Finding inspiration in family lore

For best-selling author, Jennifer Robson ’92 (BA French and History), writing her next novel during a global pandemic hasn’t caused significant challenges. “Noise cancelling headphones are a great thing,” says Jennifer, who has been working from home for most of her career. “Having my husband, son, and daughter home all the time at the start of quarantine required a bit of adjustment for all of us, but I can’t complain.” Like her British characters, Jennifer admits she may take an occasional moment to “moan” about the current situation, but that is all she will allow. “I know my family and I are fortunate, so I will have a moan and then get on with things.”

Jennifer has been busy. Her next novel, is scheduled for release in January 2021. Known for writing historical fiction usually set in Britain during and after the two world wars, Jennifer’s upcoming novel, Our Darkest Night, has taken her out of her British comfort zone to a small fictional village in Italy during the Nazi occupation in World War II.

“My husband and I took a vacation to Italy nearly five years ago,” recalls Jennifer. While there, she and her husband visited with her in-laws and friends of her husband’s family. “You cannot travel to Italy and not visit with all your Italian relatives or you risk causing great offence.” It was during one of these visits that Jennifer heard a sentence that provided the spark for her next novel.

“My Italian isn’t great, especially since my in-laws speak in their regional dialect,” explains Jennifer. “My husband usually has to translate for me, but I can catch some words.” While visiting with her husband’s aunt who was just a young girl during the war, the Italian word “ebrei” (Jews), caught her attention. Then, her aunt said the sentence that would set Jennifer on her path to learn as much as she could about the family’s story: “Hebrei*. To nonno i ga scónti” “Jews. Your grandpa hid them.”

“I knew right then that it was important to learn as much as I could from our relatives who lived the experience or who were familiar with the story,” explains Jennifer, noting that many people do not wish to talk about that time period, and that some family members had already passed away or are no longer able to recall or communicate specific memories.

Along with speaking to family members who provided details about what life was like during the war, Jennifer, a self-professed history nerd, completed extensive research on Jewish Italian refugees during the war. “By family lore, at least three Jewish families stayed with my husband’s grandparents at various times throughout the war. People would stay for weeks or months before moving on to the next safe space.”

Instead of writing her novel from the perspective of the “rescuers”, those who did not turn their backs on people trying to escape Nazi death squads, Jennifer chose to research the experiences of those born in Italy who suddenly found themselves no longer considered Italian. Her novel depicts a young Italian Jewish woman forced to leave her family, the life she was accustomed to living, and the only home she had ever known, to move to a rural village and live with a farming family that was willing to risk their lives to protect her.

Jennifer reflects that King’s, and in particular now-retired Professor Paul Webb, played a significant role in establishing her passion as a historian. She believes strongly in the importance of telling stories, especially to younger generations. She wants her children to know not only their family history, but also world history so that they learn to listen, pay attention, and validate the feelings and experiences of others rather than simply dismiss them. “We cannot be indifferent to the suffering of others,” she says. “We are doing a disservice to our children if we do not educate them truthfully about the past.”

She acknowledges that it is not her voice or experience that she depicts in her novels, but she hopes that through her research, which includes speaking with historians, visiting historic locations, and having her novels reviewed by sensitivity readers, she has given voice to the lived experience of others. She also notes that this novel in no way seeks to absolve Italy of the treatment of Jewish people but looks to give a voice to those who were forced to give up the life they knew and put their trust in strangers in an effort to survive.

Prior to COVID-19, Jennifer was interacting with her readers and promoting her books through a mix of in person and online events. “A benefit of an online platform is that events are open to more individuals and people are not restricted by geographical location,” she says. “Readers who may not have had the opportunity to attend in-person events now have access to different authors all from the comfort of their own homes.”

With upcoming promotions for Our Darkest Night, Jennifer knows she will miss the personal interactions with her readers at in-person book signing events. “Although these one-one-one moments are brief, I enjoy the opportunity to hear directly from readers,” explains Jennifer. “People share their thoughts and opinions on my books, but there are also special moments when people share their personal experiences that relate to the time period of my novel, and that really means a lot to me.” Based on her history as a best-selling author, you never know when a conversation might provide Jennifer with the inspiration for her next novel.

Our Darkest Night: A Novel of Italy and the Second World War
By Jennifer Robson
On sale: January 5, 2021

About the novel from HarperCollins Publishers:
To survive the Holocaust, a young Jewish woman must pose as a Christian farmer’s wife in this unforgettable novel from USA Today bestselling author Jennifer Robson—a story of terror, hope, love, and sacrifice, inspired by true events, that vividly evokes the most perilous days of World War II.

*speaking in regional dialect