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A stranger's plea inspired Alice Hoffman's 'The World That We Knew'

Alice Hoffman's latest book is

Alice Hoffman's latest book is "The World That We Knew." Photo Credit: Deborah Feingold

If you attend an author's reading, you could walk away with a signed book, a brief connection with someone whose work you admire, possibly a tote bag.
Or maybe the author will write a book inspired by your life.
The writer in the last scenario is Alice Hoffman.
After a reading at a Florida library, a well-dressed woman collared Hoffman, whose bestsellers include "Practical Magic" and "The Dovekeepers." "The woman said she was a 'hidden child,'" said Hoffman, meaning her Jewish parents saved her from the Nazis by sending her to live with non-Jewish people.
"I didn't even know what that was at the time, but she told me that her parents put her in a convent and if I didn't tell her story, it would be lost. I said, 'I don't have the right to tell that story.' But as time passed, I kept thinking about how I didn't know about the hidden children and that the next generation was even less likely to know about them. So maybe I should write it."
"It" is Hoffman's new novel "The World That We Knew" (Simon and Schuster, $27.99) and features one of her trademark elements — magic — in the form of a golem named Ava.
As the Nazis grip Berlin, a woman realizes her daughter, Lea, must get out. So she asks her rabbi's daughter, Ettie, to create a guardian for Lea, with the help of a spell and some special clay. The fates of Lea, Ettie and Ava intertwine as they escape to the French countryside, where Lea's relationship with the golem becomes even more loaded when she learns that the to-all-appearances-human Ava must be destroyed when Lea comes of age.
Most of those details were invented by Hoffman, supplemented by additional research.
"Very often, I go into a book not knowing anything. I have a question and I want to know the answer. So I went to France and visited these chateaus — homes for the children — and I met with survivors in the States and France. One really amazing gentleman came to the country from Paris, and we went to the village where he had been a hidden child. He hadn't been back. It was extremely emotional."
Hoffman isn't a historian or a Holocaust expert, which helped her define the kind of book she wanted "The World That We Knew" to be. She knew it would involve "love, loss and survivorship," subjects she often writes about, and it would take the form of a folk tale about losing a child.
Current events also informed the writing, particularly stories about people detained at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"I was writing about what hate does, the effects of the fear of people who are 'other.' I didn't realize that so much of what was happening in France during World War II was anti-refugee, that it began not as a movement that was anti-Jewish but simply anti-refugee. So I found myself writing about how it's really a choice, about how easy it can be to look in the other direction. These things happen slowly and then, all of a sudden, they have happened."
Like most writers, Hoffman writes to suit herself. But she admits she felt added responsibility for "The World That We Knew" because of its real-world inspiration.
"I tried to keep it out of my mind, but I did worry about this book, about what a survivor might think," says Hoffman, who was reassured by a family friend who's a Holocaust survivor and an early reader who helped her with research.
But what about that Florida woman? The "hidden child" whose life inspired the novel?
Hoffman doesn't know her name and isn't even sure she'd recognize her, but she has made peace with that.
"I didn't experience the Holocaust, but I feel grateful that she gave me permission to write about a part of it and that she wanted me to write about it. Maybe she'll read it. Maybe we'll meet again. But it doesn't matter because she helped me think about this book."
Hoffman has also thought, of course, about why that woman chose her. It's unlikely she'll ever know.
"I think she may have picked me because I write a lot about mothers and daughters and I'm an emotional writer. That's all I can guess.
"Maybe I needed her to pick me. Maybe I was just lucky."


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