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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The magnificently plummeting 77-foot high Great Falls of the Passaic River powered the glory days of Paterson, NJ (from 1800 to the latter half of the 19th century), when that city, then among the mightiest industrial centers in the United States, became a manufacturing hub for textiles, firearms, and railroad locomotives. In the late 1800s Paterson became known as “Silk City” due to the economic importance of the city’s silk industry. But behind that elegant soubriquet several factors combined to foment significant labor discontent. Conditions for the silk mill workers–long hours, low wages, child labor, and poor working conditions–were not kind.

In Beyond the Silk Mills, set largely in Paterson, Leslie Rupley draws upon that history to portray the gripping fictional saga of the Epstein family, beginning with Emma and Meyer, ideologically mismatched Jewish immigrants from Lodz, Poland. Meyer, whose socialist soul cannot tolerate injustice, becomes a key organizer of the city’s Great Silk Strike of 1913. While Emma’s dreams of wealth as a buffer against the world’s injustice to her and her desire to be a “somebody” draw her into an obsessive pursuit of financial success.

This beautifully written first novel combines meticulous historical research with characters so well developed that you yearn along with them for their dreams. Rupley painstakingly studied the period costumes, the modes of transportation, the mill machinery, and the history of the turbulent era in which the story unfolds. Encompassing World War I, the Silk Strike, the 1918 flu epidemic, and the 1920s, she has created an accurate and charmingly detailed depiction of life as it was then. After reading this novel, any perusal of a history book of that time becomes infused with the trauma and joy evoked by Beyond the Silk Mills.

An avid hiker, Rupley, develops her characters during solitary early morning walks through the hills near her California home. “Sometimes my friends want to come with me in the mornings,” she says, in a telephone conversation, “but I say ‘I can’t–that’s my novel time.’ I talk to my characters. They talk to me. The dialogue comes to me.”

Early on, Rupley had planned to “kill off” one of the main characters, but, on one of her walks the character confronted her. “She was telling me all the things she wanted to do. She kept talking to me and saying ‘no.’ She did not want to die.” The character won.

Highly disciplined, Rupley writes every day, but not necessarily on any specific work in which she is involved.

“I could be editing what I had written or just writing a piece about a character I am developing. Also, I belong to some critique groups–we criticize each other’s books. But every day.”

Approximately two years of research went into preparation for the novel. “A friend asked if I was actually going to write the book or just keep doing research. It took me probably a year to complete the first draft.”

But the story does not end on the last page. With the foundation already solid, Rupley, says she expects to finish a sequel in about a year and a half.

“I didn’t imagine a sequel into well into the book,” she says. But she was reluctant to leave the characters she had created, the history she had studied so assiduously. “It really was a lot of fun and so absorbing.”

A Paterson resident until age 16, Rupley remembers her father taking her to visit the Passaic Falls. “My father loved Paterson. He wanted me to admire the beauty of the falls and the great power that gave rise to Paterson’s industry.”

Rupley had been thinking about her grandmother for a long time. Many incidental details in the book are drawn from facts she knew about her grandmother’s life. A book about the flu epidemic was part of the catalyst for researching her own past. An additional push came from her experiences working as a personal historian and memoir writer.

In an online piece at historicalnovelsociety.org, Rupley shared the dynamics of that impetus. “I gained perspective on the 20th century from the eyes of my clients, elders who experienced it by living through the Great Depression and the war years. As a personal historian, I listened to their stories and wrote their memoirs. Their recollections of a not so distant past stirred my imagination. After writing for others, I’m thoroughly enjoying the thrill of creating my own fictitious world.”

A main character in the book, Emma, “is my grandmother,” Rupley says. “She lived with us but she never talked about her past, not one word. I asked my father about her husband, my grandfather. My father said he was a very sweet man who worked in the silk mills. I based the character of Meyer on him. I knew that my grandmother peddled corsets, like the Emma in the book. I knew that she had a very strong character. I decided to write about what my grandparents might have been like. I always start with the main character and write around them.”

Another motivation for writing the novel occurred years before while Rupley, who then designed and manufactured children’s toys, was scouting out factories. A site she visited was a sweatshop. Her exposure to the conditions there stayed with her and increased her compassion for Paterson’s mill workers.

Leslie Rupley will be in our area for book signings and readings:

November 16, 2014

Reading/Q&A and Signing

2 to 4 p.m. at Fair Lawn Public Library

10-01 Fair Lawn Ave., Fair Lawn, NJ 07410

November 16, 2014

Reading/Q&A and Signing

7 to 8 p.m. at the Teaneck General Store

502A Cedar Lane, Teaneck, NJ 07666

November 17, 2014

Reading/Q&A and Signing

12 noon to 1 p.m. at the Wayne Y

1 Pike Drive, Wayne, NJ 07470

November 19, 2014

Reading/Q&A and Signing

8 p.m. at Fair Lawn Senior Center

for Knights of Pythias

11-05 Gardiner Road, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410

Beyond the Silk Mills, published in 2014 by Dameliam Books, can be purchased at: http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Silk-Mills-Leslie-Rupley/dp/0990426203.

By Helen Weiss Pincus

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