For the first time in its 11-year history, the committee behind One Book, One Lower Merion has chosen a book by a local author.
Daniel Torday, director of the Creative Writing Program at Bryn Mawr College, wrote this year’s selection, The Last Flight of Poxl West, the story of a young boy named Eli and his uncle Poxl West, a former Royal Air Force pilot, who wrote a book about his war experiences that may not all be entirely true stories.
The novel came out in March to rave reviews from the likes of The New York Times, and Torday has appeared on programs like NPR’s “Fresh Air” to talk about his book. And it was a long time in the making — eight years, according to Torday, to tell the story that was in part inspired by his own family.
“The central seed for the story itself came from some time I spent with my grandmother’s first cousin, who was a Czechoslovakian-Jewish teenager just before the war,” he explained. Poxl’s background is also Czech-Jewish, though Torday is quick to say the book itself is “very fictionalized.”
The book, which is narrated by Poxl, incorporates a “story within a story” format, detailing Poxl’s upbringing and past life and interweaving with his current situation and his relationship with Eli.
The idea of Poxl’s memoir potentially not being entirely true presented a fresh idea to Torday that he wanted to explore, especially as there are so many other Holocaust memoirs and stories that have a clear narrative, he said, citing Elie Wiesel’s Night as a classic example of the genre.
His family had Holocaust stories of their own, which also provided material and inspiration Torday could draw from.
“My grandfather grew up in the small city north of Budapest, Gyöngyös,” Torday said. “He moved to Budapest and met my grandmother there. He actually was taken to a forced labor camp during the war.”
When he came back, Torday continued, his grandfather moved back to Budapest and survived by changing his name.
“My grandmother’s family converted based on fears,” he said. “She came to Long Island in the 1940s with my father. The vast majority of their family was taken to the camps. There was a fear that that war created that forced a lot of people to either specifically change or modify aspects of their identity.”
He spent time talking to his grandfather about his story, which even became the subject matter for Torday’s SAT essay, he recalled. He had been telling “some version” of the story for quite some time before it evolved into Poxl.
“I think part of the story, or the seed of that story, felt exciting to me because it was a story I’d never heard before,” Torday said. “When you’re making a novel, you want it to feel like it’s a fresh story.”
He hopes that learning Poxl’s story might not all be true will keep readers turning the pages, not turning the book down.
“I think ultimately my hope is they cared enough about the story Poxl is telling and the sweep of his life that they would want to know, they would feel it’s a story told well enough that they would want to continue to read,” he said.
Torday had to do a lot of research for the story, apart from his own familial history.
“I’m not a World War II buff,” he said. “I don’t know if I even knew there was a Royal Air Force.”
Though he had already published short stories and essays, having a published novel under his belt hasn’t changed his teaching methods, but it has given him a sense of credibility.
“I feel like much less of a fraud,” he said with a laugh.
He teaches mostly workshops and now has a sense of what’s at the end of the finish line to share with his groups of aspiring writers.
“I have a better idea of what it means to finish and ultimately, in some ways, that’s the goal,” he said.
He was excited to learn that his book had been chosen for One Book, One Lower Merion. He loved the idea of being able to share his story with a local audience.
“Anytime you have an opportunity to broaden readership — especially when it’s in your own backyard — it’s kind of the dream,” he said.
The annual event will also include several gatherings to discuss the book, including a session with Torday himself at 2 p.m. on Nov. 22 at the Thomas Great Hall at Bryn Mawr College. He will do a reading and hold a question-and-answer session.
“It’s amazing what you learn from your readers,” he said of why he always loves talking with readers about the book. “There’s an edification in just getting to interact with people as well as the subject matter.”
Lenore Forested started One Book, One Lower Merion 11 years ago after noticing that while each of the six libraries in the Lower Merion library system had programs, there wasn’t one event that brought them all together.
“People in Lower Merion are fiercely loyal to their neighborhood libraries, but there was no one program that involved the entire library system,” said Forested, who was chair of the Lower Merion library system at the time.
The first One Book was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. In the ensuing years, participants have paged through works such as People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and In an Instant by Lee and Bob Woodruff. Forested’s goal is to pick a book that is somewhat new both to libraries and to readers — a book that hasn’t already been discussed in book clubs.
“We [the committee] start doing our reading in February,” she explained. “We want the book that we pick to be reasonably fresh, not to have been around for a while.”
To her, Torday’s story was both different and interesting, Forested knew this was the one they had to pick.
“It happens to be a beautifully written book,” she said. “I think it’s a marvelous book. I like the fact that it was very layered. It’s layered, it’s complex, it’s adult. It’s a wonderful book.”
Each year, the book chosen has a corresponding service project attached. This year, since the book deals with war, the committee is collecting gently used books in good condition to give to the Philadelphia VA Medical Center’s outpatient clinic and hospital. Those who wish to donate books can bring them to the event, Forested said.
She hopes that the annual event will bring the readers of the community together — and that maybe it will introduce them to more local works.
“We’re looking for people to expand their knowledge about different aspects; I think there’s a lot to be said for supporting new authors,” she said.
“I like the idea — it was great to pick Pete Hamill [One Book, One Lower Merion 2010] — but it’s really great to pick somebody new. I think it encourages people to try other new authors, and that’s a plus.”
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