CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — “Rare Stuff,” the debut novel of Brett Ashley Kaplan, tells the story of a daughter’s search for answers about her mother’s disappearance of her, as well as a magical realism tale of Yiddish-speaking whales trying to save the planet.
The novel’s subjects may seem far removed from the academic work of Kaplan, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor of comparative and world literature and the director of the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies. But the novel’s themes of Jewish identity and loss and its literary references connect with Kaplan’s research interests.
“A lot of traces of my Jewish studies scholarship are in the novel. My academic work is infected with stories of loss and questions of genocide and the history of the disappearance of Yiddish, which itself is both about assimilation and Nazi genocide,” Kaplan said.
The book opens with an image of loss, with the main character Sid spreading her father’s ashes in Lake Michigan and reciting the Jewish prayer for the dead.
“The idea of loss is very central to the book. It’s really a book about mourning and a book about love. Through the process of mourning for her father and trying to figure out what happened with her mother de ella, Sid rekindles her relationship with her boyfriend de ella, André, ”Kaplan said.
“Rare Stuff” features a novel within a novel – a work of eco-fiction that tells the whales’ story. Kaplan said English professor emeritus Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Overstory” influenced her in creating nonhuman characters.
“The whales in my novel become characters in their own right. They have names, they speak Yiddish and they are trying to communicate to humans that we need to do a better job of looking after the planet,” Kaplan said.
She is donating the proceeds of the novel to Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
In “Rare Stuff,” the whale story is a fantasy constructed by Sid’s father Aaron, a Jewish-American novelist, to deal with his wife’s disappearance 18 years earlier. It imagines Sid’s mother – who was obsessed with whales – as adopted by the creatures and living in an underwater world. When he dies, Aaron leaves behind the manuscript of the story and a suitcase full of clues as to what happened to his wife. As Sid and André follow the clues, they learn about Sid’s parents from her and find that her father from her was far more complex and interesting than Sid knew.
The novel also details Sid’s journey in overcoming the trauma of losing her mother and being able to have a relationship with André.
The character André is a Herman Melville scholar, and through his character and that of the novelist Aaron, Kaplan incorporated literary references in his novel. The opening line of the novel – “Call me Sid” – is a riff on “Moby-Dick.”
The novel has many narrators and different writing styles depending on whose voice is speaking, Kaplan said.
“There are melancholy aspects but also a huge amount of hope and playfulness and love,” she said.
Kaplan is the author of three nonfiction books on topics related to the Holocaust and Jewish-American literature. She said she has long wanted to write fiction, and she received a Study in a Second Discipline fellowship through the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which allows release time for faculty members to study in a field separate from their own expertise. Kaplan used his fellowship to study creative writing and refine a rough draft of the novel.
“I learned so much about the craft of writing. I was able to shift from 20 years of academic writing to my first fictional foray,” she said.