Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Night of Flames by Douglas Jacobson

Night of Flames is a novel about Polish lovers separated at the outbreak of World War II and their struggle to reunite. The book, available through Amazon, has been very well received, and Homer Hickam (the author of October Sky) describes Mr. Jacobson's book as "historical fiction at its best."

I asked him to tell me about the inspiration for his novel, and here's what he said:

I have always been interested in World War two history. With my Polish-American background (my mother was Polish), I had a particular interest in Poland's experience in the war. But I never imagined I would write a novel about it.

The beginning of Night of Flames goes back to 1993, when my daughter married a young man from Belgium and moved to Europe, setting our family on a course that has forever changed our lives. Over time, while traveling to Europe two or three times a year, we became very close friends with my son-in-law’s parents. They are wonderful, caring people who are several years older than we are. They were young children during the German occupation. Young, but old enough to remember. They didn’t talk about it at first, in fact they still don’t, its over, it happened a long time ago, and they survived. End of story.

But gradually, as they realized I really wanted to know, they began to tell me the stories. They told me about living in the cellar while their city was being bombed, about not having anything to eat for months on end and German snipers shooting at them while they scavenged in the streets for food, about my son-in-law’s grandfather being dragged away from the family home by the Gestapo in 1941. . . then returning five years later when he walked home from Germany.

The experiences of my Belgian in-laws inspired me. It made it real. It also gave me the historical background for blending the stories of courageous people from two countries, Poland and Belgium, into a unique perspective of the war. I spent the next five years writing Night of Flames: A Novel of World War Two.


Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the novel.


Anna Kopernik slept on this hot, muggy night but it was a restless sleep troubled by strange dreams. The sheets were clammy and her thin cotton nightgown clung to her back. A paltry breeze drifted in through the open window with little effect. The still, humid air on this September morning hung over Warsaw like a massive wet blanket.

It was five o’clock and Anna drifted back and forth between consciousness and sleep, the dream flitting in and out of her mind like an annoying gnat. The telephone rang. Then it stopped. She wanted to answer it but couldn’t find it. It rang again but it wasn’t a telephone, it was something else . . . a bell, perhaps, or a horn. Anna kicked at the sticky, twisted sheet and rolled onto her back. She was almost awake but still just below the surface. The noise returned, louder now, a harsh clanging boring into her head. She kicked the sheet completely off, struggling to understand. What was it? A horn…or…a siren.

Anna’s eyes snapped open and she sat bolt upright. The shrill sound blasted into her brain, penetrating through the fog of sleep like an icy wind. She blinked and looked around the dark room, trying to focus on shadowy images as the sound wailed on and on.

She ran to the window. It was still dark but the night sky held a hint of gray. An early morning mist shrouded the street lamps casting a gloomy, almost spooky glow along the deserted sidewalk below. The grating noise of the air-raid siren raised the hair on the back of her neck and suddenly she was shivering. Anna crossed her arms over her chest and stared into the dull, charcoal sky. Then she heard another sound.
It came from the west, a deep angry drone like a swarm of giant bees, growing louder by the second. Anna tried to move but her feet didn’t respond. Immobilized, riveted in place, she stared out the open window as the pounding vibration of a hundred propellers enveloped her. The thunderous roar of the bombers drowned out the air raid sirens and the entire building seemed to sway in rhythm with the oscillations.
Anna snapped out of the spell and instinctively reached out to pull the window closed. A flash of light blinded her and an ear-shattering blast threw her backwards amidst a shower of glass and falling plaster. She fell heavily against a small wooden night table and collapsed on the floor.

Another blast rocked the building. Frantic and disoriented, a searing pain in her head and a million lights dancing in her eyes, Anna tried to crawl under the bed, oblivious to the shards of glass that sliced through her hands and knees. Jarring detonations punctuated the deafening thunder of the airplanes.

Then, as abruptly as it started, it was over, the pulsating thump of propellers receding into the distance. Anna lay still, her head under the bed. Seconds passed then a minute and the only sound she heard through the ringing in her ears was the continued wailing of the air raid sirens. She crawled backwards and tried to stand but her legs gave out. She fell against the bed and back onto the floor, this time wincing in pain from the glass and chunks of plaster that littered the floor. Holding the edge of the bed, she struggled to her feet and staggered across the room.
Through the ringing and the sirens Anna heard another sound, someone screaming in the hall. She lurched through the doorway and tripped over Irene, who was crawling on her hands and knees, covered with plaster dust. Anna reached down and helped her friend to her feet.

Irene stared at her with blank eyes then pushed past her. “Justyn!” she screamed. “Oh my God, Justyn!”

They stumbled down the dark hallway to the bedroom at the top of the stairs. The door was split down the middle, hanging from the top hinge. Anna pushed it open and they stepped into the dust-filled room.

Her eyes began to clear and Anna squinted, trying to see through the haze. The small room was completely shattered with a gaping hole in the outside wall. On the left, where the bed had been, she spotted the ten-year-old boy lying still, face down under a pile of wood and plaster.

Irene shrieked and rushed to her son, clawing away at the rubble.
Anna knelt down beside her and they turned the limp boy onto his back. His eyes were closed and his breathing was shallow, blood oozed from a ragged gash on his forehead. Anna spotted a pillow amidst the rubble. She pulled off the pillowcase, shook out the dust and ripped it in half. As Irene held her son’s head, Anna wrapped the makeshift bandage around the wound, tying it tightly to stop the bleeding.

Irene looked up at her and started to say something when Justyn’s voice croaked, “Mama? What . . . ?” The boy flinched in pain, tears welling up in his eyes and Irene cradled him in her arms, rocking him back and forth.

Anna stood up and rubbed her eyes, burning and irritated from the thick dust.

She smelled something.

It was more than dust.


She reached down and grabbed Irene by the arm, yelling over the wailing siren, “We’ve got to get out of here!”

Irene looked up at her, clutching her son, not comprehending.

“The building’s on fire!” Anna screamed, pulling her friend to her feet. She hoisted the boy into Irene’s arms and pushed her out of the room.

The hallway was quickly filling with smoke as they scrambled down the stairs. By the time they reached the ground floor Anna’s eyes were burning and she could barely find her way through the foyer to the front door. She grabbed Irene’s arm, pulled open the heavy wooden door and they burst out, coughing and gagging into the humid pre-dawn air.


Mr. Jacobson's new novel about Poland and the war is entitled The Katyn Order and is also available from Amazon.

I encourage people to visit his website where he posts about Poland and World War II.

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