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Valentine to an Era Past

bookIn the photograph, a pretty dark-haired girl sits by a soldier’s bedside and sketches his portrait. It is World War II and the world is in turmoil, but all that seems to matter to the two young people captured by the camera is the brief moment they are sharing in that big city hospital.

Poet and novelist Brad Leithauser knew for years that the teenage art student in the black-and-white photo was his mother-in-law, Lormina Paradise Salter, and he had long been intrigued by the fact that she had volunteered as an artist at a U.S. hospital during the war. Salter died in 1983 before he thought to ask her about her wartime service as an artist. However, in time Leithauser realized that her untold story had the makings of a novel.

“The situation was just so rich,” says Leithauser, a professor in the Writing Seminars. “You think about some soldier, and he’s just been shot in combat or he has malaria, and he’s lying in a hospital. And then a teenage girl comes to you and looks you in the eye and says to you, ‘I want to capture your essence on a sheet of paper.’ It’s so romantic. How long is it before that soldier is head over heels in love?”

The Art Student’s War (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), Leithauser’s sixth novel, is the story of Bianca Paradiso, an 18-year-old art student coming of age in Detroit and the romances and family struggles she encounters. In the first half of the book, set during World War II, innocent, passionate “Bea” is set on fully experiencing the world around her. So she volunteers to draw portraits of hospitalized soldiers who have returned from the war. The second half of the book, set in 1953, portrays a young woman who has mostly given up her dreams of becoming an artist for life as a wife and mother.

Bea isn’t the novel’s only main character. The book also is a lovingly crafted portrait of Leithauser’s hometown of Detroit. This is a healthy, booming city with a bustling downtown and vibrant neighborhoods, an “arsenal of democracy” where factories are churning out armaments to help win the war. Leithauser, who explains in an author’s note that he wanted to capture his “beleaguered and beloved hometown, in all its clanking, gorgeous heyday,” calls the book “a kind of valentine to the city.”

It’s a valentine that’s sharply drawn and meticulously well researched. Leithauser was born in 1953, 10 years after The Art Student’s War opens. This is his parents’ Detroit, not his. And to make sure the book was historically accurate, he spent hundreds of hours in the Detroit Public Library reading every issue of The Detroit News from 1941 to 1943 on microfilm, interviewed people who lived in his mother’s old neighborhood (home to the Paradiso family in the book), and pored over vintage Detroit restaurant menus and transportation maps for details. “To write a book where the events are taking place in a world you never saw or could have seen was daunting,” he says. “I really did want to be accurate.”

Judging from the reviews, which praise The Art Student’s War for its artistry and attention to detail, Leithauser was indeed successful. The New York Times called the novel “one of the finest novels about Detroit’s history to come along in years,” and The Washington Post said it was “an homage of depth and texture to the churning wonder that was Detroit in its golden age.”

Leithauser, who is currently working on two novels and is hoping to publish a book of new and selected poems in the near future, took great pleasure in writing the book and is pleased with how well it has been received. He may have moved on in his work, but he still harbors a small hope that his most recent novel can help him connect more fully with his family’s past.

He and his wife, poet Mary Jo Salter, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, own only a few “copies of copies” of the dozens of portraits that Lormina Paradise drew of hospitalized soldiers. The originals were given to the soldiers themselves. He included images of those signed copies in the book and hopes that perhaps someone might see them and remember they have a Lormina Paradise portrait of their own. He’d like to add an original to their collection.

“Maybe one day I will get a letter from someone who says, ‘I remember that artist and I have one of her drawings,’” he says. “Stranger things have happened.”

More Faculty Books

Immigration and Citizenship in Japan
Cambridge University Press, 2010
By Erin Aeran Chung, Charles D. Miller Assistant Professor,
Political Scienc
e
The book examines how state policies and immigrant advocacy groups shape choices for immigrant political incorporation in contemporary Japan through the lens of Japan’s multigenerational Korean resident community.

Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things
Duke University Press, 2010
By Jane Bennett, Professor, Political Science
Political theorist Jane Bennett, renowned for her work on nature, ethics, and affect, shifts her focus from the human experience of things to things themselves. Bennett argues that political theory needs to do a better job of recognizing the active participation of nonhuman forces in events, and she theorizes a “vital materiality” that runs through and across bodies, both human and nonhuman.

The Theater of Truth
Stanford University Press, 2010
By William Egginton, Professor and Chairman,
German and RomanceLanguages and Literatures
The Theater of Truth argues that 17th-century Baroque and 20th-century neo-Baroque aesthetics have to be understood as part of the same complex. Egginton shows how the strategies of these two Baroques emerged in the political and social world of the Spanish Empire, and how they continue to be deployed in the cultural politics of the present.

Moses of South Carolina: A Jewish Scalawag
During Radical Reconstruction

The Johns HopkinsUniversity Press, 2010
By Benjamin Ginsberg, David H. Bernstein Professor, Political Science

Revisiting the story of the South’s “most perfect scalawag,” Ginsberg contributes to a broader understanding of the essential role Southern Jews played during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Beyond Crisis:Re-evaluating Pakistan
Routledge Press, 2010
By Naveeda Khan, Assistant Professor, Anthropology
Beyond Crisis: Re-evaluating Pakistan shows how the failure of the state becomes a moment to ruminate on the artificiality of this most modern construct, the failure of nationalism, an opportunity to dream of alternative modes of association, and the failure of sovereignty to consider the threats and possibilities of the realm of foreignness within the nation-state as within the self.


The Body in Early Modern Italy

The Johns HopkinsUniversity Press, 2010
By Walter Stephens, Charles S. Singleton Professor, Italian Studies
The essays in this volume explore the manifestations of the body in Italian society from the 14th through the 17th centuries.

Black Mexico: Race and Society
from Colonial to Modern Times

University of New Mexico Press, 2009
By Ben Vinson III,
Professor, History, and Director, Center for Africana Studies
The essays in this collection build upon a series of conversations and papers that resulted from “New Directions in North American Scholarship on Afro-Mexico,” a 2004 symposium held at Pennsylvania State University. The issues addressed include contested historiography, social and economic contributions of Afro-Mexicans, social construction of race and ethnic identity, forms of agency and resistance, and contemporary inquiry into ethnographic work on Afro-Mexican communities.

 

—Compiled by Nancy Gregoire

 

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