Bath author captures ancestors’ adventures in debut novel

by Laura Bednar

Decades of genealogical research led Bath resident Rose Kleidon to extraordinary historical documents about one branch of her family, which she believed had a story to be told.

Kleidon’s debut novel, “1836: Year of Escape,” is a historical tale that chronicles her ancestors’ immigration from Germany to America. According to her website, the book is about a veteran of Napoleon’s cavalry targeted by Prussia’s secret police in 1836. To reach safety, he must evade authorities and take his family across the ocean to America.

Kleidon said the impetus to write the book came from answering the question, “Why did they come?” Her research found outlines of the family’s journey, dates of travel and passports. The dates and historical background of the book, which gives readers a glimpse into the 19th century and issues like slavery and politics, were factual, but Kleidon fictionalized family members and their personalities.

“It was fair to the real people to fictionalize them,” said Kleidon. “You can’t go back 200 years and get it all right.”

Her process for balancing historical facts with her creativity came from using a “beat sheet.” Commonly used in screenwriting, the sheet shows where there should be turning points and determines when and how things happen as the plot unfolds. Once Kleidon determined the structure of the novel, she was able to write how a character would react to each experience in the timeline.

“The fun part is writing scenes,” Kleidon said. “I drew from a lifetime of reading fiction to make the scenes come to life.”

Decades of sailing on Atwood Lake and Lake Erie with her husband Dennis, who published a book earlier this year on applying design thinking to life routines, made writing scenes aboard a ship easier and more fun for Kleidon.

She learned about the complexities of German immigration, the consolidation of German municipalities and the prevalence of slavery worldwide. The family in “1836” lived close to France and spoke French and German, an invaluable skill while traveling.

“I think it is a story only I could tell,” said Kleidon. “I grew up on the farm homesteaded by these people. When I was a child my family still told stories about them. Then, remarkable family documents happened to come down through the years to me instead of anyone else in the family.”

Kleidon has spoken at writers’ conferences, giving presentations on writing style and how to manage historical research without becoming overwhelmed.

She and her husband also ran their own marketing firm for 47 years before turning it over to their son. Kleidon is a long-time member of the Bath Gamma Garden Club, which she said has been wonderful support.

She is a professor emeritus at the University of Akron, where she has taught English composition, speech, literature and research for technical writing, among other courses.

Kleidon said her background in research gave her “a solid foundation to tell quickly if something is reliable.”

She recently spoke at the Rotary Club of Fairlawn, highlighting modern day advantages compared to the 19th century.

The book is six years in the making, with the actual writing taking eight months. According to Kleidon, a group of beta readers said they admire their ancestors more after discovering the difficulties they went through.

“I want people to know how their ancestors came here and what it took,” said Kleidon.

“1836: Year of Escape” is the first in a trilogy. The second volume, “1837: Among Strangers,” is about the family’s journey on the river and difficulties settling in America. The final volume, “1880: All Our Strength,” covers Kleidon’s great-great grandfather’s return trip to Germany and France and the journey for a young immigrant several decades later. Both sequels are in the writing and publishing process.

“1836” is in the running for the following awards: Booklife Prize, Sarton Womens’ Book Award, North Street Book Prize, American Fiction Award for Best New Fiction and American Fiction Award for Historical Fiction.

It is available as an eBook and paperback at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online booksellers, as well as local bookstores. ∞

Photo: Bath resident Rose Kleidon wrote her first book detailing the immigration process of her ancestors. Photo submitted.