Judy Reene Singer has always written novels that passionately redress the mistreatment of others. When not writing, she works as a horse trainer and competitive dressage rider; she’s even fostered elephants. But in her new novel, she takes a deeper, more personal turn, exploring the lives of a traumatized World War II veteran and his family as they live out the aftereffects of war. Much of the story is based on the experience of Singer’s father, who served in WWII as an Air Force sergeant in command of an all-black squadron. It’s a powerful historical novel about race, family, and the fabric of America that is deeply relevant as we continue to send troops to the Middle East and as racial tension at home mounts.
In the Shadow of Alabama follows Rachel Fleischer, a horse trainer and the daughter of Martin Fleischer, a WWII vet who, like Singer’s father, was a Jewish sergeant in command of a platoon of black soldiers in segregated Alabama. What he witnessed and endured during the war—including acts of racially motivated violence—sent him home withdrawn and explosive. His wife and daughters become collateral damage. A mysterious gift and apology from a stranger at her father’s funeral plunges Rachel into a quest to unravel her father’s story of wartime trauma, scandal, and betrayal that will ultimately lead her and her family to a long-needed resolution.
Singer describes herself as “an animal-rights person,” and of her previous novels, including Horseplay and An Inconvenient Elephant, she says: “I felt that no one was going to sit down and read a diatribe or treatise on the plight of elephants. So I thought, I would get crafty and write a humorous, light kind of book and sneak in all the things I wanted people to know about how animals are treated.”
This book, Singer says, was very different to write: “I lived this experience firsthand. I saw my father get enraged over the slightest, slightest infraction, or set up rules that made no sense, stuttering with fury at us—and then sit himself down on the sofa and cry, unable to say anything more. I lived it. It was a very hard story to write. My heart breaks for families who see someone they love come back from service broken.”
While WWII books are ever popular, In the Shadow of Alabama offers a new perspective, showing the reverberations of the war at home, including for those who didn’t serve overseas. Readers unfamiliar with this history will be shocked and heartbroken by the brutality that American soldiers—especially African-Americans—faced so close to home.
In the Shadow of Alabama will resonate deeply with today’s readers who are experiencing one of the most politically charged eras in recent history. Singer says: “I was writing about a certain period of the past—the 1940s—when brutal and disrespectful treatment for blacks was the norm, and we were still mired in those old notions and terrible behaviors. I felt even more compelled to write this book because I wanted to add my voice to those who are demonstrating and speaking out [against contemporary racism], because there is such a need for that outdated mindset to be eradicated.”
After her father’s death in 2003, Singer found herself going through his papers and “was struck by his terrible disappointment in how the armed services and the government had treated him.” She adds, “I saw him through another set of eyes, so to speak, and realized that he had really been suffering from PTSD his entire life.”
In writing the book, Singer found a measure of closure that readers who have known and loved veterans and PTSD sufferers may also find. “I look back at my memories of him now with a great deal of sympathy for him and some regret that things couldn’t have been better both for him and our family,” she says. “Now I realize that he was truly a wounded soldier and that enabled me to forgive him. With insight and forgiveness comes closure.”