by John Carlson
Some writers spend years looking for a compelling story on which to base their first novel.
Kay B. Gill, the author of Mirel’s Daughter, spent a lifetime listening to hers, the harrowing but inspiring tale of her mother Sonia Turbowskia’s girlhood experiences fleeing the murderous Jewish pogroms in Ukraine following World War I.
“I heard this story from the time I was a little girl,” said the former Muncie resident, a 1953 Central High School graduate who spent one of her college summers as a feature writer for the old Muncie Evening Press before going on to a writing and editing career.
Mirel’s Daughter¬†was recently published by Fleur-de-Lis Press in Kentucky, where¬†Gill¬†resides.
It has been warmly received, but why is it called a novel?
Many of the everyday details and characters that her mother had told her about years earlier faded with time, Gill explained, requiring some degree of literary invention to write this book.
“I had to create a world,” she said.
Still, the story is absolutely based on life as lived by Gill’s mother roughly between the ages of 10, when her world fell apart, and 13, when she finally arrived in the haven that was America.
Early on, the stories Sonia shared with her daughter centered on more pleasant aspects of early life in her homeland. ¬†It was only when Sonia was in her 70s that the full truth of her childhood experiences – the “bad things,” like being assaulted by soldiers – were confronted.
During late-night visits home, Gill would record conversations with her mother after her father, Fred Baldwin, a Muncie native and practicing dentist whom Sonia met at Indiana University, went to bed.
“It was a very emotional experience,” she said of researching and writing Mirel’s Daughter.
It was also something she had to do.
“I always knew that I wanted to write this story,” said Gill, who is 70. “It was a no-brainer.
As noted, she already had a journalistic and literary bent. So did her husband, George, whom she also met at IU in journalism school. He rose through the newsroom ranks to eventually retire as publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
To prepare herself to write her mother’s story, Gill studied with novelist Sena Naslund, co-founder of Fleur-de-Lis Press and author of the best-selling novels Ahab’s Wife and¬†Four Spirits. ¬†
“It’s really a miracle that she made it,” Gill said, discussing the decimating effects of illnesses like typhus that plagued the Jewish refugees. “She was the only one in her family that did survive.”
What’s sobering is that her mother’s experience in war, in fleeing a pogrom, is not unique.
“This has happened since the beginning of time,” Gill said. “It reminds us that our country has always been a beacon of hope.”
It also reminds her of the kind of person Sonia was.
“She was,” Gill said, “a gutsy little woman.”