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Local Philadelphia Author Lawrence Kaplan Challenges History with House of Ghosts

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House of GhostsOn August 20, 1944, the Allied Forces – the United States in particular – dropped several bombs on the I.G. Farben chemical plant less than five miles away from Auschwitz. In House of Ghosts, Bucks County author Lawrence Kaplan imagines a different mission, a rogue mission, lead by an underground faction of Jewish-American dissidents, to destroy the concentration camp. Ultimately the plot fails, and history unfolds as we know it; but by merely conceiving of such a mission, House of Ghosts makes us question what we know of history and challenges us to consider how things could have been different. 

At the center of the novel is Joe Henderson, a disabled and hardened police detective in Westfield, N.J. After his curmudgeonly neighbor, Preston Swedge, dies under somewhat peculiar circumstances, Joe starts snooping around and turns up hidden documents and diaries dating back to the 1930s and 40s. One diary belongs to Swedge and the other to Paul Rothstein, a man unknown to Joe or anyone else in Westfield. As Joe reads the diaries and continues his unofficial investigation, he begins to realize that Swedge and Rothstein were very different men, on opposing sides of the policy debates – and actions – surrounding the U.S. involvement in World War II. 

Before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Swedge is a wealthy New Yorker and Princeton student, repeatedly pushed by his father and his closest friend into isolationist, borderline anti-Semitic organizations. After the U.S. enters the war, Swedge pulls strings to land an administrative job in the State department. 

Paul Rothstein on the other hand is a working-class Jewish kid from Brooklyn. With the support of his older brother Jake (and Jake’s mafia income), Paul graduates from New York University. As a student, Paul is drawn into an underground Jewish army (“the Faction”), founded by his brother. Unsatisfied with the U.S. response to the plight of European Jews, the Faction attacks Nazi and isolationist gatherings. When the U.S. joins the Allied Forces, Paul and other members of the Faction join the Air Force, where they hope to have the opportunity to take matters into their own hands to end the extermination of Jews.

Clearly, the plan didn’t succeed. And Joe Henderson, reading the diaries 60 years later, wants to know why. He sets out to learn as much as he can about his dead neighbor Swedge, Paul Rothstein, and their unlikely relationship. The investigation finds him steeped in newspaper archives, cashing in old favors, and facing some pretty hostile octogenarians. Somehow Joe fits all of that in between his drinking, smoking, and cuckolding, and ultimately manages to solve the mystery. 

Author Lawrence Kaplan was inspired to write House of Ghosts by the experience of his mother-in-law, Irene Lederer, a Holocaust survivor who was held at Auschwitz. On August 20, 1944, Mrs. Lederer watched as American bombers flew toward the factory just a few miles away and then disappeared into the distance. “Spurred on by her memories, I delved into the official record trying to find the answer to the questions she asked then, the question that still lingers today: Why didn’t the Allies bomb the gas chambers or the rail lines into Auschwitz? Why didn’t they stop the mass murder when they had the chance?” Kaplan explains. 

A dentist and self-proclaimed history junkie, Kaplan originally planned to write a work of non-fiction that would attempt to answer these questions. But with a DDS, rather than a PhD in history, he feared it would be difficult to publish a work of nonfiction. Instead we have House of Ghosts, a well-researched, intriguing mystery novel. 

Although I’m sure Kaplan’s research would have given the academics a run for their money, it wouldn’t have given him the opportunity to create the complex, three dimensional characters we have in Paul Rothstein, Preston Swedge, and Joe Henderson. Paul, for one, is a hero – but a reluctant hero. Drawn into the Faction by his brother, Paul is never the composed picture of a fearless zealot. In the early days, he balks at the idea of the mere idea of a subversive organization of militant Jews; and as an Air Force pilot poised to enact the Faction’s greatest mission, Paul is clearly jittery, nervous, and possibly looking for an out. Paul’s fear doesn’t make him any less courageous, but it does make him more human and more believable. 

Likewise, Preston Swedge is a conflicted “villain,” caught between his conscience and the expectations of his class. Swedge openly questions and criticizes his family, friends, and even the government office he works for. But ultimately he acquiesces with little or no real resistance. In the end, he’s just spineless in a pitiable sort of way: he knows what’s right, but he’s too weak to take a stand. 

And then there’s Joe Henderson, a wholly unlikable character. The book jacket describes him as “hard boiled, hard drinking, hard loving and delightfully cynical, and a fish out of water in the age of Starbucks.” I guess that’s one way to put it. I’d say he’s a self-centered, womanizing wise ass. Yet people love him. Women flutter at his every wink and butt pinch, and the people of Westfield seem to respect and maybe even revere him a little. A local restaurant owner goes so far as to roll out a tray of champagne when Joe makes a disruptive appearance at a business association meeting. There’s just something about the guy that makes him an interesting character. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I liked Joe Henderson by the end of the novel, but he irked me a lot less – he may have even grown on me just a little bit. 

Overall, Kaplan treats this tragic era of history with a fair, even hand. He doles out his research in a way that enriches the story without overwhelming. But there are at least a few places throughout the novel where the writing falters. Though the characters are multifaceted, their dialogue tends toward melodrama – particularly in the most climactic scenes. And while Kaplan handles details adeptly when laying the historical context, he tends to overload the most quotidian descriptions (the kitchen layout or a woman’s outfit) with excessive, unnecessary minutiae that slows the reader down. What’s worse, however, is the novel’s sloppy editing throughout. While one expects a typo or two in any printed work, House of Ghosts is littered with missing words, misspellings, and (worst of all) confusing, inconsistent character names. I’m fairly confident the book would read much more quickly had it gone one more round of thorough editing. 

Distractions aside, House of Ghosts is thought provoking, original, and timely. In a post-9/11 world, it’s not unusual to question how much the government knows, what it allows to happen, and why. This novel throws an even more disturbing question into the mix: How long has it been this way? 

For more information on House of Ghosts or author Lawrence Kaplan, visit www.lawrencekaplanauthor.com. You can buy the book on Amazon, other online retailers, and your local bookstore. 

Kaplan will be signing books at Borders in Center City (1 S. Broad St.) next Wednesday, November 4th at 12:30 p.m. Later next month, he’ll be reading from and signing House of Ghosts at the Borders in Wynnewood (80 E. Wynnewood Rd.) on November 24th at 7 p.m.