Like most parents, Eric Kennedy adores his winsome 6-year-old daughter, Meadow.
So when his marriage ends and he moves out of the family home, Eric dedicates himself to spending as much time with Meadow as possible.
But a series of bad decisions, proceeding step by gradual step from the fundamental lie of his life, leads soon enough to a harrowing scene in which Eric is stuffing the sleeping girl into the trunk of a stolen car before heading for the Canadian border. It’s just a moment, and the child awakens: “ ‘What are we doing, Daddy?’ she whispered. ‘Why am I in the trunk?’ ”
The textured, emotional narrative that makes us understand, if not exactly sympathize with, Eric’s choices is part of the appeal of “Schroder,” the critically acclaimed novel by Amity Gaige, newly out in paperback. “Schroder” is The Buffalo News’ Book Club selection for October.
The title of the book reveals Eric Kennedy’s lie, before we even know that he is living one. Born in East Germany, Erik Schroder was brought to the United States as a child by his gruff, taciturn father, who left Erik’s mother behind. As a 14-year-old yearning to fit in, Erik applied to a summer camp using the name Eric Kennedy, embellishing his new, all-American identity with a sun-splashed, cherished childhood on Cape Cod and an implied connection with those Kennedys.
While parts of the story Eric tells in “Schroder” are extremely detailed and show great insight, in other interactions he is clueless. When Laura, weeping during an argument, tells him, “We’re so far apart,” he is shocked to see her tears and blurts out, “We are?”
“He doesn’t understand the end of his marriage, he couldn’t, because if he could he probably would have been a better person,” said Gaige in a telephone interview from her home in Connecticut, near Amherst College, where she teaches writing. “He would have changed and been paying more attention to her, if he had been the kind of person who could fix things.”
Rather than make a plan to preserve his family, Eric, says Gaige, “just hoped. He was engaged in his vital lie, which is Ibsen’s term, that we all have a vital lie, something we just can’t admit to ourselves or we would fall apart. His lie is that he made it, he is persuasively American, and he’s got this family, and so what if it’s not his real roots, look, it’s working.”
When Eric loses track of Meadow during a visit in which he is being evaluated for custody and knows that he will receive a bad report, “his vital lie is starting to crumble,” said Gaige. “He’s not going to be able to fight it because he would have to expose his real identity, he becomes increasingly desperate, and I think that’s what happens when the vital lie is threatened, you start to do things desperately, you start to fall apart.”
“Schroder” is written as a jailhouse confession to his estranged wife that documents where he and Meadow went and what they did during the week they were fleeing. The details range from the tender, heartbreaking simplicity of her artless remarks to the heart-rending moments when Meadow cries for her mother during their “road trip” adventure.
“I needed to have him tell this story to someone,” said Gaige. As a writer, she said, “When I heard Eric’s voice, he was talking to someone, and it was his ex-wife. Even as a long-married woman, I still feel that romantic love is so important, and here’s this guy who still loves his wife, but she doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. I thought, what an interesting fictional vise to put him in, that he is reaching out to her and yet he doesn’t really have a leg to stand on, there’s no way that she is ever going to love him again. It’s poignant.”
Although Eric tells the entire story, his voice has many inflections. “I wanted his voice to be influenced at different times by how he was feeling in the moment he was writing,” said Gaige. “Time is going by and he feels differently day to day. Some days he feels love and tenderness for her, other days he’s mad and he’s sarcastic, other times he’s funny and self-deprecating, also self-deceptive.”
Gaige’s book drew just a spark of inspiration from the true story of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German man who took the name Clark Rockefeller. Like Eric Kennedy, Rockefeller abducted his young daughter and fled with her for six days in 2009. Unlike the rudderless but basically gentle and forlorn Kennedy, Rockefeller was also convicted of murder.
“If you know the case, they are quite different,” said Gaige. “I deliberately never did any research on Clark Rockefeller, and to this day know very little.”
Rather, said Gaige, “Schroder” is built on “sort of imagining of a person like that. As a writer, I’m not so interested in writing about villains or bad guys, which Clark Rockefeller is. I wanted to write a character whom you do have genuinely ambivalent feelings for, and you think, ‘Is he really all that bad, or is he sort of like me? Could I do these things under enormous stress, could I make these sorts of mistakes?’ That’s much more interesting for me.”
To her surprise, Gaige’s book has been successful internationally, with translations into 17 or 18 other languages. It’s been published in Europe, as well as “a bunch of other cool places I’d never expected it to come out in, like China, Serbia or Israel. I was really excited when the Germans bought it,” she said.
Gaige is even going on a book tour next month to the Netherlands, where “Schroder” was featured on a television show in Holland.
“I can safely say that I did not consider the international audience at all,” said Gaige, whose two earlier books, “O My Darling” and “The Folded World” were not sold overseas.
To have “Schroder” appeal to readers around the world, she said, seems to be “a real validation of the sense that you have a story that feels relevant in many places.”
Gaige has an immigration story in her own immediate family, which led to her interest in “exile and the immigrant experience,” she said. Her mother was born in Latvia and left at age 5 after World War II, spending years in displaced persons camps until finally landing in the United States. It was a shock when Gaige visited Latvia as an adult and realized, she says with a laugh, “Oh my gosh, my mother is so Latvian!”
“The truth is, you can’t escape who you are, which is embedded in where you’re from,” said Gaige. In “Schroder,” she said, Eric “simply can’t completely rename, reinvent himself without dealing with or at least acknowledging what he was leaving behind.”
What makes her book so appealing may be its roots in the fantasy of unlimited freedom that America embodies. She said, “There is something so exciting, after a Soviet or Communist life, you come to this democracy and you get excited about it and you start to think you could do anything, especially a guy like this with very few moorings. He doesn’t have his mom and he doesn’t have the strongest character, he doesn’t have any leadership in his father and he prefers to be on his own.
“Many, many countries have people who have come to the United States and I think people are curious about, ‘Can you really hide? Can you really start anew?’ ”
Amity Gaige and her publisher, Twelve, a division of Hachette Book Group, have provided The News with several signed copies of “Schroder” to be distributed to Book Club readers. We also have several copies of last month’s Book Club selection, “Austenland,” by Shannon Hale, to be distributed. To be considered for a copy of either book, email firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of the book you would like to receive in the subject line, or send a note to Anne Neville at The Buffalo News, 1 News Plaza, Buffalo, NY 14203. Tell us why you would like to win a copy, and be sure to include your name and mailing address.