White Bread and Historical Fiction

My new novel White Bread turns my extensive research on the German-American families in my family tree into historical fiction. The novel itself is set mainly in the present, but about one-third is set in the past as the novel’s protagonist Jessica gradually uncovers her own family history. One may well ask why I chose a fictional rather that non-fictional venue to present this research, especially since so much of my previous writing has been non-fiction.

While I was engaged with my own family history research, I actually thought about this question. I did consider writing an academic article about German-American bilingual, bicultural communities in the U.S. Midwest during the 1800s and early 1900s. Given the fact that German is the largest ethnic heritage of U.S. Americans, surprisingly little has been written about this history. This is not to say, of course, that nothing has been written; for example, Frizzell’s book Independent Immigrants reports an interesting study of Hanoverian Germans who relocated to western Missouri between 1838 and the 1890s. 

But as I thought about it, I realized that what I really wanted to do was to bring some of these families to life through a venue that could be read by not just academicians, but also the larger public. Especially when I hear anti-bilingualism rhetoric, I wonder whether the speakers have a history of bilingualism in their families that they do not know about. I also found myself intrigued by questions such as: What was a typical day like? How did people relate to each other? What did it mean in everyday life to be a German immigrant, or of German descent, living in the U.S. Midwest? How did German-English bilingualism play out in everyday life? What did it look and feel like for people to be both individuals and German Americans?

Some of the best clues to these questions came from old digitized newspapers. For example, in White Bread, readers learn about Willie’s brother John, who formed a cornet band. (I omitted surnames from the historical sections of the book for family privacy.) This band appeared in several newspaper stories, such as one in the February 25, 1886 issue of the Decatur Weekly Republican. In the context of describing a local wedding involving an English-American couple, the newspaper reported:

During the evening the entire company was agreeably surprised on receiving a serenade from the Boody Cornet band, an organizing comprising 16 young men, John [surname] leader. The members have been practicing but six months, but they played their selections with praiseworthy skill and artistic effect. It was their first appearance in public, and in recognition of the compliment, the musicians were invited into the dwelling to partake of the feast.

Through other newspaper articles, I learned that John, a talented musician and active member of Boody’s German Methodist Church, formed this band primarily through his work in the church. The band learned to play a variety of music, including but not limited to German marches. So, to portray a scene in which my ancestor Willie was elected County Supervisor, I set a celebration for him in the the beer garden of Boody’s general store, and during the celebration, John’s cornet band marched in playing German songs.

Old newspaper articles sparked my imagination. Sometimes just a sentence, such as: “The German Methodist picnic at Moffett’s Grove, near Boody, on Wednesday, was attended by about 300 people, . . . and there was singing and music by the Boody band” would spur my imagination. What might a picnic of German Methodist church members have looked like? What did people do there? What did they eat? How often did they picnic? As I looked into these kinds of questions using historical resources, images became increasingly vivid detailed in my head. 

As I compiled the facts I was unearthing, I began to experiment with ways to present them. I found data itself pretty dry reading, especially compared with the vivid pictures emerging in my head. Initially, I worried about straying from the data by introducing features such as dialog and description. However, I gradually realized that historical fiction was allowing me to create a deeper, richer portrayal of the past than I could do by simply reporting data. As I wrote, I sought as much historical information as possible, and did not stray from, ignore, or rework the data I found. I simply elaborated on it, in the process, creating characters and scenes that brought these families and their communities to life.

Jean Harripersaud refers to this kind of fiction as “historically accurate fiction” — history with a little “romance and suspense thrown in.” Yep, that’s what I created, and I think those who read White Bread will walk away with a feel for German-American bilingual, bicultural communities a century ago, that are part of a heritage of a whole lot of us share.


  1. Thank you for sharing this process Christine Sleeter. It is very helpful – I imagine to many many people who may want to reproduce the stories of their families but don’t have many details. I have wanted to tell my parents’ stories for years but knew I didn’t know much detail to make them interesting. I now have a way to proceed.

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