mistake about my father's grandmother, because my father never met his grandmother."
Stefaniak returns to Milwaukee to read from her book at Schwartz Bookshop, 2559 N. Downer Ave., at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 22. But it's not her first time back. She returns quite often, she says.
"I visit Milwaukee, where most of my family and my husband's still live, at least twice a year, but the relatives live a little farther west now, so I have to make a point of driving east to tour the old neighborhood -- which I do, almost every visit. I think Bay View looks very similar -- and some in ways even better, as people have worked to renovate the old houses -- to the way it looked when I used to spend a lot of time there.
"I moved away from Milwaukee about 20 years ago -- for school and job -- but if I ever move back, I think it will be to the Bay View area or maybe the east side a little farther north, closer to UWM. I'm enormously glad that I grew up in Milwaukee. It stays with me. Nobody in Omaha or Iowa City knows what I mean when I'm thirsty and looking for a bubbler."
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