Duluth author finds hope through dark themes
Tom Isbell is no stranger to tackling dark topics, whether it be a dystopian future or a horrifying past.
In the past month, the University of Minnesota Duluth professor has celebrated the release of his second dystopian young adult novel, "The Capture," and witnessed Duluth East High School perform a one-act version of his 1997 Holocaust play, "Dear Finder."
"The timing was not intentional because I didn't see the direct connection between the two, but there is definitely a correlation there," Isbell said.
Isbell's first book, "The Prey," was released a year ago, the first part of a trilogy. It is set in a future totalitarian America, where boys called "Less Thans" are hunted for sport and twin girls are experimented on for twisted scientific reasons. The main characters, Book and Hope, lead their friends through a desperate attempt to freedom.
"As you can tell, there are a lot of Nazi and Holocaust overtones and a lot of similarities and comparisons to that," Isbell said.
The second book takes up where the first one left off. Book and his friends were looking for the Heartland, a place they hope will be better than their territory.
"In this book, they find the Heartland but come to the realization that their work isn't finished. They need to go back through the horrific places they just escaped from and retrieve others who didn't escape with them," Isbell said.
The idea for the trilogy came to Isbell in the summer of 2010 while he and his wife drove back to Duluth from a vacation in Colorado. While looking out at the vast landscape, Isbell says he was struck by this idea of "Less Thans," separating and devaluing fellow humans and using them for nefarious purposes. By the end of the 12-hour drive, Isbell had a rough outline that would change greatly over the next two years of writing and rewriting. But the idea of "Less Thans" remained the same.
"The trilogy is really a cautionary tale. It warns us against segregating ourselves and creating others among us," Isbell said.
While not a direct allegory for the Holocaust, Isbell says there are elements that tie the two together. The character of Chancellor Maddox and her troops, called "Brown Shirts," are metaphors for Hitler and the Nazi Party.
"One note I got from my editor was that sometimes I was a little too heavy-handed with the Holocaust phrases or imagery because I wanted people to make that connection on a subconscious level. She kept saying, 'OK, this is too much.' And she was absolutely right, because just a little bit is enough to remind us," Isbell said.
In 1997, Isbell received a grant to develop a play about the Holocaust. He assembled a team of six students at UMD to research and write what would eventually become "Dear Finder."The play chronicles the journey of several Holocaust survivors and victims through Hitler's rise in power to Kristallnacht to experiences in concentration camps.
"It was this impossible task of writing a two-hour play about the Holocaust," Isbell said. "A most audacious undertaking, to take the most horrific event of the 20th century and do for the stage what the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. does so well."
The first draft was four hours long. The team of writers pared it down to two hours and 15 minutes over the summer of 1998. And recently, the one-act cast at East High School performed an adaption in just under 35 minutes. The play was adapted by local writer Sheryl Jensen, who is also the managing editor of The Woman Today magazine.
"What Sheryl did was take a story and weave it together. That was the hardest thing because in the original there are a lot of stories happening at once," said Peter Froehlingsdorf, who co-directed the show at East with Greg Jones. "So we had to find something that had a definite beginning, middle and end and make it complete."
Isbell gave the directors leeway to do whatever they needed to adapt the script. Jones said having the author nearby helped them shape their production. Isbell attended a rehearsal before the one-act sections competition.
"It was surreal. I've never performed a play in front of an author before. I just wanted to do it justice and for Tom to be proud of what we've done with his important play," said East junior Clara Baker.
The students spent a month and a half researching and rehearsing for the play. Jones said the play was a learning experience for both the students and the staff.
"I knew about the Holocaust, but I guess the reality of it never hit me until we started rehearsing. I found myself grieving for people I'd never met," Baker said.
"I felt really ignorant about the gruesome facts," East senior Joel Atella said. "But something Tom said when he came and talked with us really stuck with me. He said this play was born out of ignorance. He didn't know much when he'd started researching either."
East took second place at the Sections competition on Feb. 6 and did not advance to the state one-act festival. But the students say that wasn't their overall goal.
"Yeah, it would have been nice to win, but to share this story was the most important thing and I think we did that well," said East senior Rebecca Martin.
Finding the hope through darkness
Despite the dark themes of his books and play, Isbell says he also wants to inspire hope. He shared a story about being interviewed and asked about the dark themes of the books.
"I said, yeah they are, but it's not accidental that the main female protagonist's name is 'Hope,'" Isbell said. "I think that the books are ultimately hopeful because what they do and what they go through to do it."
Jones and Froehlingsdorf wanted to end the play on a hopeful note as well. The students performed Israel's national anthem "HaTikvah" ("The Hope") as the lights faded.
"I think we all, at times, feel a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. So I think a little hope is not a bad thing," Isbell said.
"The Capture" was released on Jan. 19 and is found in the Bookstore at Fitger's and Barnes and Noble in the Miller Hill Mall. Isbell will sign books at the Bookstore at Fitger's on Feb. 25 starting at 7 p.m.