Following a Rabbit

I follow rabbit trails when I am writing because they often end up in the most unusual and interesting places.

Here’s a few tidbits I learned writing about an unnamed woman who was married to one of the most famous men on Earth:

*The oldest story known is from the Middle East (Babylon) and predates the Hebrew Bible. Written on stone, the Epic of Gilgamesh tells a tale with many parallels to the story of Noah and the flood.

A man named Utnapishtim survived a flood that destroy the earth after being warned to build a boat and gather his family and animals because the gods were unhappy with mankind—not because of sin, but because they were too LOUD! 🙂 Utnapishtim sent out a dove (the ancient symbol of the Mother Goddess) to try and find dry land.

*The earliest known deity was female!  The role of the feminine in the divine was entwined with early Judaism and keeps reappearing throughout history.

*The explorer Ballard got money from the U.S. government to hunt for the wreckage of a secret Russian submarine in order to pursue his true desire to find the wreck of the Titanic. He found both. He also discovered the remains of an ancient flooded settlement about two miles into the Black Sea, preserved because of a lack of oxygen in the depths.

Writing Noah’s Wife was an adventure (with many rabbit trails) that took four years. I don’t regret a minute. The characters are still in my mind and come alive every time someone picks up the book. Despite its controversial challenges to traditional interpretations, it won “Book of the Year” for Historical Fiction and—more importantly to me—readers continue to let me know how much they loved it.

Available as paperback, ebook, and audible book. Click on image.

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Dickens, Aliens, and Me

My first ambition was to be an astronaut. My dream was to make first contact with aliens who could take me on a private tour of the galaxy. I would check out the window every night to see if a UFO had landed in my back yard. (Surely, they could sense that I was waiting for them. . . ! ) For various reasons, it never did, and I didn’t get a chance to go looking for them, but that has now changed.

You might know that most of Charles Dickens’ novels were published in monthly or weekly installments. He pioneered the serial format of narrative fiction, which became the dominant mode during the Victorian period for novel publication and still exists in some magazine formats. 

Charles Dickens

The advent of print-on-demand technology in the 1960s turned the publishing industry on its head. It spawned the giant, Amazon, but it also wrested the ability to publish out of the hands of a few big publishing companies and into the hands of indie (independent) presses or even the authors themselves. This has had positive and negative side effects (a story for another day).

A couple of weeks ago, Amazon launched a new platform using serialization called “Kindle Vella.” The author can publish an episode (chapter) at a time and leave comments for the reader.  Readers can give a heads up for the chapters they like.  In that sense, technology is bringing the readers and authors closer together.

Also, it puts more power in the readers’ hands.  Instead of taking a chance on an entire book that you might end up hating or bored with, you can read at least three episodes for free. (As a special, Amazon is now giving you 200 free tokens, which means you can really read about 15 chapters free.) Then you purchase tokens (at a reasonable price; the total book is about what a new release e-book would be) to “spend” on chapter-episodes of books that you really like. You start at Amazon.com and can read it there or (after you read your first episodes and purchase tokens) it will also be available to download onto Apple devices (Kindle Reader app or Kindle device) or you can keep reading right on Amazon.com.

Back to meeting aliens and venturing into a new space . . . literally.

Motes (short for Mozart) is an extraordinary young girl born on Mars. When a boy is found dead in her dorm room, the private Martian school for gifted students expels her. Motes has nowhere to go besides the remote planet of Veld where her estranged father is studying mmerl, the native sentient species, some of whom are mysteriously disappearing.

Snowdancers by T. K. Thorne

This is a story close to my heart. I rewrote it during the Covid pandemic, and I’m really excited to be able to share it directly with readers this way!

You can check out SNOWDANCERS (the entire novel is uploaded) at “Kindle Vella” on Amazon.com at   https://www.amazon.com/kindle-vella/story/B096R3YF29

Hope you enjoy Mote’s amazing adventure!

T.K. is a retired police captain who writes Books, which, like this blog, go wherever her interest and imagination take her.  More at TKThorne.com

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The Paintbrush and the Pen

During the pandemic I edited several books and started two novels, both of which seem stuck somewhere near the beginning and are sitting around waiting for me.  I don’t know if it was the stress of the year or I just burned out.  

A friend introduced me to a form of art doodling called Zentangle, which is usually done on 3×3 inch pieces with a pen and pencil shading.  Looks like this:

I decided I wanted to color them and bought some colored pencils.

Then I stumbled across water color pencils. Who knew?  Got some of those and the color intensified.

So I ordered tube water colors and real water color paper and “got serious.” I started painting scenes out of my head. This one went to my new grandchild:

And then from photographs:

My nine-year-old nephew said he wanted a painting of outer space.  

“I like planets.” he said.

Which one is your favorite?”

With a wicked grin, “Uranus!”

He didn’t get Uranus (I think he just liked to say the word! ) 🙂 This is what he got:

My other nine-year-old nephew liked space but opted for a type of dinosaur I’d never heard of—a Spinosaurus, which has a huge head and jaws and likes water. I threw in an eclipse to cover the space interest.

Spinosaurus in solar eclipse with ginkgo tree

Connections between painting and writing have evolved along with subject matter. Since I had no idea what I was doing, I developed a silent mantra to keep me brave enough to try things—Don’t be afraid of the paint. Writing is like that. You can’t let fear of not having the right words stop you. There are ways to fix what you don’t like in both fields, but you have to put something down on paper first. (I think I am talking to myself here….)

Painting has expanded my “notice meter.” I look at the world differently, trying to take in how light plays in the tree canopy or on a field or a face, and I note how that affects my inner world.  Writers look for physical, emotional and mental nuances, motivations, and behaviors. But we also are called upon to describe the world in terms of our senses, and I suspect this “arting” thing is going to enhance my ability to describe the visual world.

One major lesson is that nothing exists without contrast. Light requires dark, even if it is in shades. An arc of character must, likewise, have contrast, a setup if you will.

A painting, like a story, takes on a life of its own. Not everything goes the way you “planned” it, and that is okay. Sometimes you have to let the colors and water do what they want to do and go from there.  The same for a story. A character you planned to grant a minor role may become a major player.  A plot can go off in a new direction. Your characters may say or do unexpected things.  These are part of the challenges and joys of writing and painting.

Science says creating art can help depression and PTSD, stimulate alpha (relaxing) brain waves, and reduce the stress hormone cortisol. They also say that learning new things creates new connections in your brain. I don’t pretend to be anything more than a beginning amateur at this, but I am loving this new passion. My words got stuck during the pandemic, and I don’t know when they will come back, but meanwhile I am determined not to be afraid of the paint and to see where it takes me.

T.K. is a retired police captain who writes Books, which, like this blog, go wherever her interest and imagination take her.  

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Roses are Stealthy

 

Writer, humanist,
          dog-mom, horse servant and cat-slave,
       Lover of solitude
          and the company of good friends,
        New places, new ideas
           and old wisdom.

Roses are following me around. 

In my first mystery/thriller/crime/urban fantasy, I named my police officer-witch, “Rose.” 

Names are a funny thing. When you give one to a character, it can instantly color them and lead to interesting places.  I don’t know why that name popped into my head at the critical moment of creation. I’ve tried to figure it out:

Was it a subconscious play on my last name, “Thorne”? 

Was I thinking of my grandmother whose name was “Rose”? 

Or was it just that it was fun, because as Rose herself says, 

“‘Rose’ is a difficult name. For one thing, it made me a target throughout childhood for “smells the same” taunts. For another, it sets up an assumption that fails to describe any part of my nature, conjuring an image of a tiny gray-haired woman. I am neither tiny—standing barefoot at 5’8”—nor gray-haired—dark curls minimally tamed per Birmingham police uniform regulations—and I’m more prickly thorns than soft petals.”

A one-armed man gave me the climbing rose in my yard (not that one-armed man, if you are of an age to have watched “The Fugitive”). It is in full bloom as we speak. That rose bush taught me valuable lessons (See “The Rose Wars.”)

Rose (the police-witch) got this for a cover:

All sorts of roses seem to show up in my life—a painting from a friend, a favorite scarf I never noticed had a black-and-white rose pattern, the two dozen long-stemmed roses my ex-husband (#2) sent me when he wanted to make up. That last one may be cheating since it was long ago. If my current husband sent me roses, I would definitely freak out (you have to read House of Rose to know why.)

Book two of the Magic City series is finally making its debut as House of Stone.

Just want to be clear, that is a red diamond in there—in case the universe wants to do that “Law of Attraction” thing, I’m good with it!

The first book (House of Rose) just won a first place award in Chanticleers International Awards! Yea! Here’s a  promo moment for the new novel:

Witches and warlocks abide in Birmingham, Alabama in three ancient Houses—Rose, Iron and Stone. They arrived over a century ago to draw their powers from the abundant ores beneath Red Mountain. Rose Brighton, a Birmingham police detective, is the last witch of House of Rose and possibly the most dangerous thing since the hydrogen bomb. A terrifying encounter with House of Iron has mentally crippled Becca, her best friend. While Becca struggles to find herself, Rose battles to control her own abilities and the supernatural attraction that pulls her to a mysterious, handsome warlock.

When magic kicks in at the scene of her first homicide, she learns that her partner—the mentor and friend she depends on—is lying to her, and she is on her own. Unraveling the murder entwines Rose in a web of greed and profit involving a promising new medicine. Someone is willing to kill to keep a cheap drug from the market. Not only do countless lives depend on Rose’s skills as a detective, the fate of a unique race of people facing extinction also rests on her shoulders . . . and some of them are determined to kill her.

Praise

“Thorne delivers a spellbinding thriller, an enthralling blend of real-world policing and other-world magic. It’s a wild ride of high stakes that pits the warm humanity of Rose and her friends against chilling powers of darkness in a battle that is both ages old and totally of today.”

—Barbara Kyle, author of The Traitor’s Daughter

“A deftly crafted and riveting read by an author with an impressively deft ability to hold the reader’s rapt attention with her original fantasy novel “House of Rose.” Readers new to her will look eagerly forward to the next title in her new Magic City Stories series. While very highly recommended for personal and community library Contemporary Fantasy Fiction collections, it should be noted that “House of Rose” is also available in a digital book format.”

Midwest Reviews

“Rookie cop Rose Brighton never imagined that a simple suspect chase into an alley would lead her into dark passages where she would question her definition of reality, her own identity, and whether she was pawn or prey. HOUSE OF ROSE is a gem.”

DP Lyle, award-winning author of the Jake Longly thriller series

“The life of Birmingham, Ala., rookie cop Rose Brighton, the narrator of this promising paranormal series launch from Thorne (Noah’s Wife), veers into the extraordinary one night. . . . Thorne, a retired captain in the Birmingham PD, grounds the fantasy with authentic procedural details and loving descriptions of the city and its lore. Readers will look forward to Rose’s further adventures.”

Publishers Weekly

“T.K. Thorne is an authentic, new voice in the world of fantasy and mystery. HOUSE OF ROSE blends the realistic details of police work with magic. The result is an explosive story that will keep you on the edge of your seat as Rose learns of her true heritage…and the dangerous powers that are her birthright. Pick up this story—you’ll thank yourself over and over again.”

Carolyn Haines, USA Today bestselling author of the Sarah Booth Delaney, Pluto’s Snitch, and Trouble the black cat detective mystery series.

“Although House of Rose is speculative fiction, a kind of fantasy, T.K. Thorne is so knowledgeable about Birmingham and law enforcement that it is also, truly, a police procedural and a thriller—something for everyone. House of Rose” is the first of a series which should be a hit.”

Don Nobles, reviewer for Alabama Public Radio

T.K. is a retired police captain who writes Books, which, like this blog, go wherever her interest and imagination take her.  More at TKThorne.com

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What an Old Horse Can Teach

This winter during the Covid pandemic, I did a crazy thing. I got two rescue horses. I was only looking for one mare to keep our lonesome gelding company. Still can’t believe I bought a horse from a photograph on Facebook! But a local rescue organization directed me to look there, and I saw a beautiful bay thoroughbred named Foxy who had raced for a couple of years and then was sold at auction. A place in Louisiana had bought her at the auction. Their aim was to sell her again, but such places, though they claim to be rescuing horses, are often not really focused on that. The real rescue organizations call them”kill pens.” As the term implies, if they can’t resell a horse, they send it to Mexico for dog food. It’s illegal to buy or sell a horse for food in the U. S., but not in Mexico. And there is a steady stream of unwanted horses from the U.S. for that purpose.

Foxy traveled from Louisiana to Alabama with several other horses who had been purchased the same way. One of her fellow travelers from the kill pen was an older black Standardbred mare named Nickie Jones. Originally raced at a track (pulling a two-wheeled one-seater called a “sulky”) and then sold to the Amish who had her pull a carriage or wagon. The Amish had sold her to the same Louisiana kill pen. Had someone not bought her in the same way I had, Nickie’s next stop also would have been Mexico.

She turned out to be lame and had a terrible scar on her left back leg (something not disclosed when her would-be rescuer bought her. Nickie Jones was no longer wanted by the person who had purchased her. The rescue organization couldn’t keep her, because there were stallions on their property, and mares cause a lot of stir. (No comments from the peanut gallery, please.)

So, to make a long story short, I took in Nickie Jones too. Both horses were not in great shape, but Nickie was really undernourished. 

Nickie Jones arrives in Alabama February 2021

Whatever she had gotten into (barbed wire?) to leave an awful scar, seemed to be causing her pain, but when my vet examined her, he said t was her other leg, the hock (back “elbow”) that was swollen and the reason she was lame. I gave her Bute, which is horse aspirin, as a powder mixed in her feed for about ten days, and she was fine. Putting some weight on her took longer. A special senior feed and lots of hay. She gobbles it down and is the first one to the three piles of hay we lay out for them. The bony top of her hip is starting to round.

Horses are social creatures, and they adhere to a hierarchy each group works out. Nickie Jones is at the bottom of line. Big boss man in this herd-of-three is Apollo, our paint (brown and white) quarter horse. He is ordinarily congenial, but food aggressive. When food is present, he turns into a bully. We quickly learned we needed to put him in the round pen to eat until the other two are finished or he will run them off from their buckets and help himself to their grain.

The routine is to give all three grain in their individual buckets. While they eat, we put out the hay in three piles in a rough line against the barn wall. Usually Nickie Jones finishes first and heads for the hay. Then Foxy joins her. Then we let Apollo out of the pen. When released, he exits the pen with his ears flattened back, charging the girls. They scatter. So, he gets first choice of the three piles of hay to munch. Sometimes he will choose the hay on the far end, sometimes the other end. He never chooses the center. Foxy uses her position as horse #2 to claim the end farthest away from Apollo, putting Nickie Jones between her and the grumbly gelding.

Smart girl.

Nickie Jones has disadvantages. We don’t know if she was born into them or if personality, age, or injury created them. There is not much she can do about that. But even though she has the least social status and control, knowing she will end up in the middle of the hay line, she uses the moments when she is first to the hay—before Foxy finishes her grain and Apollo is released—to snatch at a pile, and she never eats from the middle pile, which is where she will end up. 

Foxy is the second to finish her grain and go to the hay. If Foxy runs Nickie Jones off from an end pile, Nickie goes to the other end, getting a few snatches of that pile of hay before Apollo comes out and everyone reshuffles and ends up in their final hay-eating positions. Nickie Jones always has an untouched pile of hay in the center to munch.

There’s smart and there’s smart.

Hay-munching order left to right: Foxy, Nickie Jones, Apollo

T.K. is a retired police captain who writes Books, which, like this blog, go wherever her interest and imagination take her.  More at TKThorne.com

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The Path to Sanity

The world fell apart in March 2020. I was at a writers conference in California on the opposite side of the country from home (Alabama). One day after the start of the conference, I flew home. Two people in the airport wore masks. The rest of us tried to follow the advice “don’t touch your face.”  My nose has never itched so much.

Over the year, my grandson was born  . . . without me. Another daughter had to spend months in the hospital with her dying father . . . without me. Many people suffered much worse. So far, I have not lost any family. Actually, I’m am very close to the oldest in what’s left of my family. In the past year, I have been inside exactly one public place. How bizarre.

My mind has done some kind of trick where I can now see the death numbers posted on the side of the T.V. without feeling like I can’t breathe. That’s a good thing, right?  Maybe not. I try to not to watch the tributes to individuals because then I can’t breathe again.

Where lay the path of sanity? The muse deserted me.  I could not put pen to paper except to edit and to write this blog. Fortunately, I had a lot of material to edit, but the more days that have turned into weeks and month, the drier the well of creativity seemed. I had finished my police-witch trilogy (book two, House of Stone) and the eight-year nonfiction project (Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days). I finished a rewrite of an old manuscript and had no idea where to go next. I felt aimless, adrift.  Everything had a surreal quality.

The first thing I did that gave me a little peace was plucking debris and tiny plants from the green moss on the brick walk from the driveway to the front door.  It took hours; its only purpose was to create a little temporary beauty, but doing it calmed something inside me.

Then I took up the WW, the war on wisteria, a vine that had eaten half my back yard and uprooted several trees. This took months of back-breaking work.  Wisteria sends vines out underground that pop up yards away, making nodes along the way that each grow deep roots straight down. You can pull up one section, but any piece that survives can and will repopulate. I learned to know and love a tool called a mattock. Some days I could only do a tiny amount. But the harder I worked and the more exhausted I was, the better I slept and breathed. But I don’t recommend this as a therapy. Never plant wisteria, at least not the Chinese or Japanese variety.

The Wisteria War lasted through the summer and into fall. I decided to let the back yard become a wildflower garden (except for wisteria) and planted some old seeds that had been sitting out in my garage.  We’ll see if they germinate.

One thing I really missed was my twice-weekly martial arts class. Sometime in November, I decided to learn tai chi, which is practiced solo. You have probably seen old people doing it in a park. I learned it from Youtube videos, and whenever I felt trapped or anxious, I went through the movements. I did it three or four times a day, and it focused me on the present.

Over the winter, I lost my mind and adopted two rescue horses off the track, a Thoroughbred and a Standardbred—Foxy and Nickie Jones. I bought Foxy sight unseen from a Facebook picture at a “kill pen” in Louisiana. Her next step would have been dog food (in Mexico). She is a beautiful bay, although we’ve been working on a skin infection that even affected an eyelid. It’s all getting better. Nickie Jones was an older lady who traveled with her but when she arrived in Alabama, her purchaser backed off because she was injured and malnourished. So, we took her too. Preparation for their arrival took weeks of cleaning out the old barn and working on the overgrown arena and round pen.  Focusing on preparing for them and taking care of them has occupied me and my husband for several weeks now. But I am smitten!

Then a good friend introduced me to a form of art called Zentangle. It is done on little 3×3 inch pieces of stock paper—tiny art. I played with it and decided to add colors. Because it is so small, it is not intimidating like a big canvas would be. I’ve never done any “art thing” beyond doodling, but I’ve always wanted to.  They may not be great masterpieces, but the world fades away when I am working on one.

But still fresh words eluded me. No stories pushing to be born.

Then a friend I never met at that writer’s conference in California (we were supposed to be on a Law Enforcement panel together) emailed me and asked if I were interested in submitting a short story to an editor in Australia who is putting together a crime anthology featuring law enforcement authors and wanted some submissions from women. I am both of those things—an author and a cop, a retired one anyway, a short, gray-haired old lady. I agreed to submit a story. The catch is I had to write it. I had to create it. I told myself—this is like the tiny art. It’s a short story, not a novel. Even so, I was totally blank. But I promised, so I had to do it. One word at a time.

I was delighted and surprised that the words came. It’s about a short, gray-haired old lady who is an ex-cop, a martial artist, and a horse woman who witnesses a murder. I’ve sent it off. Maybe I’ll do another short story or maybe I have found a character who could support something longer?  

I hope this helps you find your way through.

T.K. is a retired police captain who writes books, which, like this blog, go wherever her interest and imagination take her.  More at TKThorne.com

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Susan: An Extraordinary Story

Susan had never told her family about her experiences. In fact, before Louisa Weinrib called her in 1990 for an interview, she she had never talked about what happened to anyone other than those who had gone through it with her. Hers is a true story of amazing strength, resourcefulness, and friendship.

Susan Eisenberg’s childhood was full of promise. An only child, she was born in 1924 into a family that proudly traced their Hungarian lineage back a hundred years. She grew up in the small town of Miskolc, where her father had a successful business buying and exporting livestock and grains for a farming cooperative. 

Susan was aware of anti-Semitic sentiment, but it didn’t touch her early life. The Jewish community was well integrated into Hungarian society, and she had many Christian friends. She spoke Hungarian and German, loved to ice-skate and ski, and wanted to go to college, but by the time she was of college age, Jews could not attend.

Her loving and close-knit family gathered after synagogue at her home, where they also celebrated the Seder. On weekends, they offered a tradition of high tea for family and neighbors. 

Trouble began in 1938 with a small Hungarian Nazi party that grew in strength, paralleling the party’s growth in Germany. After Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Polish refugees fled into Hungary, bringing what seemed unbelievable stories of what was happening in Poland. Without a birth certificate validating birth in Hungary, officials shipped the fleeing civilians back to Poland. An army friend confided to Susan that, in reality, the Poles were taken across the border and shot. Even when people began wearing brown shirts with swastika armbands and spouting slogans, Susan recalled, the Jewish community just ignored it. 

In 1940 Hungary became an Axis power. Hitler, who invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, demanded that Hungary join that war. Susan’s uncle died when he was forced to walk with others into a field between the German and Russian armies to test for the presence of land mines. Her father was taken to a work camp. Released the following year, he was ill and depressed and died soon after at 44. After his death, Susan and her mother moved to the city of Budapest to live with relatives.

Although the Jews in Hungary suffered under tightening restrictions, Hungary’s regent protected them for a time from Hitler’s “final solution”—extermination—until Hitler discovered the regent was secretly negotiating an armistice with the US and the UK. On Easter Sunday in March 1944, Susan was having coffee with a friend on a cafe terrace and saw German panzer tanks rolling over the bridges into Budapest. The Germans occupied and quickly seized control of the country.

The Nazis rounded up her family members who were still living in the countryside. The relatives sent postcards—which Susan and her mother later learned the Nazis forced them to write—advising they were well and going to Thersienstadt (a concentration camp/ghetto in Terezin). All of them perished in that camp.

In Budapest, Allied forces regularly bombed the city. Everyone carried bags of food at all times, never knowing when they might have to run into the air-raid shelters. Jews were required to wear a yellow star patch on their clothing and live in designated housing. Restrictions dictated when they could leave the house and forbid them to go to public parks or even walk on the sidewalks. They could work only in manual labor positions. Jewish professionals, doctors and dentists, could only practice on Jewish patients.

Susan was 19, with light blonde hair and blue eyes. She pulled off the yellow star from her clothes and snuck out into the country to get food. Once, on her return, Germans soldiers in a vehicle, not realizing she was a Jew, picked her up. They asked for a date. Heart pounding, she agreed, lying about where she lived, and promised to meet them later. Safely home, she looked down at her clothes and realized that a closer inspection would have revealed the stitch holes from the star she’d removed. 

When the Russian army was approaching Budapest, the Hungarian Nazis ordered Susan to report for labor with her age group and sent them to dig foxholes. Their Hungarian Nazi guards were 14 or 15-year-olds. When a young girl working at Susan’s side sat down and cried for her mother, those guards immediately shot her.

For two days and nights in the cold and rain, with no food, the guards ran them back to Budapest to work in a brick factory where she met two girls her age, Ferry (Ferike Csato) and Katherine (Katherine Goldstein Prevost). Susan pretended to be crippled and part of a group of sick and injured destined for Budapest and death. She escaped and made it to her aunt and uncle’s house, but the following day Hungarian gendarmes (police) rounded her up with others. The gendarmes forced even mothers from their babies to join with those in the streets.

Their Hungarian guards told them they were taking them to Germany to die. “The one who dies on the road is lucky,” they said. Over a ten-day period in October, they walked in rain, ice, and cold from Budapest to the German border (125 miles) to Hegyeshalomover. Thousands were shot for lagging behind or collapsing. A few country people along the way gave them a piece of bread. Others stripped them of their clothes. Guards kicked them. They slept in flea-invested hay. 

Anyone who had anything of value traded it to the peasants for food. They fought for a share of rare carrot or bean soup.

One night, the guards packed them onto a barge on the Danube River. Overwhelmed by the press of dying people, Susan escaped by swimming to the bank in the freezing river. She begged a man she encountered to help her or just get her something dry to wear. He agreed but instead returned with police who escorted her back to the prisoners.

At the German border, they marched another ten miles to trains. Jammed into cattle cars, they traveled for days but couldn’t see out because black slats covered the cars. She was only aware of repetitive stopping and starting. 

Finally, in October 1944, the trains arrived at Dachau concentration camp in Germany, their destination. The smell of the crematorium camp would stay in her nostrils for the rest of her life, as would the shock of her first sight of the skeletal prisoners who mobbed them, begging for bread. Guards beat the prisoners back.

The newly arrived assembled in a large open field, waiting to go in. But even with bodies being constantly cremated, there was no room for them in Dachau. Susan and her two friends, Ferry and Katherine, went with other girls to Camp Two and then Camp Eleven (nearby work camps). They slept in bunkers below ground on a wooden floor and a pallet of straw. Camp Two, they quickly learned, was the “sick camp.” The next stop for Camp Two occupants would be the crematorium in Dachau.

At the satellite camps, they were given striped uniforms. About 500 people lived in each barrack with a block leader in charge. Food came once a day in a big wooden barrel with hot water and big hunks of sugar beets. At night they received a piece of bread that “oozed sawdust and a piece of artificial marmalade.” At first, she couldn’t swallow it. The older inmates encouraged her to “eat it, no matter what.” 

Each day, the prisoners were called out to stand, sometimes for hours, in the cold for a count and work assignments (Appell). “If you fell out, you were beaten or shot. If a friend was dying, you made sure that she stood up, no matter what, and wasn’t left in the barracks.” 

In the first Appell, Susan was picked to work in a kitchen where she peeled beets. Germans brought in prisoners for punishment, hanging them from rafters and beating them. She and the kitchen workers constantly cleaned the blood from the floors. She hid beets inside her baggy shirt and shared it with her camp mates and the Muselmann—the starving, skin-and-bones prisoners resigned to their impending death.

Susan was transferred to different camps for work assignment. At one, German engineers of the Wehrmacht (Armed Forces), instead of SS troops, ran the camp. More humane, their military task masters distributed pieces of food to the workers, food that kept Susan alive. Barehanded and dressed only in the thin striped uniforms and sockless wooden clogs, Susan and her fellow prisoners pulled wagons of wood in the Bavarian winter mountains. Sometimes she was taken from the camp to wash clothes for German housewives. She also worked in the Sonderkommando (work groups at crematoriums) to remove teeth from the corpses of the murdered for the gold fillings.

Her health was deteriorating. She had lost weight and suffered from reoccurring high fevers. Typhoid broke out in the camp. There was no medication. To isolate the prisoners, the guards stopped letting them leave, throwing beets and bread over the fence. 

In early March 1945, after the epidemics, a female guard beat her for speaking defiantly to a camp commander. People all around her were giving in to despair, but she refused to do so, vowing she would survive. 

At another work camp, Susan joined women prisoners building an underground airplane hangar. They were forced to carry 100-pound bags of cement across a catwalk several stories high. The Muselmann went down instantly under the burden, falling to their deaths. “There was,” Susan said, “as much blood and flesh in that hanger as cement.”

An inmate orchestra played as she and other workers left the camp and on their return. Guards made the orchestra watch and play during beatings and hangings and while starved prisoners–who had tried to grab potatoes from a wagon—were strung up between the electrical barbed wire, potatoes stuck in their mouths.

Once, the Germans spruced up a barracks, putting in furniture and stocking it with people they found “not in terrible shape” for the Swiss Red Cross, who had come to inspect the treatment of prisoners. As soon as they were gone, the Germans took the untouched piles of canned foods, condensed milk, and chocolate the Red Cross had left for the prisoners.

One barrack’s occupants were expectant mothers. They were allowed to give birth to their babies and tend them. Then one day, without warning, all the infants were taken away and the women sent to the work groups. 

To use the open trenches to relieve themselves, Susan had to walk through knee-deep mud at night, sometimes stepping on top of the bodies of those who had fallen there and died in the mud. Survival, she knew, depended on not allowing yourself to feel and thinking only of the moment.

Her last assignment was in a dynamite factory. By this time, the air raids were almost continuous. Landsberg, a nearby town, was under siege by the Americans. In April 1945, guards took her and her friends to the main camp in Dachau. They spent a night in the showers at Dachau, believing they would next be taken to the crematoriums, which were still “going strong.” But the next day, with thousands of young people, they were marched out of the camp. As they left, they could see the trains that continued to bring prisoners from other camps [to keep the Allies from discovering them], many already sick and emaciated. When the doors opened, dead bodies fell out. Inmates stacked them like mountains in front of the crematoriums to be burned. But the Germans had run out of time. The American guns were days away. 

They marched from Dachau, walking at night and hiding in the woods during the day. Allowed to dig in the fields they passed for roots and potatoes, they ate them raw. All understood the guards’ orders were to march them into the mountains and kill them in the forests where the Allies would not discover their bodies. Guards shot in the head anyone who lagged or fell. Susan was sick and feverish. She could not walk on her own, but three friends, Katherine, Ferry, and another supported her, keeping her from collapsing.

As they struggled through the mountains and meadows of Bavaria, guards began deserting in the cover of night. American planes flew low enough Susan could read the insignia on the wings. The pilots, who surely saw the striped uniforms, refrained from dropping bombs.

Five days later, what remained of their group arrived at a work camp for Russian prisoners in the small German town of Wolfratshausen. The first task of their remaining Nazi guards was to take the Russian prisoners of war and shoot them. Knowing they were next, Susan lay on the roadside, too sick and exhausted to react. Then she heard a roar—the first American jeep of the Third Army coming down the road—liberators.

The German guards fled, but the liberators were combat troops, unable to care medically for the freed prisoners. The Americans moved on, and the liberated were left to fend for themselves.

Typhoid once again thinned their ranks. Her friends held out tin cans for food the passing American soldiers threw to them. Survivors that were able, brought supplies from the town and cooked soups. Reports that Americans fed and clothed German prisoners, playing baseball and basketball with them in the prison camps, ignited bitterness and anger. Many Jews took abandoned weapons and hunted the German SS who had tortured them and killed their friends and families.The sound of gunfire in the surrounding forests peppered the nights.

They spent the summer in the woods, slowly regaining their strength, then Susan, Katherine and Ferry trekked to a displaced persons camp. Although her friends wished to immigrate to Israel, Susan wanted to go home to Hungary. And they chose to go with her. 

They walked to Prague, a journey of 145 miles, where a Russian troop train allowed them to ride. Arriving finally at their destination of Budapest, they found it devastated. Susan couldn’t find her house in the rubble . . . or her mother. They tried to find work. Inflation made money worthless. A friend of her uncle finally gave her a job in the ministry [government] which paid the workers in potatoes and bread. They lived in a room open to the elements; bombs had destroyed the windows and doors.

Ferry convinced Susan to go with her, Katherine, and two Sabra (Israeli) agents who were attempting to get fifty Polish Jewish children to Israel. The children had survived by hiding in Christian homes. Susan and her friends rode with them by train to the Hungarian border where they had to walk about 200 miles.

The friends, with the two Sabra agents and three other men, accompanied the children through heavy snow in the fields and woods. Twice, they paid off Russians who stopped them, but the third time, at the German border, they had to make a run for it. They abandoned all their belongings in their dash for freedom. Older children carried the younger ones. Russian bullets followed them. Once safely across, the children continued through Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Cyprus and then into Israel. But Susan still did not want to go to Israel. 

Later, Susan said she regretted that decision and felt pride in what Israel stood for. “You know, even if you have to die, if you die on your feet fighting, it’s a heck of a lot different than to be shoved into a gas chamber [to] die like mice or cockroaches, or whatever.”

Susan lived in Germany for three years, then married a GI and came to America in 1948, becoming a U.S. citizen. She had two children, Diane and Leslie, and lived on Long Island, NY. Struggled with multiple health issues, she worked in various factories to pay her medical bills before getting a clerical job on Mitchel Air Force Base, which turned into a civil service career of 30 years. 

She divorced and eventually married another serviceman. With his transfer to Maxwell Air Force Base, they moved to Montgomery, Alabama.

Ferry and Katherine joined relatives in America, and the three friends kept in touch for the rest of their lives. Finally locating her mother, who had returned to Budapest, Susan brought her to Montgomery in 1956. 

Susan Petrov Eisenberg died in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2008.

Note: I had the privilege of compiling Susan’s story. She was one of the survivors who made Alabama their home after WWII. Others’ stories and a wealth of educational material about survivors and the Holocaust is available at the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center website—bhecinfo.org

T.K. is a retired police captain who writes books, which, like this blog, go wherever her interest and imagination take her.

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What to Remember Today

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

There is so much to remember, but I am plagued by two questions at the moment. How do people believe things? Why do they believe things?

Let’s start here:

We are humans. We are emotional beings. Our brains evolved in stages. Scientists tell us that the part our cognitive structure that makes us thinking beings (i.e. organisms that can project possible futures and plan for them) formed literally on top of the reptilian brain, which was responsible for flight/flight reactions and keeping us alive in a threatening world.  We still have that reptilian part of our brains; it is part of us, and it is often in conflict with the “thinking” part of our brain.

But our amazing mind/body has adapted a strategy to integrate both brains and all the different parts of our brains. It does this with the bridge of STORY.

Story is the structure by which we not only integrate the various parts of ourselves (different parts of our brain) but also our place in the world. It is how we know we “are,” as opposed to everything we are not. “I” has boundaries that end with my skin. I am not the chairs I sit on, the air I breathe, the other people in my social orbit. But my story about myself allows me to include other things and people as connected to me. This is my chair; my house; my family. I “am” angry; I “am” sad.

These things and relationships are not real. They are stories.

Images that fall on our retinas at the back of our eyes are upside down. Our brain rewrites the story of what we are seeing by flipping the image over for us and telling us that is what we see. Have you ever looked at something or a picture of something and it took several moments to figure out what it was?  You are “seeing” without the brain’s interpretation (story) about what you are seeing.

Ultimately, everything is connected to everything. We are all bits of energy dancing in a temporary form.  It is story that gives everything context.

In earlier times, probably before the sophistication of language, we may very well have communicated through body movements and dance, perhaps accompanied by sounds mimicking animals. Perhaps hunters acted out how to spot and stalk and kill prey. Perhaps they figured out a way to explain where a crop of berries grew (as bees dance to give the location of flowers.). We still see these types of communication in Native American dancing. This was rudimentary storytelling. Its usefulness in survival is obvious.

Many psychologists have pointed out the powerful influence of “the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.”

“I am a victim of abuse vs I am a survivor of abuse vs I am an overcomer of abuse.” How we tell our stories matters.

But the point I want to make here is that our brains are designed to interpret via story. If we are told something when we are young, it can become subconsciously incorporated into our perceptions, our story about ourselves. Even as adults, we are susceptible to stories, especially if they are ones we are primed to believe.

Here’s another important fact. Science is indicating that there are literally different portions of our brains that “speak up” at different moments and that one of the functions of our consciousness is to determine which one to “listen” to. Have you ever had conflicting voices in your mind? That chocolate cake looks so good! At the same time a different voice says, It is not healthy; don’t do it! Ultimately, you have to decide which story to believe in.

Science says we are more likely to believe bad news than good, which makes sense. It is more important to pay attention to the information that a tiger is prowling close than that nothing has been spotted in the tree canopy. Thus, the story that other types of people are dangerous or threats to us finds easy access in our brains.

We also pay more attention to information that aligns with what we already believe (the story we already tell ourselves). Thus, people who have religious faith are more likely to believe in a story about a miracle. Soldiers who have trained for war and know the people they face are willing to kill them are likely to believe the story that the enemy is not like them and to depersonalize them into creatures it is okay to kill. They are not human beings with emotions and values and families; they are “Japs,” “Chinks,” “Kikes.”  Survival obviously increases when you are able to kill an enemy before they kill you. But if we are convinced the “enemy” is among us, this kind of label-story allows us to hurt them with a free conscience.

It also apparently matters how often we hear a story.  We humans are herd animals, at least in the sense that if we observe that a lot of people want something, we want it too. Trust me, advertisers make billions of dollars off of that principle. This also makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. If everyone is running in one direction, our survival chances are higher if we run too and in the same direction.

These things are programed into our central nervous system.

TV evangelists have been using these story principles for a long time to bilk people out of their savings. Politicians use them to sway people. Stories repeated and appearing to be believed by others can influence people to act in a manner they might never have considered. Hitler told a story about how Germany could become “great again.” And how Jews were despicable and less than human.

Writers are powerful because they understand the power of stories.

Story is intrinsically neither “good” nor “bad.” Once we understand the principle, we are not compelled to believe it or act on it. We can compare it to facts we have confidence in. We can stop and evaluate the story being told, whether from others or from one of the “voices” of our own brains. We can decide to swallow it or change it or reject it. We can choose another story, tell ourselves another version. “I am a bad person” can become “I am doing the best I can.”

 We have that ability, but only if we recognize that everything is story.

And that may be the most powerful thing to remember today.

T.K. is a retired police captain who writes books, which, like this blog, go wherever her interest and imagination take her.

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Are You Really Reading this on Christmas?

Are you really reading this on Christmas?

The better question might be: Am I really writing this on Christmas? Me, a nice Jewish girl? LOL!

But I guess it’s time to come out of the holiday closet.

I’ve been so relieved to learn that I am not the only Jewish person who grew up celebrating a (nonreligious) Christmas. It started with my grandmother who grew up in the little town of Maysville, Kentucky. Hers was the only Jewish family there. She felt seriously left out at Christmas. Not just the gifts the morning of, but all the preparations, excitement and sharing that went with it.

. . . Bummer.

She made up her mind that she would not do that to her children, and so, as soon as she married and had children, the family tradition began. I grew up celebrating/observing all of the Jewish holy days and holidays, including Hanukah, which usually  lands in the month of December, but we also brought a (real) tree and the pungent smell of pine into the living room and made homemade decorations for it that began with glue and glitter on paper and proceeded to hollowed-out egg shells. (Mom made the shells; we decorated with glue and glitter). She also made origami figures (which we decorated with glue and glitter.) My favorite were the delicate pink and blue and yellow swans.

In the days before Christmas, I would squeeze behind the tree into my own private fairyland world of blinking red, green, and blue lights nestled in the tinsel-draped branches to make up complex stories involving the figures and ornaments. We also left cookies and a Coca-Cola for “Santa Claus,” but that was a facade for my younger siblings.

 I, alas, had learned the truth too early. . . .

When I was 6 or 7 years old, an older friend ridiculed my explanation about the tooth fairy leaving me a quarter in exchange for my tooth. I marched home with the friend in tow and told my mother that I was not believed and would she please inform my smarty friend here of the TRUTH?

Caught, my mother confessed the Tooth Fairy was not real. In shock, I desperatedly demanded, “But what about Santa Claus? He’s real, isn’t he?”

That was the first time my world crumbled. (Sadly, it would not be the last or the worst. But those are not tales for Christmas Day.) And it did not stop me from squeezing behind the blinking, shimmering tree and creating my own worlds . . . and eventually writing them down.

Whatever Christmas means to you, I wish you MM (Much Merry) and dreams come true!

T.K. is a retired police captain who writes Books, which, like this blog, go wherever her interest and imagination take her.

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Behind the Magic Curtain

Four men who loved the city of Birmingham, Alabama asked me to write a book. I look back on that day when I met them in the high-rise office of a prominent attorney. They were all strangers, decades older. They had lived through “pivotal nation-changing days.” Three of them had been in the thick of happenings.

As I sat at the polished hardwood table, I thought possibly they assumed I was a scholar of civil rights because I had recently written a book about the investigation of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young black girls in Birmingham in 1963 (Last Chance for Justice), but to my surprise, the gentleman who invited me to that meeting said he had done so because of a totally different book, a historical novel set thousands of years in the past in ancient Turkey (Noah’s Wife). I had to ask him why he thought that qualified me. He said, “If you could write a book about Noah’s wife and make me believe that was what really happened, then you can tell the true stories of what happened here.”

To say I was reticent was an understatement. What they were asking me to do seemed a huge commitment, and so much had been documented about the era, what could I possibly add? Then one of the men sent me his notes about a day in 1962 when he pushed through the double glass doors of The Birmingham News, weary from an all-night stakeout with police, and his eccentric, powerful boss shouted for him to join him for breakfast. What was said at that breakfast changed a young reporter’s life and affected the tangled web of history.

I was hooked.

After the better part of a decade, it is done. Regretfully, two of the fine gentlemen who trusted me to write this did not live to see it. I only hope I have been true to their vision.

Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days is a remarkable look at a historic city enmeshed in racial tensions, revealing untold or forgotten stories of secret deals, law enforcement intrigue, and courage alongside pivotal events that would sweep change across the nation.


What folks are saying:

T. K. Thorne has hit another home run with Behind the Magic Curtain. For five and a half decades we have read accounts of the civil rights era in Birmingham and Selma written by those with a particular ax to grind. Thorne is an excellent reporter, recognizing the nuances that “outsiders” or opinionated writers could not see or chose to overlook. Her reading and especially her interviews over the past several years have been remarkable, allowing her to give far more accurate details than we have seen before. For those who want to know the secrets of what really went on behind the “magic curtain” in those pivotal nation-changing days, days that brought the Civil Rights Bill in 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill in 1965, this is an important book to read.
—Douglas M. Carpenter, Retired Episcopal minister and son of Alabama’s Episcopal Bishop, C. C. J. Carpenter.

In Behind the Magic Curtain, T. K. Thorne introduces us to those who operated behind the scenes in the civil rights movement in Alabama, shedding light on the individual moral complexities of these participants—some firebrands, some reluctant players, and some predators who worked for their own gain. This journalistic exploration of a complicated time in Alabama’s social history will sit comfortably on the shelf next to histories by Dianne McWhorter, Glenn Eskew, and Taylor Branch. — Anthony Grooms, author of Bombingham and The Vain Conversation

Deeply engaging, Behind the Magic Curtain tells a forgotten part of the Birmingham story, prompting many “real time memories” for me. The lively and descriptive writing brought the characters and settings to life, while diving into the white community’s role in all its complexities. This is a treasure trove of stories about activities and perspectives not well known to the general public. In particular, journalist Tom Lankford’s sleuthing and the machinations of the Birmingham Police Department, along with the risk-averse role of the local newspapers, and a full blown portrait of the inscrutable Birmingham News VIP, Vincent Townsend, make for a fascinating read.
—Odessa Woolfolk, educator, community activist, and founding president of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

“T.K. writes like a seasoned news editor, meticulously hunting down facts and laying out the context in a colorful, intriguing way. Behind the Magic Curtain documents many untold stories and faithfully relates my own personal, unforgettable memories of a time of racial transition in Birmingham.”
—Tom Lankford, journalist for The Birmingham News

“Novelist and former Birmingham Police Captain T.K. Thorne demonstrates there was more to Birmingham of the Civil Rights Era than Bull Connor, Klansmen, and African-American protestors.  Behind that “Magic Curtain,” an ethnically diverse group from downtown to the surrounding bedroom communities of ministers, priests, rabbis, newspaper reporters, and housewives comprised a community belying monikers like ‘Bomingham’ and ‘Murder Capital of America,’ and fighting for justice in the Magic City.”
—Earl Tilford, author of Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s

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