SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — It is easy for period novels to become so entrenched in being historical that they become bulky and difficult to read. Luckily, South Orange author Joani Ascher deftly maneuvered her newest novel, “Hope’s Daughter,” through this thin margin, making a readable and enjoyable novel that immerses the reader in 1940s New York without suffocating them in it.
“Hope’s Daughter” spans more than a decade, beginning before the United States’ entry into World War II and ending during the period of abundance that followed the conflict. Protagonist Jane Baldwin is a down-to-earth, kind woman with aspirations of becoming a stockbroker on Wall Street — a profession unheard of for a woman at that time. In order to accomplish this goal, she has resigned herself to a solitary life without love or children, though life has other plans for her. While Jane as a character can be a bit bland at times, she is brought to life by the novel’s supporting characters, including her dear friend Mr. Dobbin, a kindly older man who lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929; her landlady Mrs. McGill, a brusk, no-nonsense woman who rules her building with an iron fist and a brass banister; her friend and ally Anne Canfield, a tough socialite who breaks the mold in many ways; and her younger half-sister Olivia, who is both incredibly strong and incredibly fragile.
In addition to a robust cast of characters, “Hope’s Daughter” deals with many heavy topics, such as the lasting effects of the Great Depression; illegitimate children, as well as children with developmental disabilities; and the limitations on a woman in the 1940s.
“I have always admired strong women,” Ascher told the News-Record on Aug. 31. “For my book I wanted to create a strong, compassionate young woman, Jane Baldwin, who had career goals when many women did not. I had in mind someone who could be considered a white-collar Rosie the Riveter — who would fill in for a man while he was away at war. Afterward, she would face the same fate as the other women who filled men’s jobs while they were away, and have challenges within her family and in her career that require her to keep rebuilding her life.”
Jane certainly does rebuild her life several times throughout the novel, managing to stay afloat despite the difficulties caused by the time, those around her and at times even herself.
“Many of the issues in the book are from stories my mother told me about people in the family,” Ascher, who has lived in South Orange with her husband, David, for more than 35 years, said. “The Down syndrome issue came from my strong feelings about children who are in some way different but in no way less deserving of love and a chance at a full life. I know my book is sad, but for many of the issues I raised, I like to think that things are better now, that people can get help when they need it. Writing about these hard topics just flowed, but sometimes, so did my tears.”
But there were scenes she greatly enjoyed writing, such as when she introduces the reader to the Canfields, who are clients of the stockbroker, Prescott Weaver, for whom Jane works.
“Mrs. Canfield was wealthy, bejeweled and aloof. Her husband was dismissive of Jane, as she was only a woman,” Ascher said, recalling the line in which Mr. Canfield tells Jane: “Too bad you aren’t a man. You could have had a bright career.”
“Imagining that someday Jane would prove him wrong made me smile,” Ascher said,
Along with the tears and smiles, writing “Hope’s Daughter” also took a lot of hard work, especially to set the right tone and ensure the 1940s setting was period-accurate.
“It was fun going back in history. I had many tools, beside the vast resources of the internet. I found books in the library with pictures and information from each decade,” Ascher said. “I enjoyed looking up historical fashions, and I used places I’d been — although not at the time! — as the home of my characters. My aunt lived in a prewar building in Brooklyn, so I set most of the action in her apartment house. I have to admit I took a bit of a chance writing about taking a streetcar, since to my knowledge I never have. There were also specific instances where I had to do advanced research, first to satisfy a situation in the story and again to appease my editor who went over my book point by point.”
Just as Ascher took a trip through history while writing, she hopes readers will take a trip through history while immersing themselves in her novel.
“I hope my readers are taken on a trip to a new world, or actually a world of the home front during WWII, with characters they will come to love — or hate,” she said. “Like people, characters in books are like onions, and the more we peel back their layers, the more of their essences are revealed. Jane, my protagonist, is especially close to my heart. She has so much love to give, and so many people to care for, but she still knows what she wants and follows her dreams even with the obstacles life hands her.”
While “Hope’s Daughter” is Ascher’s first foray into period writing, she is an established author with six other novels published, all part of the Wally Morris mystery series.
“Wally is a nursery school teacher in a synagogue school. Her efforts to keep everything and everyone happy and healthy lead her to investigate crimes in her community,” Ascher said. “It isn’t that the police are ineffective, Wally just seems to have a knack for seeing what isn’t at all obvious to those around her.”
While “Hope’s Daughter” did not draw from Ascher’s life in South Orange, the Wally Morris series certainly does.
“My Wally Morris mysteries were set in South Orange, my adopted hometown, although I called it Grosvenor and pronounced it the way it looks,” Ascher said. “Our two towns are warm and friendly, with beautiful houses on tree-lined streets, just the same as in my novels.”
When she isn’t writing, Ascher is influencing young lives — both human and canine. She works in the children’s room at Maplewood Memorial Library and has, along with her family, raised 15 Seeing Eye dogs.
“When I was in the sixth grade, in Brooklyn, N.Y., I read a book called ‘Follow my Leader.’ It was about a boy who was blinded and got a Seeing Eye dog, raised in Morristown, N.J., by 4-H club members. I wrote to the organization and said I’d like to be part of the program, but they required New Jersey residency,” Ascher said. “Years later I gave that book to my daughter and she asked to raise a puppy. We were only going to do one, but continued to raise puppies even after both of our children went off to college. It’s a wonderful project, helps people, and is both fun and heartwarming. When the puppy is old enough, it goes back to The Seeing Eye for formal training and placement with a vision-impaired person. If you have signed up, a new seven-week-old puppy will be delivered to your home. And who doesn’t love a tiny, warm puppy?”
“Hope’s Daughter” was published by Wild Rose Press. For more information, visit www.joaniascher.com.