Northwestern Pennsylvania — Meadville in particular — sets many of the scenes in a newly published work of historical fiction by a former area journalist with longtime local ties.
Author Richard Blood said his novel, “Then I Drown,” is based on the true story of a young woman, born in Erie in 1928, who was taken by her father and paternal grandparents to Germany in the early 1930s and lived there during the rise of the Nazis. “Joyce” lives in a country torn apart by war — and in a home void of love and support — before she reconnects with her mother more than 20 years later and returns to the United States to live in Meadville.
“That’s where Joyce finds the large family she never knew she had, where she enters nurse training, and where she finally, with her mother’s help, solves the drowning nightmare that inspired the book itself,” Blood told the Tribune recently.
‘The Meadville-Erie connection’
“History abounds in ‘Then I Drown,’” said Blood. And “although the book spans an ocean and parts of two continents, the American scenes in the true life story are mostly in northwestern Pennsylvania — Erie and Meadville particularly.”
He pointed to several prominent examples of Meadville places and people within the book:
n Gideon Sundback, whose famous invention of the zipper led to the establishment and growth of Talon — during that time one of the largest employers in Meadville — is featured as the American sponsor of a Swedish foreign exchange student whom Joyce befriends. Later in the book, on Joyce’s wedding day at Meadville’s St. Agatha Catholic Church, Sundback writes a check to pay off Joyce’s nursing student loan from the city’s Unitarian Church.
“It’s all true,” Blood said.
n Earlier in the book, readers learn about Meadville’s American Viscose, a once-large local industry that during World War II manufactured mosquito repellent for U.S. troops serving in the war’s Pacific theater. Joyce’s stepfather leaves Viscose for a job with Champion DeArment on South Street, which later became world-famous as the maker of Channellock pliers. The stepfather also has a part-time job bartending at the Deerhead Inn on North Street.
n Blood said the book also contains “a detailed and moving description” of the graduation of Meadville City Hospital nurses from Allegheny College, with Raymond P. Shafer, who would later become Pennsylvania’s governor, representing the hospital’s board. The student nurses also go to Conneaut Lake Park, on the way passing the childhood home of movie star Clark Gable and learning that crooner Perry Como was married in Crawford County.
n In another chapter, a local school teacher convinces Crawford County Judge Herb Mook to have a court clerk go to the county’s courthouse on a Saturday to issue a marriage license to Joyce and her intended, a U.S. Army corporal, in order to avoid the possibility of him getting punished for exceeding his leave.
“Again, all this is true,” said Blood.
n There are also numerous references in the book to the local Tribune-Republican newspaper, which is now The Meadville Tribune.
Blood’s local connections
Although he’s lived most of his life in Ohio, Blood himself is also personally tied to northwestern Pennsylvania through his own family history.
His father hailed from western Crawford County and his mother from Mercer County. One of his sisters currently resides in Cochranton and another lives in Erie.
And Blood lived in Meadville, in an apartment on South Main Street, for a decade between 1987 and 1997. He said he moved to the city and became the Erie Times-News’ local reporter — giving up his former job as editor-in-chief at the Ashtabula Star Beacon — in order to spend his spare time researching for the book.
Blood retired from the newspaper business in 1998.
Along with crafting and re-crafting ‘Then I Drown,’ he said he’s also pursued other artistic interests, including the establishment of Family Saga, a family history video production company, as well as the production of “Colors by God,” a three-part series on covered bridges around the region.
Ryan Smith can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at email@example.com.