Category Archives: Historical

Welcome Tema Merback

Join me in welcoming Tema Merback to Highlighted Author.

Tema was born to a Holocaust survivor, Dina Frydman from Radom, Poland and Leo Balbien who was rescued by the Kindertransport from Vienna, Austria.  She was raised in a loving home by two people whose lives had been shattered by the Holocaust, though in entirely different ways.  She attended Granada Hills High School, worked countless jobs, and became a Kathryn McBride Scholar at Bryn Mawr College, following her passion for literature and art history.  As she married and had children, her desire to write was deferred by the demands of a family.          

Through the years, several writers have approached her mother with hopes of telling her miraculous tale of survival.  Unbeknownst to Tema, her mother had long ago determined that only she could bring this book to fruition, that only she would write it with an intimacy and compassion that no one else could.  In the Face of Evil is the result of a collaboration of two forever bound souls, a mother and a daughter. 

Ranking #12 on Book Movement, In the Face of Evil has received outstanding recognition, including Silver Finalist in the category of Young Adult Literature for the National Jewish Book Awards for 2011 and being an eBook of note on the prestigious International Raoul Wallenberg Website whose members include Nobel Laureates and International world leaders.

You can find more at The Jewish Journal, April 26, 2011, by Ryan Torok:  A daughter tells her mother’s story of the Holocaust, The Jewish Journal, May3, 2011, by Ryan Toro:  Holocaust Book Reading Brings on Reunion and More, and MalibuPatch, April 29, 2011, by Jonathan Friedman:  A Novel Idea to Tell a Survivor’s Story.  


Welcome, Tema.  Please tell us about yourself and how you came to write In the Face of Evil.

When I was a child I knew my mother was different.  I didn’t really hear her accent but all of my friends did and would ask, “Where is your mother from?  Is she from Hungary?  She looks like Zsa Zsa Gabor.”

“Poland, she’s from Poland,” I would answer.   To my friends my mother’s foreignness was other worldly.  She might as well have been an alien from another planet.   She was an enigma even to me as I tried to fathom the differences between her and my friend’s parents.  It wasn’t such a stretch of the imagination for me to conclude that I didn’t really know my mother.   From time to time I wondered why my mother had no father, mother or siblings.  What had happened to my grandparents?  I wondered why she had a tattoo on her forearm and why during the summer she wore a Band-aid to cover it up.  Later when I asked her why she wore the Band-aid?   She would shrug and say she didn’t want to be stared at or endure the inevitable questions that the indelibly blue A-14569 would elicit from strangers.

In the 50’s and 60’s no one spoke of the Holocaust or World War II for that matter.  I don’t remember ever learning about it in school, at least in terms of the Holocaust.  I was about nine when I finally began to persistently question her as to the mysteries that surrounded her.  You see, I didn’t just love my mother I was in love with my mother.  She was so startlingly beautiful that all of my friends would constantly comment on her beauty.  It was like an aura that shone so brightly that even children were taken with her.  Forget about the countless men that were drawn to her.  Even with four children in tow between the ages of three and nine they would come up to her and hit on her, using any excuse just to bask in her glow.  She enjoyed being beautiful but was never comfortable or secure with it.  In other words, she never really owned it.  It was just some fluke of nature, something she hadn’t earned.  I, however, only wanted to look like her and be like her.

She was hesitant to share her past but I must have been relentless because little-by-little she began to share her stories.  At first, she spoke mostly about her family, reminiscences of incidents and events, family history and the city she came from.  Her eyes would light up in reverence as she spoke of her father, mother, sister and brother, her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  Then as suddenly, her eyes would cloud up and fill with tears as I continued to badger her for an answer as to what had happened to them.  Eventually, she shared it all with me and I became part daughter, part psychologist, and part family historian.   It became a routine that on Sunday morning I would climb into bed with her and having saved up a hundred questions during the week I would interrogate her.  I was insatiable for answers and this hour usually ended with the two of us sobbing.  I would wrap my arms around her feeling guilt that I had provoked such sorrow, wanting to comfort the pain that could not be comforted.  I felt like the parent, the protector of this soul that had known such horror and lost so much.  It seemed inconceivable to me that anyone could survive what she had.  In my efforts to reassure her I would promise to never leave her and profess my love of her for all of time.  “Mommy, when you die I don’t want to live another day.”  She would laugh and say, “Of course you want to live.  Life is the most precious thing we possess.  Believe me, even with all of the evil in the world there is nothing sweeter than life.”  So would another session end with her hugging me, “Besides, I am not leaving so fast I will be with you a long time.”

My mother has kept that promise to her child of being with her for a long time.  The days and years have flown by as they tend to do and I feel that the circle that is life gets ever smaller.  She is older now and not a day goes by that I don’t worry about her fragility.  Yes, she is still beautiful but not in that effervescent lusciousness of youth.  Her beauty is more haunting and like a mirror her face reflects the years of deprivation and loss that were her teens.  Yet, her spirit is as pure and incandescent as it ever was.  It is a mystery to me how anyone who has witnessed what she has could hold such an enduring belief in the goodness of mankind.  Today, she often reminds me of an ancient philosopher of Greece.  Ever the pragmatic idealist, she has long resigned herself to the inexplicability of life.

It is important to remember during these rapturous days that are summer that even with all of the imperfections and disappointments that come with the daily task of living, there are miracles to be sure.  My mother lives by example and she is an example to us all.  Be sure to appreciate all that you have been given and all those that you love.

I always knew that one day I would write and publish a novel, the question was never if, but rather what and when.  Subject matter presented itself wherever I looked, however, for some reason I was not prepared to tackle the one story that was personal, the one that threatened perilously near my heart.  Creating the story of my mother’s survival of the Holocaust seemed a journey through Hell and one that might prove to be too painful to revisit.  Then it struck me, what if the memoir became a novel written in the present, in the voice of my mother as it occurred.  The journey would become one of hope, a passage from ashes to redemption.  A novel of an adolescent transformed into womanhood set against the background of world conflagration. “In the Face of Evil” was born.

I am currently writing my second novel.


About Dina Frydman Balbien

Dina Frydman was born in 1929 in Radom, Poland.  Radom is situated about forty-five minutes by car from the capital city of Warsaw.  Her parents Joel and Temcia Frydman were hard working people that owned and worked at their Kosher and non-Kosher butcher shop.  Dina had an older sister Nadja who was six years her senior and a younger brother Abek that was three years her junior.  They were an educated middle-class family, religious yet modern.  They saw the future as a bright beacon of possibility, a place where Jews would find through education and hard work equality and success.

In September of 1939 when Dina was 10 years old all of the Frydman family’s dreams and aspirations were ended when the Nazis conquered Poland.  From that moment forward until sixteen year old Dina’s liberation at Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp life become a deadly game of survival.  From work camps to death camps Dina did, through countless miracles, survive.  Sadly, none of her family would share that fate.  Her mother, father, sister and brother were murdered at Treblinka and Auschwitz.  Only two of her cousins from her extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents survived.

After Dina’s liberation she spent time at DP facilities in Germany and a school for orphans at Aglasterhausen, Germany before immigrating to the United States in May 1946.  She lived in foster care with a family in Philadelphia and attended Overbrook High School for two years.  In 1949 she moved to Los Angeles, CA to live with a cousin that offered her a permanent home.  She graduated from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights and through necessity went to work.  OnApril 5, 1952 she married Leo Balbien, a Kinder Transport immigrant from Vienna Austria who served in the US Army.

Dina was a full-time mother to her four children:  Tema Nadine (named for her mother and sister), Joel Abraham (named for her father and brother), Joshua Nathan (named for both of her grandfathers), and Sarah Gail (named for both of her grandmothers).

In the last twenty-five years Dina has spoken to schools and synagogues in California about the Holocaust.  In 2008 her daughter Tema Merback began a novel based on her amazing story that was published in January 2011.  In the Face of Evil:  Based on the Life of Dina Frydman Balbien has received critical acclaim from readers throughout the world and now has been honored by the National Jewish Book Council as a Finalist – National Jewish Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature.  The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation has also recognized In the Face of Evil as an e-book of note by recommending it on their prestigious website .

The novel, like The Diary of Anne Frank, spellbinds the reader with its ability to recreate the world in which Dina lived prior, during and after the war.  Written in Dina’s voice we experience her transformation from child to teenager to woman while surviving occupation, destruction and imprisonment.  Through it all Dina’s strength, perseverance and positivity all factored into her survival.   She retained and exemplified the only possession left her by her loving family:  Morality, ethics, love and forgiveness.

Her life is an inspiration to friends, family and all who read her story.   Dina lives in Thousand Oaks, CA with her husband Leo.  They have seven grandchildren.



What they’re are saying: 


“This book is the outcome of three miracles.  First, the mother Dina Frydman, lived through the Holocaust, surviving an unbelievable, all too true set of tragic experiences that wiped out her entire family:  occupation, ghetto, work camp, slave labor, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen (in its final stage of total collapse and chaos).  Miraculously, she came through with her goodness, honor and affirmation of life intact.  This book reflects those qualities.

Second miracle:  for decades, in an incredible feat of memory, Dina relived and told her stories, recounting them with pitch perfect recollection, including a vivid gallery of portraits of friends, family, victims, persecutors, and with vital scenes of the kindness and cruelty of strangers, the love and incapacity of family, the support and saving help of friends.

Third miracles:  Dina’s daughter, Tema Merback, absorbed these stories and reproduced them in this authentic, gripping, moving account.  What the mother could not do – put her testimony in a book – the daughter has done and without losing any of the fire, or the suffering, or the heartbreak or the moments of relief and of despair.  In the end this book communicates an irrepressible, overflowing life force and decency and hope in the face of the most inhuman crimes ever.

As authentic, as compelling, as devastating as a survivor’s account written at first hand, this book snatches memory and life from the jaws of oblivion and gives them as a gift to its readers.

This book was a mitzvah to write and a mitzvah to read.”—Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, Founding President, Jewish Life Network; Founding President, CLAL:  The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; Chairman, United States Holocaust Memorial Council, 2000-2002.


Tema Merback, October 16th guest speaker at Santa Monica College for their Literary Lecture Series.    

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In the Face of Evil



Seventy years have elapsed since the end of my childhood and the beginning of World War II. The destruction of community and family that followed the German invasion and conquering of Poland precipitated and forced me into an unnatural adulthood. The odd windfall of this calamitous event is a searing imprint of memory. Faces and voices have followed me my entire life offering up their advice and counsel, whether desired or not, shadowing each step as I steered my course through the seas of life. At times they have proven to be more real to me than yesterday’s events. Often, these friendly ghosts have capriciously danced through the corridors of my dreams as real and alive as the last day that I saw them. Like the story of “Brigadoon,” the mythical community of book and song that reappeared every hundred years and for one shiny bright inexplicable moment sparkled through the mists of Scotland, so has the vanished world of Radom, Poland returned to me in dreams and at times in waking just as it was long ago. The joyous community with its various degrees of religiosity, the marketplaces and shops, the places of learning, the observance of holidays, the intellectual liveliness, and of course the devotion and celebration of the Sabbath are all safely locked inside the reels of memory that play like a film in my mind, alive again.

Although I have tried at times to put the war behind me for both mine and my children’s sanity, like the tattoo that I bear, it is burned into me and has colored every moment of my life. With the passage of time there have been endless books with their endless revelations as to why or how such a nightmare could have occurred, but in the end the only lesson learned is that it happened. The Holocaust happened and millions perished through systematic slaughter. A world of people with their joys and sorrows disappeared and with them went a way of life. The apocalypse has long passed and the years have flown by like the clouds in a windblown sky. Soon there will be no survivors left and the keepers of the memory will be just that, a memory. So it has come to me, the bearer of the torch, the last to remember their sweet sojourn among friends and enemies before I, too, leave this world of bitter sweetness. The tale has now been written of those who lived, that they may endure and that you might know them.

Dina Frydman Balbien

Part 1

Radom, Poland Summer of 1939


Chapter 1

An Ordinary Family

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From the window of our apartment, I look down on the bustling streets. The morning sun shines on my street, Koszarowa Ulica, a busy thoroughfare in Radom’s Jewish quarter. Placing my hand on the window, I feel the warmth radiate through the glass. The bright August morning pours into my bedroom, casting away the shadows of a doubt-filled night. The ordinary ebb and flow of life seems to continue in a reassuring cycle of sunrises and sunsets.

Across the street, the shopkeepers are opening their stores. Michal the baker comes out and looks at the sky. A smile spreads across his plump face as he brushes some flour from his prominent nose. Mrs. Rabinowicz greets him, and with a last wistful glance at the sky, he follows her into his bakery. The birds’ songs crescendo in the tall chestnut trees lining the street, adding to the symphony of daily life. People hurry through the busy streets in pursuit of their daily callings. Bicyclists weave among the horse-drawn carriages, or dorozkas1, the principle form of transportation throughout Poland’s cities. Life seemed normal enough on this warm summer day in 1939. I rub my eyes in an effort to dispel the dream that still plagues me, trying to make sense of the visions of the night. It has been two years since my beloved zaida2 passed away. Last night in my sleep, he came to me. Reaching across the barriers that separate the living from the dead, he touched me in an urgent gesture to communicate. Standing at the foot of my bed, silently beckoning me to acknowledge his presence, he hovered; his large immaterial body shimmered before me. His eyes, the color of blue ice, bore into me through the veil of death. He conveyed a warning I could not fathom. The ghostly apparition had disturbed my peaceful slumber and I had brusquely shooed my grandfather away, reminding him that he belonged in the afterworld of the dead.

I awoke with a horrible feeling of guilt and remorse. Why had I not reached out to him full of the love we once felt for one another? I had not asked him why he was there. Instead, in the imaginary landscape of my dream, I had told him to leave and not to return. How could I have sent my beloved grandfather away? I tried to brush the vision from my mind and replace it with the happy memory of my grandfather as he was in life, Jekiel starke, meaning Jekiel the strong in Yiddish. Rhythmically swaying in his rocking chair, he impatiently waited for our cherished daily routine—when I climbed on his lap and kissed him. Together we would rock as he told me stories of his youth, the security of his arms enfolding me, his white beard tickling until I was reduced to giggles. The fond memories of a favorite grandchild encircled me in a blissful cloak of warmth and safety, shielding me from the terrors of the dream.


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Welcome Armineh Helen Ohanian

 Join me in welcoming Armineh Helen Ohanian to Highlighted Author.


Armineh was brought up in Iran before the Islamic revolution; earned her BA with honors from the Open University in the U.K. and lived in twelve countries before landing on the peaceful shores of Long Island. She paid her way through school writing the weekly romance feature in her church magazine in Tehran and translating children’s storybooks from English to Farsi. Among her published works are Dreaming of America, The Talking Animals and Magic. The Talking Animals, a collection of classical fables, has been used in schools in Long Island since 2003. But she’s here today with her new release, The Apple Tree Blossoms in the Fall.

Armineh Helen Ohanian

Welcome, Armineh, please tell us about yourself.

I began my writing career as a teenager.  At the age of fifteen, I wrote children’s stories and sent them unanimously to our church monthly magazine, Noor Jahan, in Tehran. Although, this happened ages ago, I never forget the day when I saw my first story in print.  It happened on a Sunday after the church service when I bought the magazine from the church bookstore.

As I began leafing through the pages with trembling fingers, I suddenly came across my story.  Though, my heart was fluttering with joy and excitement, I decided to keep calm and refrain from sharing the good news with my friends who were standing by me in the churchyard.

The following month I mailed another story, and it was published again. These secret writing episodes continued for a whole year without a single soul suspecting about the identity of the mysterious writer. For, I signed my name as, ‘AP’ – the initials of my first name, Armineh, and the last name – Petrossian.

One year later,  while idling in the church yard with my friends, a nineteen-year-old boy called Mahmood, revealed my secret. He announced loudly, “I think I know who ‘AP’ is.”  Mahmood, then laughed and carried on, “AP is nobody else, but our Armineh Petrossian.”

I blushed and fidgeted nervously.  I was hoping to be able to keep my writing saga a secret for good. For me, the whole idea of being a mysterious writer was sensational. I loved it when I heard people saying what a good writer ‘AP’ was.

The news of the discovery of the mysterious writer in our church resonated like an exploding bomb. Subsequently, I became well-known not only in our church, but in churches all over Iran.

At eighteen I was already writing the magazine’s feature story. I was also translating books from English into Farsi.

I am a graduate from the American Girls School of Iran Bethel in Tehran. I also have a BA with honors from the Open University in the UK in Humanities.

I have authored two novels: Nine Years to Freedom and The Apple Tree Blossoms in the Fall. The latter was published by Lazy Day Publishing LLC on the 26th of September. I have also written two volumes of my children’s story series called The Talking Animals. Recently, I completed volume three—The Adventures of the Little Acorn—co-authored by my teenaged grandson, Alec Ohanian.

The Apple Tree Blossoms in the Fall, is a fiction—heavily based on my own life experiences. My purpose of writing this book has been to share with my readers—especially women—the lessons learned from a rich, challenging, and eventful life.



 What they’re saying:


“Congratulations to Armineh Ohanien for the publication of her fascinating book THE APPLE TREE BLOSSOMS IN THE FALL. I had the pleasure of reading Ms. Ohanien’s manuscript before publication and it was an engaging read on a fascinating subject, giving the reader a glimpse into the lives of a family trying to escape an extremist regime in an historicaly significant period of time in the country of Iran shortly after the takeover by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Kudos to you, Armineh!”— Goldie Browning “Writer”, Amazon review


“The Apple Tree Blossoms in the Fall is a fascinating story! It transported me to a time and place where human relationships and habits were different from today. I traveled to Arak, a strict Islamic city where Carineh was born and raised until she was 11 years old. I lived through her experiences as a young girl in Teheran; rich and spoiled to start with, and then destitute. I saw her fall in love with the man of her life and go against her family wishes when they found out about his true identity. (forbid her to marry him.) I felt her insecurities and emotional ups and downs, wishing she were taller, blond, and more assertive. Some passages are really funny and others so sad…I cried when her beloved father died from pneumonia after he got baptized in a cold river to become a born again Christian. I was amazed to meet Ayatollah Khomeini as a guest in their house during the time when her father did some business transactions with him. This happened way before Ayatollah Khomeini took center stage in the Iranian politics. Reading this book made me realize that miracles are possible. Indeed, I saw the apple tree blossom in the Fall!”— MVVO, Amazon review


“Carineh and her sdventures kept a smile on my face every time I turned a page as I was invited to join her journey from Iran to Europe to the US as she pursued a new life with her husband and two children. From stories of her father trading tales with Khomeini in pre-revolution Iran, to her family’s fall to poverty when her father died from baptism in frozen waters, to her sudden love for the handsome Caro,, followed by the relisation that her husband was hiding a secret from her – these glimpses into this determined woman’s life were so intriguing. The insights into Armenian and Iranian culture were fabulous. The story moves swiftly and leaves you wanting more. A truly great read.”— BettyMay, Amazon review



The Apple Tree Blossoms in the Fall


The Islamic revolution is imminent. Carineh, an Armenian beauty, knows it is time to leave Iran. The country she grew up in is drawing back to its Islamic roots. Carineh would vehemently hate to wear a veil, to the point that she is willing to say goodbye to her homeland, her father’s resting place, her family, and friends.

In The Apple Tree Blossoms in the Fall, Carineh narrates stories of her life in an Iran before Ayatollah’s time. She also recounts tales about her new life in Europe and America. This book offers a unique insight into Iran, Islam, Armenian culture, and the fascinating life of a jet‐setting woman.




The Apple Tree Blossoms in the Fall
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Chapter Three


My three brothers, my sister, and I were born in Arak, a city in central Iran. Our stately house was situated on a slight elevation at the end of Gerdu Street, on a four-acre plot of land that was protected by high walls. A block away, not too far from a chain of high reaching mountains, stretched the railroad tracks. I am sure people walking past our home wondered what lay behind those forbidding walls. To us, our enclosed property represented a safe haven: a place where vicious people could not harm us the way the Turks had massacred over one million of our people during the days of the Ottoman Empire. My father always kept a gun handy, just in case we encountered any danger.  However, he had no use for it. Generally, Iranians are not a violent people.

Our property contained two buildings. One was a two-story house with a huge wraparound porch in which we lived. The other was a two-bedroom farmhouse-style building with facilities built for guests. I sometimes think that if Hars Jan had been alive, my father would have allocated the guesthouse to her. Alas, she died long before my father built our house.

One of the guests, who stayed there twice, happened to be Ayatollah Khomeini – at the time, Mullah Khomeini – with whom my father did some business transactions.

The first time Khomeini stayed at the guesthouse, our Muslim servants were shocked to see him eating food with an Armenian – my father.

I was not born yet when my father entertained Khomeini. I learned about his story through my brother, Arthur, years later. In 1979, when Khomeini came to power, I was a married woman, living with my husband and two teenage children in Monnetier, France.

My brother called me on a snowy morning and asked, “Do you have the TV on? They are showing Ayatollah Khomeini.”

I rushed to the sitting room and switched on the television to channel two – the special French national news channel. There he was, gingerly descending the air stairs of an Air France carrier at the Mehrabad Airport in Tehran. He appeared quite authoritative, in his black clerical aba and his white turbaned head. Khomeini gazed through his piercing pair of black eyes at the multitude gathered at the airport to greet him. He waved at them in a self-satisfied manner. The Ayatollah had overthrown the powerful Shah of Iran and was about to replace him.

Arthur’s excited voice echoed over the phone, “You know who this Khomeini character is, don’t you?”

I answered, “Not really.”

All I knew about the Grand Ayatollah was that he had been a nuisance to the Shah all through his reign, and that the Shah had deported him to Iraq. I was also aware that the Iranians had rebelled against their monarch, thanks to Khomeini.

“In the past, Ayatollah Khomeini was the lord of a village called Khomein,” Arthur explained. “Besides being a cleric, he was a merchant of hides, carpets, and resin-a valuable commodity in the textile industry.”

Arthur added that our father used to purchase these goods from Ayatollah Khomeini and shipped them to the United States.

Apparently Father met the young mullah the first time during a transaction at the bazaar, where my father’s office was located.

“Father found Khomeini to be an open-minded mullah,” Arthur told me. “Khomeini told Father that he was willing to read the Bible, provided our father would agree to read the Quran.”

The story goes as follows: after a few months, the two men began holding religious discussions together and comparing verses from the two Holy Books. Then, during one of Khomeini’s visits to Arak, my father invited him to stay over at our guesthouse.

That night, after the two men finished having their dinner and my father retired, Kall Askhar, the head servant, went to talk with Khomeini just before the young cleric prepared for bed. Khomeini, sitting in the armchair wearing his brown informal aba, stared at Kall Askhar through those same dark, piercing eyes quizzically.

Kall Askhar said softly, “Although we all love and respect Arbab Tadevos – Master Tadevos – and his family, we never touch their food.”

Khomeini, rubbing his thick beard, inquired with a smirk, “May I ask you why?”

Kall Askhar looked baffled! He thought that the honorable mullah should know better.

Khomeini, reading the servant’s mind, smiled, and shook his head. He then rose to his feet from the low armchair and approached Kall Askhar. Placing a firm, reassuring hand on his frail shoulder, he stressed, “Don’t worry, you can eat their food without having any remorse.”

“But!” Kal Askhar protested, opening his small beady eyes widely. “Everyone knows that Armenians are Najis – defiled – and their food haram – unclean.”

Khomeini kept nodding his head and muttered, “The Armenians are clean, God-loving people just like us. Besides, these people have a Holy Book. What’s more, we Muslims accept their prophet, Jesus.” Khomeini smiled, and added, “And, yes, you can perform your daily prayers in this house.”

At the time of Ayatollah Khomeini’s visit, Arthur must have been a ten-year-old boy and my eldest brother, Arsen, was twelve. The following morning, Khomeini called the two boys to him and asked if they liked horses and donkeys. Arthur babbled eagerly, without giving Arsen a chance to open his mouth, “Oh, yes, we like horses and donkeys very much!”

During dinnertime, Khomeini had asked my father, “Where do you get the milk for your family?”

Father had answered that our milk came from a cow and some sheep from our own farm.

“How much milk does your cow produce per day?”

Father had rubbed his chin, contemplating for a second, and said, “Well, that’s a hard question to answer. We have never measured the milk.”

Khomeini had asked, “A bucket … two buckets?”

Father had nodded. “Yes, I should say one bucket.”

Khomeini had said, “That’s nothing. I’ll send you a young cow that will produce more than two buckets a day.”

That was how we came into the possession of a healthy, black cow and an extremely stubborn, snow-white donkey.

Arthur and Arsen loved their pet. The donkey was still alive and kicking people who approached him when I was born. Actually, I do remember him madly kicking up his hind legs as Arthur and Arsen teased him, and tried to ride him. I must have been three-years-old when he died.

Pondering my father’s and Khomeini’s business associations and their friendship, I ask myself, How could anybody in those days ever have guessed later in life, that same person would affect millions of Iranians’ lives so adversely?  I also wonder what my father would have thought about Ayatollah becoming a dictator and causing all that bloodshed, if he were alive. Indeed, not only did Khomeini bring about death and destruction in Iran, he also changed the face of the Middle East for good. Khomeini was the reason why Islamic fundamentalism grew stronger, spreading like wildfire throughout the Muslim world.

Arthur’s voice on the other side of the line that day in 1979 suddenly shook me out of my reverie as he commented, “So, now you really know who Khomeini is.”

I walked toward the fireplace, held my left palm above its dancing flames, and laughed, “Yes… the same mullah who gave us the white donkey!”


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Author’s Den:









Welcome Debra Brenegan

Join me in welcoming Debra Brenegan to Highlighted Author.

In addition to her novel, Shame the Devil, which is an historical account of nineteenth-century American writer Fanny Fern, Debra Brenegan has also authored several other works that have recently appeared in CalyxTampa ReviewNatural BridgeThe Laurel ReviewRE:ALThe Southern Women’s ReviewThe Cimarron ReviewMilwaukee Magazine, Phoebe, and other publications.

She has received a Ragdale residency for her fiction and was a recent finalist for the John Gardner Memorial Fiction Prize, The Cincinnati Review’s Schiff Prose Prize, and the Crab Creek Review Fiction Prize.

Welcome, Debra.  Please tell us about yourself.

I grew up in the Milwaukee area and graduated with a B.A. in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I worked as a journalist and taught at Milwaukee Area Technical College before beginning my graduate work. I received my M.A. and Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing from The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I also taught. I now teach English and Women’s Studies at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.

During the school year, I live in a 130-year-old house in Fulton with my husband, Steve, and our elderly cat. We spend summers and school breaks in our native Milwaukee. When not teaching, writing, spending time with family, or driving back and forth to Wisconsin, I enjoy cooking, gardening, reading, and traveling.

I am currently working on another novel, set in Missouri, and on a short story collection.

Today we’re featuring your novel, Shame the Devil.  Tell us about it.

Shame the Devil tells the remarkable and true story of Fanny Fern (the pen name of Sara Payson Willis), one of the most successful, influential, and popular writers of the nineteenth century. A novelist, journalist, and feminist, Fern (1811-1872) outsold Harriet Beecher Stowe, won the respect of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and served as literary mentor to Walt Whitman. Scrabbling in the depths of poverty before her meteoric rise to fame and fortune, she was widowed, escaped an abusive second marriage, penned one of the country’s first prenuptial agreements, married a man eleven years her junior, and served as a nineteenth-century Oprah to her hundreds of thousands of fans. Her weekly editorials in the pages of the New York Ledger over a period of about twenty years chronicled the myriad controversies of her era and demonstrated her firm belief in the motto, “Speak the truth, and shame the devil.” Through the story of Fern and her contemporaries, including Walt Whitman, Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shame the Devil brings the intellectual and social ferment of mid-nineteenth-century America to life.

“There may be married people who do not read the morning paper. Smith and I know them not … It is not too much to say the newspapers are one of our strongest points of sympathy; that it is our meat and drink to praise and abuse them together; that we often in our imagination edit a model newspaper, which shall have for its motto, `Speak the truth, and shame the devil.'” — Fanny Fern

What they’re saying:

“In her wide-ranging way, Debra Brenegan turns an age of great social and artistic change–for the races, for women, for the country–into a narrative of compelling characters. This novel emerges from history and becomes something more valuable–great literary art. Brenegan’s Fanny, her family, and the cluster of historical characters come to us complicated and whole, demanding our attention.”
Robert Stewart, editor of New Letters

“Debra Brenegan will undoubtedly receive high praise for her superb portrait of Fanny Fern. Readers will gain an insightful look at this overlooked author and her firsthand account of American society during her time.”
— Historical Novels Review

“Much of this excellent novel is likely based on reality. Brenegan’s use of “faction,” a fiction-ish offshoot of the traditional biography, is the perfect approach for an insightful look at Fern’s inner world as well as the persona she revealed to the public.”
—ForeWord Reviews Magazine



Shame the Devil

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Chapter Seven

Sara Payson Willis Eldredge, Boston, Friday, December 22nd, 1848


Isn’t a “seedy” hat, a threadbare coat, or a patched dress, an effectual shower-bath on old friendships? Haven’t people a mortal horror of a sad face and a pitiful story? Don’t they on hearing it, instinctively poke their purses into the farthest, most remote corner of their pockets? . . . Ain’t they always “engaged” ever after, when you call to see ’em? Ain’t they near-sighted when you meet ’em in the street?—and don’t they turn short corners to get out of your way?—Fanny Fern, Olive Branch, March 18th, 1852

Sara pulled the warped door closed behind her, shook her freezing fingers, and climbed the boardinghouse’s steep side stairs, the very stairs she’d recently agreed to wash for five cents off the three-dollar-a-week room and board she paid the landlady, Mrs. Haufen. Deep within the folds of her pocket, the only one left without a hole, was a whole dollar and the other guilty lump—peppermint. Peppermint she’d  stolen. She’d sewed practically round the clock for old man Schueller this week, hoping to make more than the usual seventy-five cents for the week’s labor. She’d delivered one extra shirt and figured that since she was usually paid seventy-five cents for two shirts, that she’d make an extra thirty-seven, or maybe thirty-eight cents (it was the Christmas season after all). But Schueller had given her only the dollar, which made Sara tear up, as she so often did these days. When he’d asked her what she was upset about, and she’d told him, he’d smiled in that way that froze Sara’s insides and had said that she could get the extra thirteen cents for as many kisses. The extra money suddenly didn’t matter. Sara pulled the extended bill from Schueller’s clenched grip and stumbled away from his leering grin. Later, she would blame him for her thievery.

She wished she could find other employment. After Charly’s funeral, Hezekiah and her father had each agreed to give her a dollar and a quarter a week. Both devout church goers, they felt congregational eyes flutter from wretched, vocal Sara to their ample purses and knew nobody would understand their mutually agreed-upon assertion that headstrong Sara deserved to reap the hardship she’d sown. Hers was God’s lesson of humility and she wasn’t acquiescing a bit. Given that they knew she’d be able to earn at least fifty cents a week taking in sewing, as her sister Julia did, her room and board would be covered. Never mind the fact that the children needed shoes and clothes and the occasional book or paper toy. We understand about the needs of children, Charly’s mother, Mary Eldredge often told Sara, in her many attempts to coerce Sara into giving up Grace and Ellen to Hezekiah and herself. All the more reason to allow grandparents with means to have a fuller hand in the girls’ upbringing.

Sara knew what a fuller hand meant. It meant total control. It meant allowing the girls to live with the Eldredges and quite possibly giving up all her maternal rights forever. Well, she wouldn’t do it. Not as long as she had strength and a steel needle. She’d get faster at sewing, better. And she’d find more moral employers than the disgusting Schueller. And she’d never steal again. In fact, she’d just applied for a teaching position at quite a nice little school in downtown Boston. Sara felt hopeful because her sister Lucy’s husband, Josiah, was on the school’s board. He’d been in the drafty committee room when she’d had her little interview and had steered the committee away from dwelling too long on her lack of experience with algebra at Catharine Beecher’s seminary. Surely, if he had any say, the board would hire Sara. They would have to.

Sara reached the top of the three-story staircase and tapped at Widow Perkins’ door.

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The door opened on the hunch-shouldered, flitty-eyed old woman. “The girls went off with your sister,” Widow Perkins said. “In your room.”

Sara knew Julia was the only one of her sisters brave enough to visit her anymore. What a nice surprise. After her miserable day, Sara was more starved than usual for comfort.

The widow glanced down the dim hall at the closed door of Sara’s room. “I’ve just finished,” she said with a little grin and pulled Sara into the cool, dank room toward the one small window where she’d set her rickety chair to work by the light. On the chair were two pairs of small gray socks made of drab, cheap wool, but unmistakably brand new.

“Oh, thank you!” Sara said, nearly crying at the sight. Just last week, she’d had to cut the toes off of Grace’s shoes because her feet had grown so. Little Ellen’s shoes had been cut for a month. The worst part was not the cutting of the shoes, but looking at the raggedy, oft-mended dingy socks poking through the travesty. Another pair of new, warm socks would make the shoes seem tolerable.

Sara gave the widow her dollar and waited for her to count out change from a tattered purse she pulled from under her pillow, mostly in half-dimes. The widow was two cents short, which alarmed Sara—she wouldn’t have enough for the week’s board, as she’d spent her stair-washing half-dime on two extra scoops of coal. It had been so cold lately and Grace had started the week with a cough. Widow Perkins blinked and went back to search under the pillow. Sara inhaled sharply. Gently, she laid her hand on the widow’s frazzled irongray head and proclaimed the socks to be so well made that she wanted to pay a little extra for them, after all. The widow turned from the bed, wrinkled her brow as if in pain, then rested her forehead on Sara’s shoulder and cried, whether in relief, gratitude, or embarrassment, Sara didn’t know. Sara, at least, could borrow the two cents from Julia.

“Merry Christmas,” Sara said to the widow and kissed her good-bye. “I’ll bring you a little something from father’s house on Monday.”

“Bless your heart,” the widow said, and waved Sara off.

Sara tucked the socks into her pocket and felt, once again, the stick of stolen peppermint candy. She swallowed hard at the bile rising from her stomach. The stick had been partly crushed and was, apparently, pulled from the display jar and left on a dusty little “half-price” shelf on the grocer’s back wall. Sara had slipped it into her pocket with such grace it frightened her. Other things sometimes appeared on that shelf and Sara had seen other, poorer, people quietly slip these things into their pockets: bruised apples, nearly rancid butter wrapped in paper, or sometimes, small rough pouches containing a handful or so of molding beans. But, she’d never done it before—stolen. Until that day. After enduring the nauseating leers of Schueller and the disappointment of her pay, Sara had wandered to the little shelf and spied the sad peppermint stick, which had been ignored by the shuffles of drab poverty floating past. Only Sara had pocketed the crumbling sweet. Only Sara would ruin her soul stealing candy.

Sara walked to the room at the end of the hall, the absolute cheapest room in the house, worse than even Widow Perkins’ room, smaller, colder, but with a similar little window overlooking the clapboard side of the next boarding house. She poked her key through the lock and gave the skeletal door a hard push.

Julia was there! She was balanced on Sara’s three-legged sewing stool near the window, had a girl on each knee, and was reading a book.

“Mother!” the girls cried, jumping from Julia’s lap to embrace Sara hugged her darlings close and smiled full at Julia.

“I’ve just come from Lucy’s,” Julia said, indicating the book. “She said I could borrow this to read to the girls.”

“By all means, continue, then,” Sara said. “I’ll listen, too!”

Sara untied her bonnet and hung it on the nail, then reclined on the room’s lumpy horsehair bed, still wrapped in her shawl, to listen to Julia finish a story about princesses and pudding and glittering crowns and roast beef. Decadent food. Brimming tables of crockery and wine. Lace tablecloths and bowls of flowers. Genteel manners reigning supreme. Nobody forgotten. Nobody suffering. No hunger or cold or fear. Sara’s eyes fluttered, her breathing slowed, and then Sara suddenly saw Mother in the tale, sitting at the royal banquet next to sister Ellen. Oh, how radiant they looked, pink-cheeked and happy! Mother wore a turban made of ferns and she plucked one and blew it across the room to Sara, who caught it and tucked it into her bodice front. Beaming sister Ellen just ate and ate and ate.

Mary Stace was there, too, and the babies, and Lucy’s boys, but where, oh where? Sara whirled in dream circles, looked madly around and around and then she saw them, Charly, magnificent in black velvet, wearing his white satin wedding vest and holding little Mary’s hand. Little Mary was hopping up and down in the most exquisite shining silver shoes, pointing at Grace and Ellen sitting on Julia’s knee in the corner of the palace. Little Mary had a basketful of sweets she wanted to share with her sisters and so Charly let her run before folding the then-sobbing Sara into his hearty arms and whispering to her, “All is well, all is well, all is well . . .”



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Debra is available for readings or to speak with your group about historical fiction, Fanny Fern, or writing.  Please contact her agent, Lynn Wiese Sneyd, LWS Literary Services.