In 1947, war bride Ursula arrives in Minneapolis torn between guilt over leaving loved ones behind and her desire to start a new life, and a family. But the American dream proves elusive—she is struck with polio, and then shocked by the sudden death of her GI husband. Without a spouse or the child she so desperately wanted, Ursula must rely on her shrewd survival skills from wartime Berlin, and she takes in a boarder to help make ends meet. She soon falls in love with the Argentinean medical technician living in her spare bedroom, but his devotion to communism troubles her—and when she finds herself pregnant with his child, she is faced with a dilemma: how to reconcile her dream of motherhood with an America that is so different from what she imagined.
We caught up with Christine Gallagher Kearney to talk about her debut historical fiction novel What We Leave Behind. Welcome, Christine!
What We Leave Behind was inspired in part by the life of your maternal grandmother. What did you find most compelling about her life story, and how is that emphasized in the novel?
What I find most compelling about Urusla’s story is that she kept going. She faced countless challenges, but she did not let those challenges stop her. I also love how much she cared about her family, and how much she relied on her own creative pursuits (knitting) as an outlet. She was resilient and persistent!
What kind of research did you do in order to accurately portray what life was like for a war bride from Germany in the 1940s and 1950s?
I relied heavily on first-hand accounts from other war brides, newspaper articles and secondary materials.
For research on living with polio, I interviewed polio survivors, and read memoirs of polio survivors. And for my research on the polio hospital in Minneapolis, I relied on the archives at the University of Minnesota, and the Minnesota History Museum.
Finally, Ursula had written her own account of her experiences, so I referenced her journals as well.
You mentioned that you almost gave up writing this book multiple times. Where did you find the perseverance to continue on this path, and what advice would you give to other writers who are considering abandoning their projects?
As a child, I wrote a chapter book. I remember drafting the manuscript in a spiral notebook, then later I folded blank pages, bent a piece of cardboard in half to create a cover, then glued the pages inside to create my own book where I transposed the story from the manuscript. Whenever I wanted to quit because I had lost faith in myself, I remembered this Christine from childhood, and her dream of writing and publishing a book. I didn’t want to give up on her, or myself.
My advice for other writers is: find someone who will hold you accountable, and remind you why you started your writing project. My husband played this role for me. I told him: “I’m going to come to you and ask if I can quit, and you’re going to tell me ‘no’, you cannot quit.” He didn’t give up on me, even when I wanted to give up.
Although set in the years after WWII, “What We Leave Behind” maintains a sense of timeliness. What’s one theme readers should be on the lookout for?
A big theme in this book is Urusla chasing what she thinks is the American Dream, and part of that dream is becoming a mother. She realizes parts of that dream–some level of stability, opportunity to work, making friends and building a family–but it looks different compared to what she imagined.
What do you hope readers will take away from the novel?
I hope readers will learn more about what being a war bride was like after WWII, that they will learn about polio and possibly recognize some of the same fears we experienced during the pandemic. More than anything, I hope they will come to understand the complexities of living with a disability, and what it means to have family, community, social and medical support. And, what it means when support systems are not accessible and/or available, and the consequences of that lack of support.
Christine Gallagher Kearney is a Midwest Review “Great Midwest Writing Contest” finalist, and a semi-finalist for Chestnut Review’s “Stubborn Artists Contest.” In 2022, she was accepted to StoryStudio Chicago’s StoryBoard fiction workshop led by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. She has published in Wild Roof Journal, Driftless Magazine, ForbesWoman, Fortune, and Cara Magazine and is a former food columnist for the Irish American News. Christine graduated with her bachelor’s degrees in International Relations and Spanish from Mount Holyoke College, later earning her master’s degree in Organizational and Multicultural Communication through DePaul University. She has a career in the corporate world and writes in her off hours. What We Leave Behind is her debut novel (She Writes Press; July 2023). To learn more about her work, visit: www.christinegallagherkearney.com