Sometimes one may think they know the story behind a family heirloom, but decades later may ultimately uncover untold truths the item has held secret through the passing of the years.
Erie Kansas native, Lisa (VanLeeuwen ) London, recently experienced such a phenomenon, which led to the writing of her first historical novel, “Darker the Night.”
Upon graduating from Erie High School in 1982, London attended St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, and worked as an accountant for 10 years. Her work then transferred her to North Carolina, where she met her husband.
“I decided it was a good place to stay, since he was there,” she said.
The couple had four children and today live on a small farm about 30 minutes outside Raleigh, North Carolina.
“I was a venture capitalist for a while, then I left that. Four or five years ago I got back into the consulting side of accounting for non-profits and churches that do not have a lot of resources,” she said.
Seeing a great need, London was led to write a series of books called “Accountant Beside You,” that provide step-by-step how-to’s.
The books sold all over the world, with an audiences stretching from the United States to Australia to a mission in Africa.
“That got me into the writing bug,” she said. “It became more fun with each book.”
Non-fiction was her focus, until London met a woman named Hilde Sensale who was born in Germany and lived there during World War II. She had to the United States as a war bride. She enjoyed listening to the woman, who was near the age of her own grandmother, Lorene VanLeeuwen, who upon turning 99 three years ago decided finally to move into an assisted living facility.
“I was going though some of her stuff and I came across an old table cloth that was barely used. I asked Granny about it and she said, ‘My brother Bud brought that back from Germany. He had gotten it from some poor family.’ She said every time she had tried to put it on her table, she could only think of that poor family with a bare table. I told her about my German friend and she told me to take it to her.”
London did as her granny requested. However, when she showed the table cloth to Hilde, she explained her grandmother probably had the wrong perception of what had taken place.
“Hilde said, ‘Tell your grandmother that her brother probably saved a family from starving. Many German families were selling their linens for food, and would trade their linens with our soldiers, because they had food,’” London recalled. “It just made Granny’s day to hear that and it got me to thinking. I didn’t realize German citizens had it that bad after the war.”
Visiting more with Sensale about her personal experiences in Germany, London was intrigued to write a novel from the perspective of a German civilian. Inspired by true events, “Darker the Night” was begun.
The book spans six to eight years, following Hedy’s desire to become a physical therapist to assist the soldiers as she is thwarted time and time again by the Nazis. Instead she must assemble airplanes, dodge bombs, battle hunger and stand up to invading tanks. London also creates a scene where her brother runs into the main character, bringing the real life story of the table cloth to her readers.
“I wanted to launch the book in time for Hilde’s 90th birthday (Feb. 14). We launched the book the week before. I started the project a year and a half before then, so it took a long time to write,” London said, speaking to the many long hours of time she spent researching to make sure the book was historically accurate.
“There were times when talking to Hilde, I thought this had gotten something wrong, but she had it right 100 percent of the time,” London said. “I wish my memory was that good.”
Research also took London into examining what the German people were being told about the war from leaders and media in their own country.
Based on her findings, each chapter begins with a historical quote or piece of propaganda.
“I want the reader to get a feel for what was influencing the average German citizen at the time, so their responses are understood,” said London. “If people read something that seems totally off the wall, that’s what happened. Reality is always stranger than fiction.”
The book has received television coverage and top reviews, with the Midwest Book review not only making it a top pick of the month, but suggesting it be taught beside the “Diary of Anne Frank” as a companion book.
“That blew me away right there,” London said. “There is a school system here in North Carolina that is going to teach it next year with literature on World War II and the book “Night,” written by a survivor of a concentration camp. A school in Texas is also reviewing it for their curriculum.”
“Darker the Night” is for sale at George’s Hallmark on Main in Parsons, online and wherever books are sold.
Returning home for the Easter holiday to visit Granny, who is turning 101 April 7, London has made arrangements for a book signing at The Remnant Café, 1719 Main, from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday. She will also be in St. Paul Monday at the Prairie Mission Retirement Village reading from her book and answering questions in honor of her grandmother’s 101st birthday.
“I learned so much. It was really fascinating to do,” London said. “It really opened up my world.”