Talia Carner is a novelist with a mission — to write books that not only entertain with a suspenseful plot, but also enlighten and even disturb. “I write for people who want a book that stays on their minds days later,” she said in a recent phone conversation. When people say of her fifth novel "The Third Daughter" (William Morrow, 432 pp., $16.99) that “it’s tough, but incredible” or “it’s a strong reading experience,” the Bridgehampton-based author feels that her novel has reached its goal.
"The Third Daughter," which tells the story of a Jewish girl sold into prostitution in the late 19th century, has a dual origin. Part of it, Carner explains, comes from the Sholom Aleichem story familiar to many as the inspiration of “Fiddler on the Roof.” As readers may recall, Tevye’s older daughters broke his heart — one by marrying a non-Jew, the other by eloping with the girls’ reading tutor. Carner fictionalized what happened to the next girl in line, the one who was left feeling responsible for her parents’ disappointment. She named her Batya.
In "The Third Daughter," we meet Batya at 14, living in an Eastern European shtetl wracked by pogroms and brutal poverty. When a wealthy Jewish businessman from Buenos Aires — another Sholem Aleichem character — comes through town and offers a “bride price” for the beautiful blond Batya, her family sends her off to South America to be married.
The rest of the story grows out of research Carner did about human trafficking in the 19th century. “Just as it appears in the book, an international organization called Zwi Migdal operated with impunity from 1870 to World War II,” she reports. “At its peak, it had branches not just in Buenos Aires, but Berlin, Beijing and New York’s Lower East Side. Ultimately, it enslaved over 150,000 women, using false promises to lure them and brutal force to break their resistance.”
At the time, Carner explains, “in Argentina and Brazil, the ownership of captured women was legal, just like the slavery of Africans in America. If one of these woman ran away and was caught by police, she would be returned to her registered owner.”
From there, Batya developed organically, as did the female protagonists of each of Carner’s earlier novels, which deal with topics like infanticide in China and child abuse. Carner believes that the situations that don’t break us, make us stronger. History, politics, religion, economics: “Just as in life, responses to these forces make a character,” she said.
For example, one of Batya’s jobs in the Buenos Aires brothel where she is enslaved is to pick up the newspapers discarded in the head pimp’s office — the very man to whom she believed she was engaged — and tear them up for use as toilet paper. Though no one knows she can read, Batya begins to follow the story of Albert Dreyfus, the Jewish officer in the French military who was unfairly tried and convicted of treason. “When she sees that even a man — even a man in power — can be taken down by anti-Semitism, it changes her worldview,” Carner explains.
Carner moved to the United States from Israel in 1974, and has been a resident of Long Island ever since. She met her husband, Ron Carner, in East Northport, and it was his work with Maccabi, an organization that supports international Jewish culture, that took her to Buenos Aires for the extended visit during which the seeds of "The Third Daughter" were planted. Back in New York, she hired two researchers to help her learn everything about 1890s Buenos Aires — what people ate, what they wore, the layout of the streets, the route of the electric streetcar. Carner believes that a foundation of truth is a must in fiction. From the prostitutes’ cemetery to the tango competitions, all the lineaments of Batya’s story are real.
When Carner is able to resume her speaking tour for The Third Daughter (her Long Island appearances are being rescheduled), she’ll be continuing to share her message. “Unfortunately, trafficking today is just the same as it was 120 years ago — same methods, same false promises of marriages and jobs. The humanity of Batya throughout her ordeals — the way she retains her identity — is equally true of today’s victims.
“There’s nothing we can do about the terrible injustices of the past but learn their lessons and act upon them,” says Carner, who is in contact with 20 out of the 3,000 anti-trafficking organizations nationwide. “All of these Batyas need us and our compassion.”