Behind the Book: Margaret Wurtele ’67
Forbidden love against the backdrop of occupied Italy in World War II
I can trace my novel back to a June day in 2004. My husband and I had rented a vacation home in Tuscany with some California friends. One day we went with them to a villa near Lucca to visit the farmer who sold our friends their olive trees. Marcello, wiry with bright dark eyes, gave us a tour and served us a beautiful vitello tonnato at a long table under a fragrant linden tree. During dessert, he told us how during the last years of World War II, the German command took over this very villa and forced his mother’s family to live in some small rooms at the back.
After the war, the family gave a party for the Allies to celebrate their liberation, and Marcello’s mother, then 17, fell in love with their translator, a much older Jewish man. In spite of all the family had just suffered under Nazi occupation, her father mirrored their attitudes and objected to the match because the translator was Jewish. I was struck with the irony of this story, and I came home burning to write my first novel.
I was born in November 1945, three months after VJ Day. World War II was over before I was born, but it had always loomed large in my consciousness. My father was classified 4-F and not able to serve in the military, but still the war years defined much of my parents’ high school and college experience, their courtship, and their early marriage. As I threw myself into writing The Golden Hour, my heroine, 17-year-old Giovanna, took on a life of her own, and the story changed. It was no longer Marcello’s story but mine.
It fascinates me how much of the story is not from my experience: I’m not Italian, nor have I ever wanted to marry a man against my father’s wishes. I have a sister, not a brother, and, of course, I’ve never lived in the midst of war. But still, much of the book is an expression of aspects of my own life. My first memoir, Taking Root, chronicled my spiritual evolution.
I grew up in a secular household and, in my forties, began to explore Christian spiritual history. I was eventually baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church. In The Golden Hour, Giovanna’s friendship with and support from the nuns recalls some of the valuable guidance I received from my own spiritual mentors.
My husband and I own vineyards and a winery in the Napa Valley, so I am steeped in the life and landscape of a grower of grapes and olive trees on acreage that closely resembles the Tuscan countryside. The language of winemaking is one I hear every day.
Finally, my only son was killed in a mountain climbing accident when he was 22. I reflected on his death and my own grieving process in a second memoir, Touching the Edge, but I do not think I will ever exhaust the need to explore deep loss in my writing. The Golden Hour gave me the chance to revisit that territory, made even more poignant by my father’s recent death.
Must we all confront and face down our fathers at some point, either in life or in our imagination? Would I have had the courage to hang on to a relationship forbidden by my family? I am not much of a political activist, but had I been confronted with the Holocaust in my backyard, would I have acted with the same courage and determination that Giovanna showed? The book allowed me to explore these questions.