Issaquah author explores Jewish culture in historical thriller
November 6, 2012
By David Hayes
Writers never know what will spark their next great idea or where they’ll be when it strikes.
Issaquah author Jane Isenberg traces the roots of her new novel “The Bones and the Book,” to a turn-of-the century business card she discovered in the gift shop of the Tenement Museum in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
While tracing her own Jewish roots in the late 1990s, Isenberg visited the Tenement Museum built in the very building that housed the Jewish immigrants from a bygone era. There in a display case was the business card of Professor Dora Meltzer, proclaiming herself a clairvoyant in the matters of love, family and business.
“I was fascinated because only God is supposed to know the future,” Isenberg said. “What would make her defy orthodoxy?”
A teacher, Isenberg resolved then and there to write a historical mystery addressing these issues. Coming up with the most Yiddish name she could think of, Feigele was born, where she lived in Isenberg’s imagination until 2006, when she was ready to bring her to life in a story of her own.
The delay is attributed to Isenberg’s writing project that demanded her full attention — a series of mystery novels starring her menopausal heroine, Bel Barrett. The retired teacher moved to Issaquah from New York with her husband, Phil, in 2003 to be closer to their grandchildren.
She soon discovered a distinct lack of a Jewish culture in the circles she traveled, not anti-Semitism, but an obliviousness.
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“I was often the only Jew in the room,” she said. “I was expected to be the expert.”
She realized if she wanted to pen a tale about a Jewish girl, she needed to jump feet first into research.
“If it was like this for me, what was it like for her at the turn of the century?” Isenberg said.
Deciding to follow the old adage of write what you know, Isenberg was getting to know her new setting in the Seattle region and decided to set her book in a more novel locale than Manhattan.
The move opened new creative paths to take the story down.
The “bones” would be discovered, with a journal, in the Seattle Underground Tour. But her research revealed bones wouldn’t last that long to present day. So she had to reset her modern-day protagonist to 1965, a more appropriate time for the literary “body drop.”
She needed further research to uncover Jewish culture, now in both turn-of-the-century Seattle and in the midst of counterculture and social revolution.
Instead of making it first person, her amateur sleuth became Rachel Mazursky.
“She’s what you’d call attractive, but looks Jewish,” Isenberg said. “Which means she didn’t have a nose job.”
Because so much of the tale had to be researched to make it more historically accurate, Isenberg said she enjoyed the process more than her previous novels.
“With this slower process, I enjoyed it more. I could work more on the writing,” she said, preferring this to the churn-it-out style necessary for her Bel Barret series.
After piecing together all she’d learned into a gripping mystery, after six years of toil, Isenberg feels she’s created something for a wide target audience.
“This is for readers interested in period pieces, mysteries and strong women,” she said. “I can see book groups of all kinds reading this.”