════════════════════════════ ❧ ════════════════════════════The book, a historical fiction, follows the story of a middle class Hungarian family through three generations, as their lives twisted and turned by the fateful events that shaped the history of their country during the first half of the 20th century. The focus is on three women of the family, and the difficult challenges they must face, be it personal misfortunes, or problems beyond individual control. The first generation is represented by Angela, a naive eighteen-year-old girl, suddenly burdened by caring for her eight siblings after the untimely death of their mother. Spiritual consolation offered by the parish priest turns into an illicit love affair, but he abandons her when she finds herself pregnant. Forced out of her home by an uncaring father, she raises her daughter alone, struggling together during the bitter years of World War One, even manages to overcome the loss of her right hand.
Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Shari. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Degrees of Courage.
Her daughter, Ilonka, nicknamed Lensie, has a more promising future. In spite of suffering the stigma of her illegitimate birth in her childhood, she grows into a lovely young woman, happily married, raising her five children in the milieu of a well-contended middle class family, typical of Hungarian society in the 1930s. That changes with the outbreak of World War Two. To learn about the troubles the family and the country faced during that period I leave to the reader.
The next generation living through the third tragic event in Hungary, the Communist takeover after WWII, is represented by Ilonka's younger daughter, Sari. Headstrong and exuberant, she is fiercely determined to get a higher education regardless of the limits set by the new government for those in the middle class to attend universities. She barely gets her diploma, when the country rose up in a bloody revolt in 1956 to free Hungary of Soviet domination. The newly gained freedom lasted but a few days before Russian tanks rolled into Budapest, crushing all hopes for better days. Feeling trapped behind the Iron Curtain, Sari joins the 200,000 people who flees to the West, leaving all behind, including her family.
As the story concludes, she finds a new life and longed-for freedom in America, while her family continues to suffer the restrictions of Goulash Communism that brings a tragic end to her mother's life.
What inspired you to write this story?
It's two-fold. One is more personal, wanting to leave a legacy of the difficult and troublesome decades that changed so many lives among Hungarians. Each of the three periods in the book started a wave of immigration, when thousands left the country to find their way to America, albeit for different reasons: after WWI it was the depression, at the start and during WWII to escape the horrors, and in 1956 it was the decade long political oppression that sent people to seek freedom. Members of the generation who lived during those dark times are slowly leaving us, and many expressed concern that with them the history of that era will also disappear. Hopefully, the book will be there for grandchildren of these Hungarians as a reminder of what their grandparents endured.
The second reason for writing the book is broader. It's not surprising that Hungary, a far away, small Central European country is not familiar to many among Americans. Seniors might remember about Hungary's role in both World Wars that the country was allied with Germany, thus ended up on the losing side, or might recall reading the news about the 1956 revolution. Goulash and Zsa Zsa Gabor probably sound more familiar to many. Those who traveled to Hungary most likely learned a bit about the history, and experienced the general friendliness of the people there, but I felt the need to shine a bit more light on a country that suffered so much especially through the last century, losing two third of its territory in 1920, enduring foreign occupation in 1944 and Soviet-style takeover afterwards, yet having the courage to fight for its right to exist.
What research went into Degrees of Courage and did you discover anything particular while investigation the background material for your book?
Being born and raised in Hungary, I am familiar with the history of the country, and in many aspects the story is drawn on my own and my family's experiences. I was still a child during WWII, but I remember well the shortages, the bombings, and the horrific actions of the Red Army, and of course, as an adult, I personally felt the oppressive power of the subsequent Communist system. However, I made several trips to Hungary to research dates of historical events, names of prominent leaders, especially of the earlier times between 1914 and 1945. I brought back some books on the Trianon Peace Treaty of 1920, on the strategic plan of Communist takeover following Leninist-Stalinist directives, and read about the Communist International (Comintern for short), an organization (dissolved in 1943) to fight for the overthrow the international bourgeoisie and create an international Soviet Republic as a transition to the total abolition of the State. I drew a suspicious look from the sales clerk when I bought both Hitler's Mine Kampf and Carl Marx's Capital. I made an interesting discovery by reading and comparing the theories of these two. Nazi ideology, especially in the early stages of development, was not far from that of Stalin's. Both were based on totalitarian principles, practiced eugenics with the creation of the "New Man" in mind, both committed atrocities utilizing mass violence, Hitler openly against racial and asocial elements of society, while Stalin targeted the "socially harmful" and kept it's modus operandi more or less behind closed doors. But there is no room here to go into more details.
You probably have many, but is there one scene that you particularly enjoyed writing?
Hands down, it is the part where Sari crosses the border in 1956 to join the exodus that took place after the failure of the revolution. The scene where she says goodbye to her parents is painful, but the exhilarating feeling of freedom soon overtakes her sadness as she ducks under the wire fence that separates Hungary and Austria. It is the moment when she realizes the drastic step she just took, leaving everything behind, yet at the same time she is certain that it was the right step, that it will lead her toward a better future.
What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
I had difficulty writing about the downward spiral Ilonka's life took after three of her children left the country in 1956. She bore the difficulties the family suffered during the war with courage, and later hoped against hope that the Communist regime will be defeated, but when it tore her family apart, her recovery was truly challenged. In fact, she would never regain her strength and spirit. The loss of her young two sons--one only 13-- and her daughter was devastating enough, but there was more to come. When her husband fell ill she had to assume the role of the breadwinner, but was denied a decent job and forced to work as a laborer in a foundry; then her son-in-law was jailed in 1957 for participating in the revolt and her eldest daughter and grandchildren were condemn to live in an abandoned shack on the outskirts of a village; the last straw was the threat of losing their home of 40 years. The stress brought on serious health problems, and when she finally lost her husband to cancer and is left to depend on others, she gave up. Imagining that scene, her state of mind, as she sat alone writing farewell letters to her children on the last day of her life, was hard to do.
Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the overall story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
I must stay, the opposite happened. I let the story take on a life of its own, all the way to the last of the 566 pages. I know now that curtailing it here and there would have been smarter. Quoting the book's review by Kirkus: . . . "Needs pruning, but readers will admire the courage and initiative of these characters." According to another review, the sections on history read like a guidebook on Hungary. That however was intentional, since I wanted to raise awareness about the circumstances that shaped the country's destiny.
After finishing the book I considered dividing it into two separate books, but I just couldn't decide where to make the cut. Alas, the book is not exactly an overnight read.
Degrees of Courage is a multigenerational story. Did you find it difficult working with characters from such different backgrounds, decades, and social circumstances?
Only in case of Angela and the mood of the times she lived in. It is heard to imagine today how difficult it was for a woman in the early 1900s to have a child outside of traditional marriage. In the still lingering Victorian era they were called "fallen women," stigmatized and shunned in the community, treated as second-class citizens and placed outside of the moral boundaries of society. I had to use a lot of imagination writing about it, even though the time I was born some of this disgrace and shame still clung to unwed mothers. Still it was nothing compared to our present society where "single mothers" are respected, even admired for the difficult task of raising children without a father.
Also, the country itself was different in Angela's lifetime from what it became after WWI. It was the partner state of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its territory three times larger then after 1920, with rich natural resources and access to the Adriatic Sea. When I was born Hungary was but a truncated land locked country, left with nothing but a great grassy plane, a large lake and two major rivers, the punishment for fighting with Austria and Germany.
If you could sit down and talk with one of the characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
No doubt it would again be Angela. I think she was the strongest of the three main characters, and I could see sitting with her for hours, asking question after question. One of course would be her involvement in a forbidden affair. I understand her desperate state of mind after the death of her mother, when she faced the possibility to dedicate her life to caring for her siblings (age year and a half to 16), but still, how could she let it happen, after all she was brought up in a close-knit family according to the standard of morals of the time.
But besides her personal problems, all result of that foolish entanglement, I would love to talk about the tremendous social changes she witnessed after WWI, at the dawn of women liberation. What a time it must have been to live when the roaring twenties kicked in, with young ladies shedding their ankle length dresses and slipping into flimsy shifts barely covering their knees, cutting their long hair into free swinging bobs, painting their faces and nails, going to nightclubs without a chaperone, dancing the Charlston to the new sound of jazz instead of waltzing to old fashion Strauss tunes, smoking and drinking, riding in fast running cars instead of horse drawn buggies, the list goes on, pushing the boundaries, including the right to vote, all in the name of independence. I think it was an era of wild emancipation for women, much more than we experienced during the 60s. Angela herself didn't follow the trend, but she would talk about her concern when her precious daughter jumped in to join the rest of the girls.
What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
As I mentioned previously, I hope readers will have a wider knowledge about this long suffering country, and a better understanding of its history, including the reasons of the unfortunate choices it made in the last century. Today Hungary is free of oppression, upholding the principles of democracy, an overall lovely place to visit, especially Budapest, called the Paris of Eastern Europe. Since the demise of Communism in 1990 they made a strong effort to correct the errors of that failed regime, never forgetting the damage done to the people during the prior 45 years. I also hope that after reading the book, Americans might appreciate more the freedom they enjoy, and see how fragile that freedom is. The book demonstrates how easily people can be lulled into indifference by false promises and propaganda, while power slowly shifts to a centralized, unopposed government. And once that is achieved, the regime have the means to dictate, to silence, to pass laws that chip away civil liberties, all in the name of Democracy. In such state people must learn to watch what they say and do, which brings fear and suspicion into their lives. The message to free society is to be vigilant in times of changes, hold their rights sacred, and guard their freedom, because once it's gone, it might require a great deal of courage and sacrifice to regain it.
Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
I am thinking of an entirely different subject to tackle in the future. There are millions of Hungarian-Americans living in the US, some of them became well known, even famous in various fields, be it science, medicine, sports, films, music, or politics. Perhaps it would be interesting to dig up information about these people, to find out how they or their ancestors came to this country, write about their contributions to America, or just reveal their identity in cases where hard-to-pronounce Hungarian names were changed to better conform to the English tongue. It would be fun to take on the task, and provide enjoyable reading for some of you. (Hint: Paul Newman, Drew Barrymore, George Pataki) Should I do it? Let me know what you think.
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About the Author: As a young woman, author Shari Vester fled her native Hungary in 1956 after the defeat of a patriotic uprising against the country’s Soviet-dictated regime. She was granted asylum in the United States to begin a new life. After a year living in New York she moved to Los Angeles, married, and worked as an insurance account manager. Recently retired, she and her husband relocated in the Palm Spring area, where she finally found time to write. Her debut novel, Degrees of Courage, is a historical fiction drawn on her family history. It paints a sharp contrast between life as we know it in America, versus a time and place where today’s “Let it be” mentality was simply impossible. For more information please visit Shari’s website. You can also follow her on Twitter.
About the Book: The book follows the story of three generation of women from 1900 through 1970, seven decades of wars and hardship. At the turn of the century, an era of strict moral codes, Angela falls in love with a priest who abandons her and her unborn child. She overcomes rejection and misfortunes, including losing her right hand, and brings up her daughter, exuberant, stubborn Ilonka. In spite of the stigma of her illegitimate birth, the girl finds happiness in love and marriage, raising five children, among them Sarika, independent and high-spirited, much like herself. With the outbreak of WWII, however, their lives change drastically, followed by equally hard times as the country falls under Soviet-style dictatorship. When an attempt to free the country in 1956 fails and people start to flee retributions, Sarika and her brothers join the exodus to the West. With her family torn apart Ilonka never recovers her strength. Years of fear and political pressures hasten her descend into depression, and when she loses her husband too, she finally gives up. Alone and completely on her own, Sarika finds her way to America, and begins a new life full of opportunities and most importantly, free of fear.
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