White brings "Beautiful Assassin" into view
White, a professor of English at Fairfield University and founder and director of the university's master of fine arts in creative writing program, which will graduate its first class in 2011, formally launched his sixth novel, Beautiful Assassin during an event in the Oak Room on campus Tuesday evening
Covino, a student in the MFA program introduced White and described the acclaimed writer as one who "drenches us in a tidal wave of emotional details."
Taking to the podium to address an audience of his colleagues, friends, writers and students in his MFA program and other university classes, White acknowledged his student's comments: "I am a cool guy." White's whose unabashed manner gives no hint to the depth of detail and historical research that form the broad framework within which White creates the narratives of his acclaimed novels, including his last novel, Soul Catcher, about a runaway female slave. That novel has been optioned by Miracle Pictures Producer Alex Kitman Ho, who produced Hotel Rwanda, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, among others.
Beautiful Assassin is about a female Russian sniper in World War II who killed more than 300 Germans. White's fictional character Tat'yana Levehenko, based on the real life sniper Lyudmila Pavlechenko, who killed 300 German soldiers during the war and became the most decorated sniper in the Russian Army in 1942. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt heard about her heroics and invited her to America where she was a guest at the White House and toured the country.
During the debut of his novel, White read two excerpts, one in which the main character begins her narrative as a sniper in a tree in Sevastopol in 1942 as she scopes out the German enemy:
Imagine a woman in a tree, a silly, foolish young woman holding a gun and preparing to kill a man she does not even know. There she sits, waiting, hopeful of the smallest of lapses that will spell death for her opponent. She is fearless. She has on her side the vanity of youth, the blindness that comes from a righteous sense of revenge. She believes herself on a sacred mission, that each death she inflicts on the enemy brings her a little closer to peace. She doesn't yet know that she could kill every single German in the Third Reich, and she would not find peace. She has yet to learn this. But she will.
The reader learns much about Tat'yana, just as White had come to learn through his research that began with a flicker when the author was watching the History Channel and there was a mention of Pavlechenko and the Soviets fighting on the eastern front during World War II. As White noted during his reading and talk, the Soviets had lost between 20 and 27 million people during World War II, as opposed to the Americans' loss of 225,000. People don't realize what the Soviets lost and what they sacrificed, said White, noting that the Soviets had fought the Germans for a year and a half before the U.S. entered the war.
Just the mere mention of this sniper hero piqued White's interest and as he stated Tuesday in a response to a question, his decision to write an historical novel inspired by her was one of approximately 10 ideas he had for a novel at the time.
Once he decided to pursue the topic, he began his research in to the real life of Pavlechenko, World War II, Soviet Russia and the U.S. during the '40s, spying and espionage, Eleanor Roosevelt and Sevastopol, the Russian city on the coast where much of the early fighting took place. White read about 25 to 30 books to educate himself about the history of the period and of Russia. In his acknowledgements at the end of Beautiful Assassin, White lists a number of books that "proved to be invaluable for research regarding the war on the Eastern Front." These include Russia's Heroes, by Albert Azell, and Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941-43, by Henry Sakaida. He also studied many photographs of the World War II period along with photographs of many of the Russian leaders including Stalin, who appears in the novel.
White wrote: " I turned to see a man standing there, older, wearing a plain khaki uniform without insignia; he was short, slump-shouldered with the thick body of a peasant and a head that was too large for his height. His hair was coarse and black with just a few gray strands in it, his bushy mustache resembling a small furry creature. But it was his eyes that were his most striking feature -- small and not quite black, more really a complete absence of color. They were they eyes of something both primitive and yet cunning in its way. Where had I seen them before, I wondered."
White, who has published more than 45 short stories including an anthology, Marked Men, told his audience that in doing his research, he looked at dozens of pictures of Stalin to see his hair, his body type, his eyes.
Prior to the book's publication, White gave the manuscript to David McFadden, professor of history and director of the Russian and Eastern European Studies program at Fairfield University for his review as an authority on Russian history. McFadden, who offered a number of suggestions to White, described the book as "a very strong book, based on serious historical and cultural research, which reflects actual people and events in the Soviet Union and the United States in the period of World War II and its aftermath."
"I worked with him on historical and linguistic accuracy. The story of the female sniper reflects not just her own personal heroism, but that of many women who served as the major guerillas behind the lines in the eastern front struggle against fascism. It is also true, and tragic, that both Soviet KGB and U.S. intelligence did their best to use her, and others like her, for propaganda purposes both during and after the war. Even Eleanor Roosevelt is part of this story. This is a fascinating and complex and very human look at a very real story," McFadden said in an e-mail.
Prior to White's reading, McFadden said the people reading the book will come away with "an incredible story and the role the women played" during the war. He said women played a "huge role in the Eastern Front in the victory over the Nazis. Women are used for propaganda and for espionage. She was used for both and survived. If we didn't have guerilla resistance behind the front lines, we wouldn't have defeated Hitler," said McFadden. He praised White's talents in writing historical novels, which McFadden described as "great novels of redemption and transformation.
"We learned a lot of history and these are exciting novels to read," he said.
Nicholas Rinaldi agreed. A professor of English and also an author who has mentored students in the MFA program, Rinaldi, who has read excerpts from Beautiful Assassin, said the novel was "beautifully written, very insightful" and very intriguing about an aspect of history he knew nothing about.
Prior to his reading, this reporter asked White what readers should come away with after reading Beautiful Assassin. He replied: "The courage of a woman. The courage of a woman filled with lots of emotion. ... Someone who fought the Germans."
The author described the experience of writing Beautiful Assassin as "a great challenge and a learning experience. I love my character. I fell in love with her. Oh my goodness, I would love to meet her. I don't know if I would marry her, but I would love to meet her. I was intrigued by her. She lost her family. She killed 300 Germans."
White found it fascinating that--as uncovered through his research, which he chronicles in his novel -- despite all her accomplishments, when faced with the American press, the Russian sniper was asked whether she wore lipstick and nylons in battle.
"I am a soldier," she replied.
White will discuss and sign copies of Beautiful Assassin during a talk in the Memorial Room of the Fairfield Public Library Tuesday, April 6, at 7 p.m. The talk is free and open to the public. Call 203-256-3160 for registration and information.