Life beyond silk

Life beyond silk

Novelist spins Paterson fact into historical fiction

Silk mill workers, top, toiled in rooms like the one in the middle photo. Above, a building in Paterson today, reflecting its industrial past.

Leslie Rupley, who was born in Paterson in 1945 but has lived in California for many years (her town, Walnut Creek, is not unlike Short Hills, she said), has had many careers before she became a first-time novelist.

The career that led her most directly to this one was her stint as a personal historian.

What is that? “I was a ghostwriter of memoirs,” she said.

For the past decade or so there has been a surge of interest in the form, aided in no small way by the rise in self-publishing, but the fact that most people, even those who have had interesting lives, cannot write remains a timeless truth.

“It was fun,” Ms. Rupley said. “I wrote the life story of a woman who came to California from a shtetl. She told me about shtetl life, which was very helpful in my novel. And I wrote the story of a German woman who lived in Katowice, near Auschwitz, and was 16 when the war ended.” The woman’s father, fearing that she would be raped and the town pillaged when the Russians took it over, put her on a train, saying “You have to be able to be captured by the Americans.”

These and similarly evocative stories, which could have happened only in specifics times and places, led her to think about writing her own family’s story.

“My grandmother lived with us in Paterson,” Ms. Rupley said. “She was from Lodz, from a weaving family. Her brothers had preceded her to this country, and they established themselves as mill owners in Paterson.” They owned the Pope Mill, she said. Paterson, a textile town, was a magnet for Europeans – both Jews and non-Jews – who had worked in the textile industry before they escaped to the New World. Many were highly skilled, and the town flourished.

“She came with the idea of ‘Oh my goodness, I’ll be wealthy’ but she married a socialist.

“My grandfather died before I was born. All I knew about him was that he belonged to the Workman’s Circle,” Ms. Rupley said. “I thought that it would be fun to research it.”

As her idea matured, she decided to make her book a novel, although she incorporated many elements of her family’s real life. Her heroine’s name, Emma, was also her grandmother’s name.

During the early twentieth century, Paterson was shaken by the conflict between laborers and mill owners, leading to a famous workers’ action – the Silk Strike of 1913 – and by the deadly the influenza pandemic of 1918. All this figures in her book.

Ms. Rupley’s heroine, Emma, is a difficult character, as in real life many of us are. Like her namesake, Ms. Rupley’s grandmother, she was not willing to live what she saw as the life of a good socialist, giving up all but simple pleasures for the shared cause. Although her husband and children were staunch socialists, she is an entrepreneur at heart. “Beyond the Silk Mills” chronicles her struggles both as a woman in a world not particularly open to female entrepreneurs and as a member of a family not particularly open to her view of the world. It is both a family story and the portrait of a particular time and place.

Ms. Rupley’s book is based on research. Much of it was done in New Jersey.

“I have many relatives in Fair Lawn and Teaneck, so I came to north Jersey often,” Ms. Rupley said. “I would go to Paterson to do more research. I visited the silk mills.

“I remember than when I was a child, my father took me to the Great Mills, and that was another inspiration for my book,” she continued. “He loved Paterson, so I thought that I would create the Paterson that is in my novel.”

Beyond the Silk Mills
Leslie Rupley will speak locally
On November 15, from 2 to 4 p.m., she will read, answer questions, and sign books at the American Labor Museum/Botto House National Landmark in Haledon.

On November 16, at 2 p.m., she will read, answer questions, and sign books at the Fair Lawn Public Library.

On November 17, she will discuss her book at the Wayne Y and later sign books at the Teaneck General Store.

On November 19, at 8 p.m., she will read, answer questions, and sign books for the Knights of Pythias as the Fair Lawn Senior Center.

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