by Len Lear
“…the sway of the trolley, the unusual passenger, the truck’s raspy muffler, the woman’s torn dress and her own inability to help. Frances is determined to let the details of the disturbing incident go. She’s certain that by Monday her life will return to normal, and the wrung-out feeling inside will be gone. Yet she soon finds that neither the sound of her typewriter nor the lunchroom chatter will erase the dying woman’s final request: ‘Find Hollis!’”
This is the beginning of the story of “Finding Hollis,” a novel set in 1944 in North Minneapolis that turns into a journey in search of more than just a name. Within it the threads of three separate worlds become interwoven. The author, Pauline Knaeble Williams, grew up the 11th child of 12 in North Minneapolis, where her family owned a funeral home for three generations. She currently lives in Voorhees, New Jersey, with her husband and two children in a house with 38 windows. Pauline will appear at Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane in West Mt. Airy. on Sunday, Oct. 26, 2 p.m.
Pauline, 48, graduated from Macalester College (St. Paul, MN) with a degree in sociology and history, and she also earned a graphic design degree from Minneapolis Technical College. Her new novel has been earning raves in her previous hometown.
A recent review in the Minneapolis Star Tribune said, “(Pauline) knows how to both break and heal hearts in her debut novel, ‘Finding Hollis’…masterfully portrayed” Another review in the St. Paul Pioneer Press insisted that “Williams is a lovely writer who packs a lot of story into 180 pages.”
Pauline’s husband, Keith, 47, is an African-American born in Arkansas but raised in Milwaukee. The couple dated for 10 years and have been married for 15 years. They have two children, Mason, 14, and Carmen, 13. “We moved through our relationship slowly,” Pauline told us recently, “addressing the issues that arose from our differing ethnic backgrounds, white and black … While both of our families were supportive of our relationship, we knew it was imperative to pay close attention to the constraints placed upon us within a racist society.”
According to Pauline, her husband’s 103-year-old great-grandmother once told her, “We was slaves until we got up out a Mississippi (in the 1920s),” i.e., even after legalized slavery ended, Mississippi was still such a horrific place that a black person still had to escape it to feel free.
These racial issues that Pauline and her husband and children have had to confront are explored in “Finding Hollis,” a work of fiction that has its basis in fact. Some of these hardened racial attitudes were also present in Minneapolis when Pauline was growing up, but “my parents were two people I could count on to be kind and to make choices based on integrity.
“They demonstrated through their words and deeds the importance of being fair and broad-minded. In the 1960s, when our inner-city neighborhood began to change its ethnic make-up from mainly German and Irish to include Native Americans and African-Americans, my parents accepted this, while so many other white families moved away. This lesson expanded our notion of belonging, of whom we could befriend and love.”
Despite the fact that there were 12 children in her Catholic family, Pauline insists she still got “a good share of attention from my parents and older siblings. I was able to still feel unique while being a part of something big.” As a result, she felt profound pride in her family, which infuses the message of “Finding Hollis,” a message of belonging to and connecting with those around us.
Pauline ended up in New Jersey when her husband took a job at Stockton College 15 years ago. It was difficult to leave her huge, close family, but moving to the east coast gave her a new perspective, especially on issues around race and diversity. Compared to the Midwest, she insists that “this is a great place to raise children of color.”
Pauline spent a long time trying to be everything but a writer. She worked in a homeless shelter, waitressed, worked as a graphic designer, a coach and a yoga instructor, but all the while she believed she had a great deal to contribute to others through the written word. She began with poetry and then when she moved east, wrote a memoir.
She received some attention from agents regarding the memoir but decided to pursue fiction as she was warned of the difficulty in publishing a memoir as one’s first book. “Finding Hollis” germinated from an incident that happened in 1920 when her great-aunt stepped off a streetcar. Pauline took some details she found in a newspaper clipping and spun the fictional story, changing the setting to the 1940s and weaving in the racial climate of that time and place.
“It took me four years to write the book,” she said, “working during my children’s nap time or late at night. It didn’t matter how long the process took; it just mattered that I was writing. When I began sending the manuscript out, I received positive feedback from agents, but it still took five years to sign a contract with Forty Press, a small publishing house from Minnesota. I told myself it didn’t matter how long it took, just to trust that it would happen …
“Writing is a way for me to make my world more vibrant, more subtle, more real. It starts with … exploring the possibilities of describing something that has been waiting for me to do it justice. Like the trunk of a tree or why my children’s skin color still matters.”
More information Pauline’s Mt. Airy appearance at 215-844-1870 or www.paulineknaeblewilliams.com.