A documentary on German chemist Fritz Haber, the “father of chemical warfare,” sparked the idea for Judith Claire Mitchell’s new book, “A Reunion of Ghosts.”
Haber’s story isn’t a happy one: His wife, Clara, also a chemist, committed suicide in their garden, presumably in protest of her husband’s deadly use of chemistry to create poison gas. Their only son found her body — he would go on to kill himself as well, decades later.
“I became obsessed with these people,” Mitchell said, after catching a 1998 documentary on their lives. “As a fiction writer, you think, if I had written that, no one would believe it.”
The drama of the Haber family captured her imagination, but she was hesitant to simply write their story.
“I tried to for a long time, but it was just dead on arrival,” said Mitchell, the director of the MFA program in creative writing at UW-Madison. “I think what I really wanted to write about was why I was so obsessed with them.”
So she created a trio of sisters — Lady, Vee and Delph — who descended from a fictional couple, Lenz and Iris Alter. The Alters — accomplished German chemists — closely resemble the Habers. They would be the great-grandparents of her invented sisters, who were born about the same time as Mitchell, she said, and lived in the same part of New York that she called home for a time.
“It’s not like they’re me, but they see the world close to how I see the world,” she said.
And when she started telling the story through their eyes, “that’s when it came alive for me.”
The result is “A Reunion of Ghosts,” out Tuesday from Harper ($26.99 hardcover), the latest selection of the State Journal Book Club.
The story spans generations, from the 1800s to 1999, when the three sisters settle on the date for their collective demise. The book is their group suicide note; Mitchell said her agent sold the manuscript by pitching it as “a funny book about suicide.”
“I was worried as I was writing it that nobody in the world would want to buy or read a book in which every major character is suicidal,” Mitchell said. But she’s been approached by readers who have said, “Three suicidal sisters, that’s right up my alley.”
Her response? “Your alley is dark.”
The book touches on other themes, too. The Holocaust, for one. Also, cancer.
“I’m Jewish and I know my culture,” Mitchell said. “One of the things Hitler specifically complained about the Jews was their ability to find humor in dark times.”
“A Reunion of Ghosts” is dark, yes. But Mitchell carries readers along for the ride on prose so thoughtful and nuanced that one can forgive the morbid subject matter. Mitchell, whose previous book “The Last Day of the War” (2004) was set during World War I, crafts a narrative that looks boldly at the legacy of the man who invented the chemical process that would be the precursor to Zyklon B, the gas used in Nazi concentration camps.
Are the sins of the fathers visited upon the children? That’s the question Mitchell asks, and the answers come from characters with a very dark sense of humor she says is bigger than they are.
“I tend to retreat behind humor,” she said. “I use it in my teaching, in everything I do. It’s the way I navigate the world.”
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct date of Mitchell's book launch event at Cooper's Tavern.]